National program brings American Indian culture to Native students

Under the Title VII Indian Education program, schools around the country can infuse workshops on indigenous culture into their curricula. In Utah, the program has helped students perform better in school, especially for those who are American Indian.

Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald/AP
Dexter Clark performs a hoop dance as part of the Cultural Extravaganza at Orem Junior High School on April 28, 2018 in Orem, Utah. All three of Utah County's school districts host an Indian Education program that fosters celebration of native culture.

The sound of drums reverberated throughout the entryway of Mountain View High School as kids and teachers danced and drummed together beneath an assembly of flags of the world's nations. Though those beneath the flags now call the United States home, their genealogical roots trace back to those who inhabited this land long before the title US was added to America.

The people beneath the flags have American Indian roots, and they are participating in the Alpine School District's Title VII Indian Education program.

"The basic goal of Title VI is to provide supplemental services for our American Indian students," said Jeanie Groves, Title VII coordinator for the district. The program aims to promote academic productivity in raising test scores and graduation rates. Although betterment for students in the classroom is a chief goal of the program, there's a less formally academic part of the program that also helps students thrive in class.

"The unique part of Title VI is that the Department of Education recognizes the importance of cultural aspects and native language – how important native languages are in the education of Indian students," said Ms. Groves. "We incorporate cultural parts of our program to enhance that cultural knowledge as well as the academic parts of the program."

The gathering at Mountain View High School was for the weekly Wednesday dance classes the program offers. On those nights, students can learn a variety of native social dances, some incorporating shawls, hoops, and jingling bells, as well as drumming techniques.

"We're trying to pass down to future generations cultural dancing," said Amy Ieremia, dance coordinator for the Alpine School District's Title VII Indian Education program. "As time goes on, it's being lost. This is a program where we can have the kids access an education where they wouldn't be able to get it normally – especially being in the city and not on a reservation. Because that's where it all originates, is from everyone's reservations. But we don't have that here in Orem."

Besides dance, the cultural portion of the program offers activities on other days including things such as weaving and various art courses – all of which are bolstered by a partnership with Utah Valley University.

"All the research has shown that our Indian students can be more successful if we validate their culture and if they learn a little bit about their culture," said Groves. "If students know where they come from and know who they are, you validate them for who they are, then they are more successful in a lot of areas, but especially in academics."

Married with the cultural aspect of the program is an academic foundation that helps students improve through high school, and also readies them for post-secondary education. The program works with College Horizons, which helps students succeed in college and graduate programs, holds a scholarship night with prestigious universities invited, teaches American Indian students tips on how to become comfortable on college campuses, and also lends a hand to the paperwork that many students have to fill out.

"They don't know what a FAFSA is, or how to fill it out," said Groves, being that for many American Indian students, they are first-generation college students in their families, so their parents may not know what is entailed with going to college.

The Indian Education program is prevalent throughout the country and Utah. Utah County itself has such a program in each of its three school districts: Alpine, Provo, and Nebo. The federal program gives out a grant that factors in the number of American Indian students and the number of students that identify with a tribe enrolled in each school district. According to Groves, Alpine has highest number of students with tribal enrollment of the three districts – 360. However, it has the lowest percentage of total students enrolled that identify with a tribe due to it having more than double the total number of students as the other two districts.

Though only 360 of Alpine School District's roughly 82,000 students identify with a tribe, there are deep American Indian roots in Utah as a whole.

There are 562 federally recognized Indian Nations (which vary as tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, rancherias, and native villages), in the US, according to the National Congress of American Indians. "It's good for the kids to know there are that many tribes, and to historically know something about them," explained Groves.

For Utah, the state has five indigenous tribes (Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Shoshone, and Navajo) and eight federally recognized tribes. However, there are no reservations in Utah County.

Ms. Ieremia grew up near a Blackfoot reservation in Alberta, Canada, but came to Provo to attend Brigham Young University. She got involved in BYU's dance program, and then ultimately in the Title VII program at the Alpine School District, where she has taught since 2006.

Dance is a key ingredient to intertribal American Indian powwows, and children are introduced to powwow culture literally from the time they are born, which has certainly been the case for Ieremia with her involvement in the Title VII program.

"I taught dance straight through my pregnancies: all four of them," said Ieremia, bouncing her 8-month-old son, Makali'I, in her arms. "A lot of our teachers have these other obstacles, but they still come."

Like powwows, the program offers something for everyone involved. "Even though it's for the kids, the parents come together too and talk and learn how to make regalia from each other," said Ieremia. Regalia is what American Indians wear during powwows. "It's a learning process for everyone involved."

Assistant coordinator of the program, Naomi Denny, has had all of her three children take part in the program.

"The program helps them learn new skills that I couldn't teach them," she said. "The program helps the parents in passing down traditions by providing culture classes that they may not have the knowledge to teach their own kids."

"Ultimately, it is up to the individual to learn their culture and be willing to teach and share it with others," explained Ms. Denny.

What is taught through each district or reservation's Title VII program's cultural courses vary depending on the makeup of the student body, and also what skills available teachers possess. For those teachers, educating can be an education in and of itself.

"For them as American Indians, the programs like this give them a chance to give back to the community – that's a very important aspect of all native cultures," explained Groves. "It also gives the kids a chance to see the teachers as role models. They're passing on knowledge and skills to young Indian people, and the kids get to work with future leaders in the Indian community. It's reciprocal."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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