Equity & Access Professional Learning Writing Assessment

Writing, Place, and Culture: Indian Education for All

In the shadow of Mount Katahdin, a sacred mountain of the Wabanaki people of Maine, a group of Native American students write stories on laptops. Twenty-five hundred miles west, a group of Montana teachers have climbed to the top of Sacrifice Cliffs overlooking the Yellowstone River to contemplate how the Crow warriors felt as, according to legend, they blinded their ponies and rode them over the cliffs in order to rejoin their loved ones after learning of the devastation of their village by smallpox.

Native American education, whether you are talking about teaching Native American students or educating non-Natives about Native American culture, cannot be separated from its places of origin.

That’s just one of the commonalities that Writing Project sites in Maine and in Montana have discovered as they work—with the help of Rural Sites Network minigrants—to expand understanding of Native American culture and to enhance the teaching of writing among Native American students.

Responding to Local Needs

The catalyst for the new programs in Montana and Maine was new legislation in each state. In Montana, Indian Education for All aims to ensure that every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, learns about the “distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.”

Likewise, in Maine, a Law to Teach About Maine’s Native Americans requires all public schools in Maine to teach Maine Indian history.

The Montana Writing Project, with assistance from NWP’s Project Outreach, reached out to Native American communities in 2006 in an effort to implement its law’s emphasis on writing and literacy education with an annual Satellite Summer Institute on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, over 200 miles from the University of Montana’s main campus in Missoula.

Brenda Johnston, who teaches high school English on the Blackfeet Reservation, participated in the institute, and found it transformative. The institute helped her integrate historically accurate texts and writing about Native American culture into her regular curriculum.

And to address Maine’s new legislation, the Maine Writing Project started the Wabanaki Writers’ Project, designed to provide writing experiences for Native American students in a culturally rich, yet technologically advanced, summer wilderness writing camp environment.

Like Johnston, Paul Frost, a professor at the University of Maine, sees the exploration of Native American culture and history as a pedagogical imperative: “Any teacher who has little or no familiarity with Native American cultures is at a disadvantage in understanding the point of view of the Native writer.”

Expanding Awareness, Pedagogy, and Curriculum

In 2008 the Montana Writing Project expanded its offerings and delivered a Satellite Summer Institute in Columbus, near the Crow Reservation, 300 miles from Missoula, with Johnston as the Indian Education for All liaison.

The institute borrowed heavily from the traditional writing project summer institute while keeping Indian Education for All as a guiding principal. The co-directors and Johnston modeled demonstrations that interwove Native American literature with cultural emphasis for these non-Native teachers who teach mostly non-Native students.

Exploring the culture and history that surrounded them was crucial to building an understanding of the ways Crow culture and history might influence much of the thinking and practice of Crow Indians today.

Johnston, who previously had little knowledge of Crow traditions and history, employed her husband, a teacher himself, as a volunteer to gather artifacts and articles from the Montana Historical Society in far-off Helena. Together with other items gathered locally, the group put together a powerful Gallery Walk (PDF),” a discussion forum that gets people out of their chairs and into active engagement with multiple texts and/or images that are placed around a room.

Visits to the Custer Battlefield where the Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, the Crow Agency, and Chief Plenty Coups State Park were meaningful place-based opportunities for participants to soak in the culture they had lived amongst for years, yet had in many cases never witnessed up close. Johnston says that learning about Crow history opened her eyes to places and events that previously had just been mile markers on the highway.

But the new knowledge wasn’t always comfortable to accept. At times the teachers, while welcoming the knowledge they were exploring, expressed discomfort and even anger. Johnston says, “Sometimes when you’re learning about yourself you don’t like what you’re learning, seeing, and hearing. People ask, ‘Why should I feel guilty, why are you trying to make me feel guilty? I didn’t do anything. My grandparents were good people; why are you portraying them this way?’ It was hard for people, and I understand that.”

Storytelling and Native American Culture

Maine teachers who planned and led the Wabanaki Writers Project summer camp had experiences similar to those of the Montana teachers, even though the activities they experienced were quite different.

Frost and gkisedtanamoogk (pronunciation: geh kis eh tan’ eh mook in which eh = schwa), a member of the Wampanoag tribe, joined Vicki Akins and Roger Paul, teachers from the K–8 Indian Island School for Penobscots, to lead the camp.

The camp was envisioned as a spin-off of the highly successful half-day writing camps the Maine Writing Project has run for years in several locations. The Wabanaki Writers Project planned their camp as an overnight experience. They recruited middle and high school students from communities of four indigenous nations of the Wabanaki Confederacy.

Storytelling in its unique Native American forms was the way that campers traveled to different places and experienced cultural artifacts, so to speak.

“Storytelling is always an integral part of how indigenous people live their culture so we intended to cultivate cultural norms, to create community as members of the Wabanaki Confederacy, and thus promote writing as a form of storytelling,” gkisedtanamoogk said.

Frost said, “I wondered at first whether the camp would primarily be for writing or to celebrate culture, but once I lived through it, I could see that it all came together. As their sense of community grew, campers from different tribes began to tell stories that were more personal and spiritual. They responded more authentically to each other’s pieces.”

After the first year’s camp, co-leaders wrote up what they had learned about how Wabanaki students can be encouraged to write in a document called “Hear My Words: See My Thoughts”: Teaching Suggestions that Encourage Wabanaki Student-Writers. The following big ideas are explained in detail in the report:

Teachers of Wabanaki students

  • need to become open-minded learners of an unfamiliar culture
  • need to encourage them to write from a Wabanaki perspective/context
  • need to teach strategies for writing by embedding them in oral language
  • are likely to see more success in their students’ writing assignments and assessments if they write, model the composing processes of a writer, build community within their classrooms, listen and learn to listen more astutely to the voices of their Wabanaki students, and demonstrate “responsive practice.”

Johnston commented that these ideas would apply just as well to her Native American students in Montana, and in many cases to non-Native students as well.

Johnston, Paul Frost, and gkisedtanamoogk emphasize that the work is only beginning. A massive gulf exists between the truth of the Native American experience and the place their stories, past and present, are given in American education. When these stories are told in all of our schools, education will have improved for all.