Young Native American Pathkeepers Provide Voice, Inspiration, and Guidance for Department of Education

“Something that empowers me as a Native student is just being able to know my culture and where I’m from, and just being able to have responsibilities over my culture.”

On Friday July 22nd, 2016, the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE) and the Office of Indian Education (OIE) hosted the Pathkeepers Indigenous Knowledge Youth Leadership Camp for round table discussion on the importance of culture and representation in their education. Department staff heard from 31 students ages 11-18, representing nations across the country such as the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Onondaga Nation, Hopi, Upper Mattaponi, Gila River, Confederated Salish & Kootenai, Blackfeet, Chippewa Cree, and San Felipe Pueblo just to name a few.

Ron Lessard, chief of staff of WHIAIANE, welcomed the group and Joyce Silverthorne provided an informational overview on the role of the OIE in their schools. The President of the Pathkeepers for Indigenous Knowledge program, Angelina Okuda-Jacobs, Lumbee, had prepped her students on school environment issues and the importance of culture, tradition, and Native languages. Okuda-Jacobs emphasized the importance of bringing youth from around the country together to engage them in the policy process early, to provide their valuable on-the-ground feedback, and to help them realize that they are not alone in the struggles or successes they may experience in their own communities.


Listening and sharing to build understanding

The students displayed a depth of understanding about stereotypical representation, historical trauma, and its modern effects in their own communities in a way that seemed wise beyond their young years. Discussion questions asked what their school environment and education meant to them. They shared stories of being the only Native student in their urban schools and being made to feel historical and fictional through the representations in the media and the way their classmates approached them.

When asked what their perfect school would have, students shared the idea of online learning where students can learn at their own pace and take prescriptive tests in the beginning of their units. Others touted a school day that started later in the morning, had more recess, and did project-based learning.

Space was provided for students to share their personal stories and experiences. One student shared their explicit goals to attend American University for political science and move on to law school at Arizona State University in order to advocate for their tribe. This ambition started as an example set by role models and attending a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing when they were 7 years old. Others challenged visibility stereotypes and are changing the narrative on what the identity of being Native American means for someone who does not “look” the part.

This space encouraged listeners to get out of the deficit mindset when thinking of Native students and give praise to their accomplishments and leadership.  These students are in challenging courses, applying to colleges, speaking their languages, taking care of their families, active in honor societies, graduating high school, and remaining grounded in the foundation of their culture as they do so.

The White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education supports positive representations of Native youth from communities all over the country. These young people are the reason behind the mission of the WHIAIANE and have helped to reinforce the country’s responsibility to recognize and educate all of its citizens.

Learn more about Pathkeepers here.


Students speak on their experiences

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My Brother’s Keeper- Dahkota’s Story


Doug (Oregon Ducks sweatshirt) actively participating at the 1st Annual NERDS Gathering with Nike N7 General Manager, Sam McCracken

As a young Native American, I see the difficulties and struggles that follow us every day. I see how other Native boys are affected by the devastating statistics that haunt Native Americans; we have the highest dropout rate, lowest numbers represented in college, and young Native men have the highest suicide rates among all ethnicities. Observing these tragedies unfold right in front of my eyes, I decided to make a change. About two years ago, I began a peer-to-peer youth study group called NERDS; Native Education Raising Dedicated Students. I work with both males and females, but it would appear as though the program has had the largest effect on the young men who participate. There are numerous inspirational stories of young Native men who have beat the odds and have refused to become a statistic, but there is one boy that really sticks out when I think of the program I started and lives I wanted to improve. When I started NERDS in my eighth grade year, I had a hard time getting students to come in and actually work. One of my best friends, someone who consider like a brother, was another Native boy. We had grown up playing football together and loved the bond we shared being Native. Like many other Natives, Doug didn’t come from best home. His family was poverty stricken and living in poor conditions. He wasn’t able to focus in school, causing his grades to slip. He didn’t have a high enough GPA to play high school football and we both knew it. I talked to him one day and told him that if he would come in after school and join NERDS, I could help him get his grades up. He was immediately engrossed and couldn’t wait to come in after school that day. Once the bell rang for school to end, I headed over to the classroom we worked in. When I opened the door, Doug was already there, with his homework out and ready to work. After about two weeks, there was a substantial change in Doug’s grades. He had gone from almost all F’s to C’s and B’s. By the end of the school year, Doug had all A’s and B’s. He went from not being able to walk across the stage at eighth grade graduation or playing high school sports to having one of the best GPA’s in the school. I’m extremely proud to say that Doug is still very active in NERDS, has great grades, and is active in high school sports, leading our football team in touchdowns last year and running one of the fastest times on our track team. Doug didn’t succeed by having a tutor or help on his homework, he said that he succeeded because there were people who cared about him and friends who he didn’t want to let down.


-Guest Blogger Dahkota Brown
For more information on My Brothers Keeper and to share your story visit 

Dahkota is a sophomore in high school who understands the importance of education and the need for  encouragement from peers, family, community and the school system. Dahkota started his own peer-to-  peer study group called NERDS (Native Education Raising Dedicated Students). As part of this study  group, Dahkota works with local high schools and middle schools to help Native American students  better connect with and relate to lessons. His efforts include working with students to create mock-  quizzes as well as reviewing homework and classwork. Through college diversity programs, Dahkota  plans to arrange a field trip with his study gDBroup to visit colleges and universities in California to  encourage his peers to apply for college and continue their hard work in high school.


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From Washington D.C. to the reservation: Worlds of Love for Native students

Santa Fe Indian School graduation is a celebration of tradition and family. (Photo courtesy: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican)

Santa Fe Indian School graduation is a celebration of tradition and family. (Photo courtesy: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican)

Chasity Salvador is an intern with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education. She is currently a junior at Stanford University and Miss Pueblo of Acoma 2016-2017. (Congratulations Chasity!)

I grew up listening to my father sing traditional Acoma songs as we would drive to the mountains and at the age seven I didn’t understand why; until I became old enough to learn that we were going to pray. It took even longer to understand why we pray—and a couple more years to understand that we pray in the following sequence for: the land, the rain, the animals, the world, the country, the Acoma community, our families, and finally for ourselves. I continued to learn these type of skills along with a western education when I entered the doors Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) for my high school career. SFIS is an example of how Native American education has taken a 180-degree turnaround. The Indian Boarding School era was a period in American history that saw white people attempting to assimilate the native student U.S. western society with the following framework in mind “Kill the Indian, save the man.” It began with Carlisle Indian School and continued into the 1850’s with the start of SFIS.

Santa Fe Indian School in 1938. (Photo courtesy The Ernest Knee Photographic Trust)

Santa Fe Indian School in 1938. (Photo courtesy The Ernest Knee Photographic Trust)

The All Pueblo Indian Council (AIPC), in fear of losing more of the Pueblo Indian languages and cultures, took action to gain ownership over SFIS in 2001.In this ownership; SFIS has evolved into an incredible institution for over 700 middle and high school Pueblo Indian, Navajo and Mescalero Apache students. SFIS has created many opportunities for their students to thrive in middle, high, and postsecondary school. Now it stands as an alma mater to a dozen Gates Millennium scholars within the last 3 years, many Ivy League students, and a high number of future Indian Country leaders. These high success rates are strongly related to how SFIS integrates traditional and cultural philosophy in their school conduct and curricula.

It was an affirmation of this success when First Lady Michelle Obama agreed to give the commencement address for the SFIS class of 2016. The First Lady’s visit to SFIS has many native students and both native and non-native educators excited and feeling extremely accomplished. In addition to this excitement, Michelle Obama’s visit also has many interested in the federal government’s efforts to promote the success of educational outcomes for native students. In similar efforts, the honorable U.S. Secretary of Education, John King Jr., visited two schools on the Pine Ridge reservation on May 12 and attended the fourth Pine Ridge Educator Gathering hosted by the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education (WHIAIANE) and several federal agencies including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Secretary John King’s visit to the Pine Ridge reservation, being the second time a U.S. Secretary of Education has visited Indian Country, and Michelle Obama’s visit to SFIS means worlds of hope, forwardness, and love to students who are like me. It means love to the students who grew up on the reservation and learned traditional values. It means love for students who are growing up learning how to balance two languages despite moments of

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900 (Photo courtesy Frontier Forts)

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, ca. 1900 (Photo courtesy Frontier Forts)

complexity such as when I found out that the word ‘eyaani’ Keresan (the language spoken by Acoma Pueblo) language, doesn’t have an English connotation that justifiably describes it. To later find out it powerfully relates to the “essence in life” in moments of prayer in the Keresan language. It means love for students who grew up learning the sequence of items and people in a prayer from their fathers while learning algebra. It means love for students who attend pre-school in mobile homes and have dreams of attending one of the country’s most prestigious institutions. It means love for me.




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