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Learn to Walk in Two Worlds

"There are varying degrees of concern when it comes to our Native children, cultural diversity, different learning styles in the classroom, and the reasons so many of our Native students perform poorly, fail or drop out of school. I have heard this theory repeated over and over during the last several decades by those within the Indian Education system.

They claim there is systemic oppression within school systems that do not appreciate our Native students or our Native cultures. There is also a theory that Native students learn “differently” than other students because of cultural differences. I think there is merit to both arguments, but I think there is another way to approach our kids making it through the state requirements when it comes to schoolwork.

My 13-year old son is in the 8th grade and attends Albuquerque Public Schools. He brought home his report card the other day and had all A's. It’s not the first time and hopefully it won’t be the last. I have taught him since an early age that education is important. He’s also been hunting, fishing, and attending our tribal ceremonies since he was a little boy.

He's our drum chief's helper on occasion during our drum services back home in Oklahoma and he has been honored with having a seat at the drum. He's been to peyote meetings, powwows and recently took part in his grandmother’s traditional burial. He knows our ways. He knows his clan name, what it means and we recently sat down at a student­-parent conference with his teacher and I felt compelled to explain the meaning and origin of our last name (which is a whole other story).

For years on my radio program I talked to educators, school administrators and parents about these so-called different learning styles, but I could never get a specific, consistent answer or even a clear example. I wondered if perhaps it is a myth made up by Native people who don't want to put in the work to teach our kids that yes we do have cultural differences with other students and teachers but we can't use that as an excuse to not excel in school.

We have to keep our old ways alive because our ancestors taught us the right way. My family taught us to be proud of our Indian heritage and to not be ashamed of who we are, but also to not be intimidated by the larger society and to engage within it. They also taught us to never forget where we come from.

I grew up in Oklahoma, which is much more integrated than other states with high Indian populations, and my son and I live here in Albuquerque which has a high Indian population and a very active Indian Education program. But nearly all the time in my school years, including at the University of Oklahoma, I was the only Native student in my classroom and my son is the only Native student in all his classes this semester.

I bring this up because some Indian educator types also argue that there needs to be more diversity training for teachers who have Native students in their classrooms, and I fully agree. I think many teachers are oblivious to and don’t recognize their own racist tendencies. As Indian parents, it’s important to establish a rapport with the school and the teachers. If your child sees there is antagonism in this relationship it can do more harm than good.

However, this doesn’t account for the fact that on many reservation schools (but not all) the drop-out rates are still high and the graduation rates are still low. I think we Native adults – as parents, guardians, step-parents or even grandparents – have to prioritize education to our children. We can teach them to “Walk in Two Worlds” and have success in both. We can teach our children the importance of learning, getting along with others and being a good human being no matter what your circumstance might be. That’s all I have to say.

Harlan McKosato is a citizen of the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma. He is the Director of NDN Productions, an independent media production company based in Albuquerque.