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The Watersmeet Township School District in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is bringing Ojibwe language and culture into the classroom.
WXPR’s Erin Gottsacker spoke with school leaders about the changes and what they mean for the school’s majority American Indian population.
When Alina Shively was a student in Watersmeet, her Ojibwe heritage was largely ignored in the public schools.
“It was actually kind of unheard of for any of our language or culture to be acknowledged on a daily basis.. Everybody knew we were Native kids and where we lived in town and where we were from, but it was never really embraced.”
But this year, that’s changing.
The school district is working with a consultant for Native American best practices to better include its indigenous students – who represent nearly 80% of the school’s student body.
“Want to make sure that everyone feels welcomed and appreciated at the Watersmeet Township School District.”
That’s George Peterson III, the district’s superintendent.
He says some of the changes the school is implementing are small – like including Ojibwe greetings in daily announcements.
“Every morning, we’ve added to our morning announcements boozhoo, which means hello, and then when she closes, she says miigwech, or thank you.”
Teachers are also making a concerted effort to include Ojibwe language and history in their lessons.
“It’s pretty eye opening for everyone to see what that culture has gone through and the way they were treated. It’s pretty sad really. We want to help them get through that, and the way to do that is we have to teach them about it and move on from there.”
For Alina Shively, who is now the historic preservation officer for the Lac Vieux Desert tribe and a mother of three, these small changes represent a monumental shift from the time her parents attended an American Indian boarding school.
“Education hasn’t been a fun experience in my family history. I can say that is really changing for my kids and all of our kids.”
Earlier this month, the Native community in Lawrence, KS received a public apology from two people charged for their involvement in the vandalization and theft of a Native American art exhibit at the University of Kansas Spencer Art Museum in 2021.
As Rhonda LeValdo reports, the incident was hurtful to Native students on campus and at the nearby Haskell Indian Nations University.
A crowd gathered in front of the Spencer Art Museum on the University of Kansas campus as two non-Natives apologized for destroying the “Native Hosts”, an outdoor art installation by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne, Arapaho).
The panels are metal signs that include the names of the Kaw, Potawatomi, Ioway, Ne Me Ha Ha Ki, and Kickapoo tribes.
One of the defendants, John Wichlenski, talked about how he has learned from the incident.
“We didn’t know the nature of the signs, it’s no excuse of what we did, but we’re grateful for the opportunity to really be here and work with some phenomenal people. They are very open armed with us, and welcoming and nice, kind, cordial, and we think that is a great mix between us and them. Hopefully create some peace and spread awareness, and hopefully continue on a path to become allies of the cause.”
KU’s First Nations Student Association wrote in a statement:
“This exhibit was intended to draw attention to issues of Native sovereignty, colonial dispossession and respect and honor for Indigenous peoples upon whose land KU’s campus occupies. Native exhibits are incredible tools for creating conversations and drawing attention to our history and the value we bring to our areas of study and our interactions with the community at large.”
Haskell students were in attendance for the event – and Skyler LaBahe would have liked to been able to ask questions.
“They should have heard what we went through, our personal point of views, but they just closed it and took off.”
Both Wichlenski and Samuel McKnight will do a presentation at the KU First Nations Powwow in Spring.
For two others accused in the incident, their cases are to begin in January 2023.
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