Photo via Dowdy Multicultural Center
On Thursday, Nov. 10, the Dowdy Multicultural Center (DMC) held an event titled “Native American Representation in Education Systems,” the second in a three-part series occurring throughout November. The series, “Native American Heritage Month Social Justice Education Conversation Series,” was held to celebrate the month’s observance and initiate conversations about Native Americans’ experiences in historical and modern day contexts.
The first event in the series occurred a week prior on Nov. 3 and was titled “Protecting Natural Resources: Land Rights, Water Rights, and Environmental Protections.” The third and final event of the series will occur on Nov. 17 at 12:30 p.m. in Sykes room 003. This conversation is titled “Thanksgiving: National Day of Mourning” and will consider the negative impacts that Thanksgiving has had upon Indigenous people.
This second talk of the series was led by Denice Vélez, Associate Director of the DMC, and Shelby Lewis, a third-year student serving as Social Justice Education Student Assistant for the DMC. The conversation focused specifically on the relationship between Native Americans and education and how that relation has changed over time. Before delving into the topic, Vélez and Lewis set goals for the presentation, which included developing a greater understanding of the barriers to quality schooling that indigenous students face as well as considering ways in which their educational attainment can be supported.
Lewis began the conversation by providing an acknowledgement of the land that we resided on while engaging in the conversation. She prompted attendees to consider the way that, while discussing these indigenous groups, we are doing so on the land that was stolen from the native Lenni-Lenape tribe. “We acknowledge the Lenni-Lenape as the original people of this land and their continuing relationship with this territory,” they remarked.
Throughout the hour-long presentation, Vélez guided the group in viewing three different video clips and then engaging in subsequent discussions on each. The three videos detailed different frameworks through which to gain better understanding of how Native Americans have faced obstacles in receiving education that is representative and supportive of their lived experiences.
First, they spoke of the damaging historical reality of residential schools and how they inhibited students from embracing their identities. These boarding schools, particularly prevalent in the 1800s, deprived Native American students of their own language and culture in intensely neglectful and abusive environments, some students even dying as a result.
Vélez noted how one such school was right in our own backyard — the Carlisle School. Located in Carlisle, PA, she emphasized how “the impacts are here,” affecting members of our own regional community.
Second, the focus transitioned to these students’ experiences in modern day educational systems, discussing inconsistencies in their access to representative education. Often, for example, curriculum may represent Native Americans in stereotypically inaccurate ways, which doesn’t foster a positive learning environment for the students.
Finally, attendees examined the future for these students by analyzing programs and organizations that provide support for Native American teachers. With a goal of helping the next generation of Native American students in developing their own aspirations and possibly entering the educational sphere themselves one day, these programs demonstrated one way that the outlook for these students’ educational attainment has begun to improve.
Various conversation series such as this one occur throughout the year, including for Latinx Heritage, Black History and Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage months. The DMC hopes these opportunities can serve as an “educational moment for students to feel comfortable with being uncomfortable,” as stated by DMC Director Martin Lacayo. By and large, he encourages students of all backgrounds to attend, explaining how he believes all individuals should seek educational and self-reflective opportunities to grow, particularly so in a social climate such as the one we are in now.
The DMC also provides support services for students of color in navigating success at predominantly white institutions such as West Chester University. “Centers like the DMC exist so students do have the opportunity to have that sense of belonging… If you’re going to succeed at a university it’s important you are supported,” shared Lacayo.
For more information and resources, refer to the DMC homepage at https://www.wcupa.edu/_services/multicultural/.
Olivia Schlinkman is a second-year Political Science major with a minor in Spanish. OS969352@wcupa.edu