Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

BEMIDJI, Minnesota — When Susan and Dan Ninham got married, they each made two vows: One to each other and one to their people, as they pledged to devote a lifetime to Native education.

The educators have kept those vows for nearly four decades, but working as a schoolteacher or administrator over the years helped them see disturbing patterns that plague education in Indian Country.

Now they’ve created an online course to teach teachers how to reach Indigenous students by using culture, language and traditions.

“I saw that there needed to be a better way to deliver instruction so that our kids feel confident,” Susan Ninham said. “Knowing and understanding who they are, not only from a Native perspective but also, how do they maneuver their lives in a Western culture?”

Today, their Indigenous Pedagogy Virtual Academy is entering its third quarter of classes with such offerings as “Seeing Ourselves in the Math We Do: Designing Math Lessons Reflecting the Cultures/Communities of our Students.”

And educators are excited about it.

“They’ve really been right on the money,” said Russ Blackbird, an elementary school principal in Canada on the Wampole Island First Nation Reserve, where he is a citizen. “The topics have been right in line with the direction I’d like our schools to move in.”

Dan Ninham teaches students how to play traditional Native sports in this undated photo. Ninham retired in 2020 after a career as a middle school physical education teacher but has continued in the field by starting, with his wife, educator Susan Ninham, an online course to teach teachers how to use Native culture to reach Indian students. “We want to continue sharing what we know with others,” he told Indian Country Today in early 2021. (Photo courtesy of Dan Ninham)

The approach is finding growing support among those who see cultural literacy as key to closing educational disparities.

“I know a lot of people look at Indigenous people - Alaska Native, Native Americans - and say, ‘Oh geez, these students aren’t ready for school.’ ... Or they’ll say they are underperforming, they’re failing,” said X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska, Southeast.

“But really we have systems that are consistently failing Indigenous peoples.”

‘Inequity’ in resources

A comprehensive survey in 2007 by the National Caucus of State Legislators found that Native students performed 2-3 grade levels below their White peers in reading and mathematics. And they were more than three times as likely to drop out of school or be expelled than White students.

“The state of education in our nation’s K-12 schools for Native students is distressing,” the survey concluded.

But little improvement followed the report. In December, the National School Boards Association concluded that the “disturbing trend in education for (Native students) has not changed since the 2007 study.”

The Ninhams, however, saw a way to improve student outcomes: Native culture.

Susan Ninham, Red Band of Chippewa Indians, spent decades as a teacher, principal and superintendent. Now she and her husband, educator Dan Ninham, are teaching the teachers how to reach Native students. . “I saw that there needed to be a better way to deliver instruction so that our kids feel confident,” she told Indian Country Today in early 2021. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

Dan Ninham, a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, retired last year from a long career as a middle school physical education teacher.

He introduced Indigenous games and sports into physical education programs, first in Gallup, New Mexico, then at schools in the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, and finally, in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Susan Ninham, a citizen of the Red Lake Nation of Minnesota who now works as her tribe’s administrative health officer, spent decades as a teacher, principal and superintendent.

She worked to bring Indigenous language and art into the classroom to engage the students “where they are,” she said.

“I saw the inequity in the resources that were available for our students,” she said. “I was always questioned by other teachers, you know, ‘How do you get Johnny to do the school work in your classroom?’ I knew that it was critical that I make an effort to teach teachers how to build that positive working relationship with kids.”

The COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity to share their knowledge with teachers across the country.

“It was an ideal situation where you have a virtual environment with Zoom as the platform,” said Dan Ninham, “because people don’t have to travel.”

Overcoming hurdles

Blackbird heard about the courses last fall and jumped at the chance to sign up 24 staff members for the initial 22 classes over six weeks. He then made the courses available to his staff in the ensuing two quarters.

The Ninhams work to keep the costs down, with the fee of about $500 for Blackbird’s entire staff.

“It’s cost-effective and it’s really an affirmation that there are people out there doing these things and making them work,” Blackbird said.

X̱ʼunei Lance Twitchell, a professor of Alaska Native Languages at the University of Alaska, Southeast, and citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Tribe, believes Indigenous cultural literacy is important for teachers working with Indigenous students. “If they are teaching in Juneau they should know words in Tlingit and they should certainly know a lot about Tlingit history,” he told Indian Country Today in early 2021. (Photo by Stewart Huntington)

He is excited about what the Ninhams’ work can bring to education.

“It’s been really uplifting today for both my Native teachers and the non-Native teachers,” he said. “The next step is seeing the impact these courses will bring tomorrow when the teachers apply these understandings in the classroom.”

Twitchell, the Alaska professor, said teachers need to better understand Native students to reach them.

“If they are teaching in Juneau they should know words in Tlingit and they should certainly know a lot about Tlingit history,” said Twitchell, a citizen of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“I think teachers have an easy out when it comes to Indigenous content, which is, ‘I’d love to but I’m not familiar with that content and I don’t want to offend anybody,’” he said. “I think that’s a real easy out.”

The Ninhams are happy to help teachers overcome those hurdles.

“We’re very grateful, very thankful for the opportunity to share our knowledge,” said Dan Ninham. “In a sense, we’re knowledge carriers and we want to continue sharing what we know with others.”

That includes ancient wisdom.

“The word in Ojibwe language is ‘mino-bimaadiziwin’ - that’s the good life,” he said. “I’m Oneida, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, and we have the word in our language kaˀnikuhli·yó̲· - which is the openness of the mind and spirit.

“These are a few of the core values that we'd like to express to others.”

Correction: The word kaˀnikuhli·yó̲· is used in Ojibwe to represent the openness of the mind and spirit. The word used to describe that openness was incorrect in a previous version of the story.

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