While our first two sessions were directly driven by the interests of our host communities at Worcester and Mashpee, our third session, hosted at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, focused on Indian Education in the Commonwealth. As such, our host, the Certificate Program in Native American and Indigenous Studies (CPNAIS) and especially its director, Professor Alice Nash, worked with us to assemble an impressive cross section of speakers addressing education for Native Peoples from pre-school to graduate school. They included a very diverse group of speakers from Native communities from all over Turtle Island (North America), as well as a presenter representing the four MA-based Wampanoag communities served through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP).
Our panel shared challenges (both historic and contemporary), frustrations, and some successes, in dealing with local school boards, the Massachusetts State Department of Education, and universities around the topic of Indian Education. Not surprising to the panelists — but perhaps to our audience — is just how challenging it can be in Massachusetts to obtain equitable, culturally relevant education for Native students, regardless of age. Although educational access and opportunity is guaranteed under various state, federal, and even, as Nicole Friederichs, Director of the Suffolk University Law School’s Indigenous Peoples Rights Clinic, reminded us, international law, education cannot be assumed to be an appropriate fit for educating Native Peoples or non-Natives about Native Peoples when Native Peoples and our languages have been shut out of its design and implementation.
Listening to Ronda Anderson — an Athabaskan from Alaska, community advocate, and mother of a 6th grader who attends a Massachusetts public school — discuss her daughter’s challenges in schools with very few Native students, or the bemusement of state level systems or local school districts when trying to understand Indian Education or Native language immersion programs, or hearing of the isolation of Native college students certainly reminded me why I work in the educational field, and hope to make a difference. Whether through the work of Jennifer Weston at WLRP, Jonathan Hill as a mentor to Native undergraduates, or Nicole Friederichs as a legal advocate and mentor for Native law students, we all seek to address these challenges, and create opportunity for the future of Native Peoples in education, regardless of the level.