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News Release: Anishinaabe Education programs build cultural understanding, identity and Native student resiliency in NE MN

$150,000 Blandin Foundation grants in Grand Rapids and Deer River signal the Foundation’s expanded focus on American Indian Education

Grand Rapids, MN – As the Minnesota Indian Education Association Conference wrapped up in Prior Lake, the Blandin Foundation announced two $150,000 grants for Anishinaabe education programs in NE Minnesota. (Anishinaabe is a broad term for the region’s Indigenous people). The grants demonstrate Blandin’s strategic emphasis on funding programming that builds community wealth and supports ‘’rural placemaking’’ – the arts, culture and activities that connect residents and build investment in where they live.

‘’As I have learned throughout my life and career with Native organizations and communities, culture is a powerful source of healing, prevention and change,’’ said Blandin Foundation President and CEO Tuleah Palmer. ‘’It is exactly where we should start when we look at Indian education.’’

Leslie Harper, a Native education consultant to Blandin and co-founder of an Ojibwe Language Immersion Program at the Bug-O-Nay-Geshig Schools, agrees.

“These projects will expand and re-assert the space of learning and teaching to renew relationships to the land in a way that aligns with – and values – Ojibwe culture and understandings,” she said. “Ojibwe ideas of life-long, land-based learning remain relevant in today’s contemporary time and have much to contribute to local and global well-being. I’m excited to see these community-led projects take shape and to see how the Foundation grows in these values.”

National research shows that nearly half of Native students have little or no cultural knowledge of their tribe and that after family members, teachers are the greatest source of information about tribal history and traditions.

While the federal government has been responsible for Native education since the treaties of the 1800s, more than a century of abuse, deculturalization and poor outcomes have led to calls for reform, including increased investment, cultural reclamation and Native-driven data collection.  In the coming months, Blandin will work with Anishinaabe communities to expand research of Indian education in rural Minnesota to better understand challenges and improve outcomes for Native students.

Grand Rapids designs new cultural learning area

Every year, nearly 1,300 Grand Rapids students take field trips to a cluster of pine trees near Robert J. Elkington Middle School. There, they learn forestland traditions shared for generations in Ojibwe families and communities: smoking fish, sugar bush (maple syrup) production and processing wild rice.

For the district’s 400-plus Native American students, the lessons are one of the few ways school curriculum strengthens their cultural identity. The trips also provide non-Native students a chance to understand close-up a culture deeply present, yet not always seen, in their community.  Plans to expand the cultural learning area build on the Anishinaabe Gikinoo-amaadiwin – Indian Education – program’s successes so far and bring to life an idea staff have long had.

“We work to close not just the academic achievement gap. We’re also trying to close the cultural understanding gap,” said Bruce Goodwin, East Rapids Elementary principal and one of the district’s seven Indian Education staff. “We started dreaming about what would be a great way to bring what the school is doing, to our community and the whole area.”

Strong community connections helped the project take shape quickly. Jessica Bobrowski, the district’s Indian Education coordinator, worked closely with the City of Grand Rapids welcoming committee, human rights commission and arts and culture commission to offer Indigenous Peoples Day activities for students and community members. When she shared the cultural learning area concept, city staff had just one question: how can we help? Likewise, the school district quickly agreed that the pine plantation on the middle school grounds is an ideal site and gave the green light. Indian Education staff at other area school districts and representatives from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe are eager to begin using the space.

“Anishinaabe Gikinoo’amaadiwin has established wonderful collaborations with many different community entities,” Bobrowski said. “The cultural learning area will be a place where more collaborations can be created and cultural experiences and understanding can happen.”

While Bobrowski and Goodwin are looking forward to the new space for activities, they say something even more important can happen there: conversations and community connections that help Grand Rapids become a place that honors all traditions and welcomes every culture.

“You can’t change perception in a day,” Goodwin said.  “It takes intentional work, it takes people who want to champion that work and it takes places to do that. It’s about our young people learning and breaking the hoop of stereotypes and negativity that will bring change.”

Deer River: a culture-based, holistic approach to Native student needs

In Deer River, another longtime dream for Anishinaabe learning is taking shape. The holistic education program for elementary and high school students will be grounded in Anishinaabe culture for Native students to improve student resiliency, cultural identity and educational outcomes.

It’s something Delina White, founder of the IAmAnishinaabe fashion line, and her husband, Gerald, Anishinaabe education coordinator at Deer River, have long hoped to create.

“We’ve been looking for an opportunity to educate kids using a different format, with different expectations and outcomes,” Delina said. ‘’Our goal is to put Native student well-being at the center of this model.”

The program will teach Anishinaabe cultural and local history, using coursework like field trips and making apparel that connects to students’ tribal heritage. Through these activities, students will learn culture alongside skills like business planning, marketing, public speaking and more that can form the foundation for future careers. The Whites and a group of Accredited Traditional Culture Bearers – professionals in various sectors with lived experience and education in Anishinaabe culture – will provide the learning. The Whites believe the approach also will strengthen life skills students can rely on when they face new and challenging situations.

“We want students to know the Anishinaabe ways of life and our life here around Leech Lake is a beautiful thing — and that they are an important part of it,” Delina said. “We want to provide an education that will help them navigate the world and see their own resiliency in it.”

The Whites are working with Deer River school staff to build a process to identify students who might be interested in the program. A group of 15 will participate in the first round of classes, which will meet year-round.

The Anishnaabe model extends beyond an academic focus to allowing students to express their growth and learning in ways meaningful to them. It recognizes that Native students attending traditional schools are walking in two worlds.

“Our struggles are different. We want to be teaching students about their cultural identity to show awareness and pride in who they are, and to teach them that struggles are temporary,” Gerald said. “Just being here, in this world, in the school, is something we should celebrate. All our kids are alive today. That’s resilient.”


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