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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mindful Teaching of Native American History and Life (interview)

photo courtesy Lakota Children's Enrichment
Maggie Dunne founded Lakota Children’s Enrichment  as a high school student after witnessing the obstacles facing children on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  Ms. Dunne has won multiple awards for her grassroots and advocacy work for the youth of Pine Ridge. In 2012, she was the grand prize winner of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women Contest.  In 2013,  she received the highest award for a graduating senior at Colgate University, the Alumni Corporation 1819 Award. In 2014, she was named a Woman of Achievement by Tri Delta and named an Ariane de Rothschild Fellow by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation.

Your trip to Pine Ridge as an adolescent deeply affected you.  Could you describe some of what you saw?

My first trip to Pine Ridge was in 2007. I had studied American history in high school but had not learned anything about our government’s actions or obligations to the Lakota Nation or anything about Native American affairs today.

I saw:
  • dilapidated and mold-filled housing that was provided to families by our government;
  • residents melting snow because water delivery trucks had broken down; 
  • clusters of families sharing outhouses;
  • children without jackets and wearing flip-flops in snow; and
  • schools with almost no books.

After my trip I took steps to become informed. When I learned about our nation’s treaty and trust obligations to the Lakota Nation that have never been fully honored, I was struck by the injustice and felt compelled to take action.

photo courtesy Lakota Children's Enrichment

How would you describe the situation currently?

Although today more people are aware that America has some significant injustices at home that need to be addressed, at LCE we perpetually deal with the effects of mainstream reporting, which almost exclusively focuses on alcoholism in the community. Every time a reporter spends three days on the Reservation and blames alcoholism for the community’s problems, it is a significant set-back for those of us working on the grassroots level.
No community is hopeless.  Pine Ridge is full of hope, progress, and talented youth who are committed to change and doing amazing things in their community.  I am very excited about the future of the kids we are working with. Their work with our Youth Board, at Game Changers Youth Summits, their service to the community and their written work is making a huge impact and inspiring others to make positive changes or think in a different way. Everything is possible.

Many kids (and adults) are disturbed by the poverty and injustice they see around them, but they feel powerless to change anything.  What advice would you give them?

Sometimes the world’s problems might seem overwhelming, but don’t let the fear of failure stop you from taking action. Just because these problems or conflicts might have existed for decades, it doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed, it just means no one has created the right solution.

View challenges as opportunities for people to come together and make this world a better place. Find other people who share your passion or concern and work together. If you try to solve large community challenges by yourself, it can lead to burnout and let-down. Anyone can volunteer time, raise money for NGOs like mine that implement programs, or, if you want to devote yourself full time to an effort, of course consider working for an NGO or in the field of public service.

Sometimes, you won’t be able to find an existing group, and that is when you can make the choice to forge ahead and trailblaze a path so that others can join you.

In 2007 there was almost no awareness about the injustices facing American Indians, so I organized efforts to address community needs in South Dakota, while also educating everyone I could reach in the NY Tri-State area. When I took my efforts to the Internet at the end of 2009, my work started gaining momentum.

photo courtesy Lakota Children's Enrichment

What resources would you recommend to teachers or parents who want their kids to learn more about the Lakota?

I am so glad you asked this question! At a recent presentation to 3rd -5th grade students I asked if anyone could define an Indian Reservation, and the response was ”What daddy and mommy do when they reserve a table at an Indian restaurant - they get a reservation.”  

We learn that there are 50 states in elementary school, but we never hear about the 566 indigenous tribes that still exist, or the 200 more seeking federal and state recognition – even though they are our own nation’s first inhabitants.

Awareness and education are a huge part of what we do at LCE because there are not many resources out there and many history books used in schools today are outdated and inaccurate. There is a great reluctance in education to teach young children the hard facts of American history, and as a result, storybook myths have been perpetuated for over a century.

At a minimum, I recommend that all educators take a very hard look at how they teach the following lessons:
  • Columbus Day (Columbus did not “discover America”–the continent of North America was the inhabited territory of Turtle Island, and in any event, Columbus landed in the Caribbean);
  • Thanksgiving Stories (the true story is not a mutually happy celebration);
  • Abraham Lincoln (he ordered the largest mass lynching of American Indians in history in Manakato, MN); and
  • Wounded Knee (a massacre of hundreds of unarmed Indians still taught in many schools as a “Battle”).

Journalist Vincent Shilling recently wrote an article addressing the top eight inaccuracies that continue to be perpetuated in some American school systems.

One children’s book that accurately depicts Lakota history is Black Elk’s Vision by S.D. Nelson.  

To learn more about the Lakota Nation and other indigenous communities today I recommend:

photo courtesy Lakota Children's Enrichment

How does the idea of mindful awareness fit in with traditional Lakota teachings?

The Lakota prayer, Mitakuye Oyasin (All My Relations or We Are All Related) is a reflection of a traditional holistic approach to life.  From your neighbor to Unki Maka (Grandmother Earth), we are all related and we all have an obligation to help each other and treat each other with respect.

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

To me, the concept of Mindful Teaching infers an inclusive approach – one that explores all avenues of expression and interpretation and, in the context of history, considers education with an open mind.  

If our nation is ever going to face its history and engage in meaningful reconciliation, then it will be, in part, because of a mindful teaching of Native American history.  

Disposing of feel-good myths and educating the rising generations of children about issues of social responsibility is something that should be a goal of most educators. The lesson plans teachers make and conversations that they have with students can have a profound impact on them throughout their lives.

Be mindful of the inaccuracies in textbooks, allow for various perspectives to be heard in your discussions, and be innovative in the ways that you teach.

Do you have a personal mindfulness practice, and if so, how does it help you with your work?

I am mindful of the impact that my words and actions have on the people around me. I approach every day with the goal of taking some small action that contributes to making the world a better place for someone. It could be helping an elderly person, making my family laugh, or bringing a new program to the youth of Pine Ridge-- possibilities are endless. I just try to do my part to be a positive contributor to society and keep an open mind.

I also run, figure skate, go to the gym and dabble in photography.  I find that despite my busy schedule, it is so important to find time for myself to clear my mind and re-charge. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself!

[Update 9/15/15: Another great resource for teaching about indigenous peoples is Project 562, which "creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media and the national consciousness."]

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