Changing Education Through Culture

Photo by Dakota Zugelder

When a team in charge of researching grants for the college approached Allison Smith, professor of Art History, and Sean Daley, director of Center for American Indian Studies, about developing a National Endowment of Humanities (NEH) grant, Smith’s first thought was Native American art.

For years, Smith wanted to incorporate contemporary American Indian art into her curriculum but felt unqualified to teach it with any authority or expertise. Smith wanted to fill the gaps in her education by partnering with the Center for American Indian Studies and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a vast collection of contemporary Native American art, in order to eventually integrate Native American art into her curriculum.

“Initially my plan was, and still is, to create a course module in my 20th century Art History class that deals completely with American Indian Art, which I knew absolutely nothing about,” Smith said. “In Art History, we’re simply not taught anything about American Indian Art. It’s almost always taught through an Anthropology department and I’ve never taken a course in an Anthropology department. It’s not taught in our [general education] classes; it wasn’t offered at the graduate level.”

Initial proposals were rejected by the NEH, but Smith and Daley kept expanding the grant’s reach and impact to make it a more viable option. In 2018, the NEH awarded the college $98,000 for the Indian Knowledge, Western Education (IKWE) Program, which works to educate faculty as well as infuse American Indian studies across diverse curricula.

As co-directors of the grant, Smith and Daley formed a cohort of college staff who were willing to devote two years to learning the material and adding it to their course modules. Twelve staff members, including professors of philosophy, English, sociology and other fields, as well as the Nerman Museum education coordinator Karen Gerety Folk, were accepted into the NEH-IKWE program. They all agreed to read 12 books by Native American authors, attend 12 lectures and travel to New Mexico and Illinois.

“The cohort travelled to Sante Fe, New Mexico to meet with Native members of several different tribes,” Smith said. “A highlight of the trip was meeting with the tribal council at Acoma Pueblo and visiting the Puye cliff dwellings. We will be going to Cahokia Mound, outside of St. Louis, MO, as a group this fall.”

Historically, Western education has been racially biased and void of the Native American narrative. Daley doesn’t believe people are intentionally or even consciously racist towards native people: they just weren’t taught. He said, “The majority of people are ignorant due to lack of education and experience.”

The course modules will be completed and ready to integrate in the spring of 2020. Sociology professor Eve Blobaum explained why the program intrigued her and how she plans to integrate it into her curriculum.

“I joined the cohort because my current professional development goal is to learn more about non-Western cultures,” Blobaum said. “At the moment, my activities are focused on American Indian and East Asian families. I plan to use [the information I learn through this program in] my online families courses, [including Sociology of Families and Families Over the Life]. We can’t truly understand American families without knowing how they fit into a global context.”

Although knowledge about Native American culture will give students a more well-rounded knowledge of American history, there are other benefits that stem from the NEH-IKWE program, as explained by one of the members of the 12-person cohort. Deborah Williams, chair of the Environmental Science and Sustainable Agriculture Department, described how integrating Native American culture into various curricula could benefit not just students as a whole, but specifically Native American students.

“Native Americans represent 2 percent of our population, but less than a fraction of 1 percent of higher education student populations,” Williams said. “They are the least represented student group in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math courses (STEM). As career educators interested in understanding various worldviews, opportunities like the NEH-IKWE grant enable faculty to examine ways to incorporate what we learn into our curricula. Students will explore points of divergence and convergence between Western and Native approaches to science, enhance their critical thinking skills and examine the natural world through multidisciplinary and multicultural lenses [in my integrated courses].”

According to Daley, who is also a professor of Anthropology and has explored Native ways of life through fieldwork, Native American culture is diverse among various tribes and, like all culture, is a living thing rooted in the past and continuing to grow in the present. Daley isn’t necessarily hoping for big changes, but believes small victories can be won through daily interactions between students and faculty.

“When you’re young and you start doing this stuff…you think, ‘I can be a bridge, I can do this, I can do that.’ But the reality is, that doesn’t work in the long term,” Daley said. “So, the way I look at it is if I get a student here who takes one of my classes and they learn something about Natives that’s accurate and correct and they lose some preconceived idea or they lose some kind of stereotype in their mind, that’s a little thing right there.”

NEH-IKWE is changing culture through education at the college. It has been a game changer for Smith who said, “Being a participant in this grant has given me the understanding and confidence to pass this information along to my students.”

The NEH-IKWE grant also includes inviting Native American speakers well-versed in various aspects of their culture to give presentations to the college. Speakers such as Shelley Eagleman Bointy, who spoke about American Indian mental health, and Jason Hale, who discussed life on the Potawatomie Reservation, have already spoken at the college. Students can see Charley Lewis, who will present about Native American music, at 4 p.m. on October 21. Darell Hill and Grace Pushetonequa will present about Native American dance in November; the date and time are still being determined. Both of these presentations will take place in the CoLab (OCB 107).

Professors involved in the NEH-IKWE program: Dennis Arjo (philosophy), Eve Blobaum (sociology), Greg Dixon (English), Karen Gerety Folk (Nerman Museum education coordinator), Dawn Gale (philosophy), Beth Gulley (English), Tara Karaim (Service Learning), Bill McFarlane (anthropology), Stu Shafer (sociology / sustainable agriculture), Deborah Williams (environmental science) and Brian Wright (political science) were accepted into the NEH-IKWE program.

All presentations given on behalf of the NEH-IKWE program

Jason Hale (Life on Potawatomie Reservation)Shelley Eagleman Bointy (American Indian mental health) Isaiah Stewart (artist), Joshuaa Allison -Burbank (speech/language pathologist)James Rains (Native American Literature)Ponka-We Victors (Kansas House of Representatives)Jordyn Gunville (maternal health care issues in the Native community).


Story by Penny Thieme



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