FLASHER, N.D. – Mary Louise Defender Wilson has received many honors and awards in her 85 years.

But the Dakotah and Hidatsa traditionalist and storyteller said she was surprised to learn she had received a $50,000 United States Artists fellowship, one of the most prestigious arts fellowships in the country.

“Honors and recognition have been a part of my life, and those are the blessings for my efforts,” she said. “It was my thinking that there would not be any more, and I was grateful for the past honors. It was a wonderful surprise to receive the phone call from Meg Leary of the USA office that I was named a fellow. I never thought that I would be honored in my 85th year, and I cried tears of joy.”

Defender Wilson is the first North Dakotan to receive the fellowship and the first person in the nation to receive it in storytelling, said Troyd Geist, folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

“Mary Louise is a North Dakota treasure and with her most recent recognition is solidified as a national treasure,” he said.

As a young child growing up on the Standing Rock reservation, she would walk with her grandfather See the Bear to herd sheep, and he would tell her stories about places, plants and animals in the Wicheyena dialect of the Dakotah Sioux language.

“The stories I tell, I first heard them in the language of the people,” she said. “It has been my thinking that I have to do something to honor him and the others who told me the stories.”

Defender Wilson, of Flasher, N.D., plans to use the fellowship money to preserve native dialects by visiting Dakotah and Lakotah Sioux communities where Wicheyena, Isanti and Teton are spoken to record buffalo stories in those languages.

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HAYS-LODGE POLE, Montana—When Aloha Shortman asked her sixth-graders to find Italy on a world map during a social studies lesson last August, they couldn’t do it. One student’s finger landed on Brazil. Others grew bored and restless. Shortman quickly shifted gears, searching for a way to make a lesson on the Roman Republic relevant to a group of American Indian students in a remote Montana community.

“What about the Law of Twelve Tables?” she asked, referring to the foundational Roman legislation. “What does this remind you of, in our culture? What do we have that’s like it?”

Several hands shot up. “The tribal code?” the first student answered correctly.

“Exactly,” she said.

After 11 years teaching, Shortman has a seemingly instinctive gift for redirecting a lesson if students aren’t responding. But if you ask her what makes her a great teacher, she discounts natural ability, experience, or training. First and foremost, she cites her status and cultural heritage as a American Indian.

“The students here really have a lot of trust issues because of things that have happened to us,” she says. From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, American Indian families were forced by law to send their children to government-sponsored boarding schools, which were often far from home and run by assimilationist white educators. Many white teachers physically or sexually abused their students, and that historical abuse, combined with modern-day discrimination, colors how American Indian children view white teachers.

Across the country, America’s teaching force grossly fails to mirror an increasingly diverse student body. For the first time in the country’s history, more than half of public school students are nonwhite, while the most recent figures show that 82 percent of their teachers are white. The Center for American Progress reported last May that almost every state has a sizable diversity gap in the classroom.

In recent years, a handful of Montana districts have been trying to change that, recruiting more teachers like Shortman to instruct a group that’s often overlooked in conversations about teacher diversity, yet potentially has the most to gain from positive improvements: American Indian students.

Though every other major ethnic group in America has seen improvements in students’ reading and math scores in recent years, American Indian students’ scores haven’t budged. Experts point to the lack of teacher diversity as one potential explanation, and on some reservations, school leaders have become increasingly convinced that hiring more American Indian teachers like Aloha Shortman could help their struggling schools succeed. They believe that even the most sensitive white teachers who arrive on their reservations can’t do as much as American Indian teachers who share their students’ culture. American Indian teachers, they reason, might also be more likely to understand issues that affect so many of their students, such as intergenerational poverty, substance abuse, and suicide.

“My obligation is to hire the best teachers, hoping that we would get American Indians,” says Margarett Campbell, Hays-Lodge Pole’s superintendent. “Because they’re going to be invested if they know the students will be their neighbors.”

The percentage of American Indian teachers in Montana has barely increased since the mid 1990s—rising from 1.9 percent in the 1995-1996 school year to 2.3 percent today. Yet many teachers and administrators are optimistic about the future of American Indian education in Montana. Denise Juneau, a member of the Blackfeet tribe, was elected as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction in 2008, becoming the first American Indian person in Montana to win a statewide election. And in the tiny communities of Hays and Lodge Pole, there has been a significant increase of American Indian teachers: In 1997, only 38 percent of the district’s teachers were American Indian, but that percentage is now 78.

These efforts raise a question that resonates throughout the country: How much does a teacher’s race, class, and culture matter in the classroom? Do American Indian students need American Indian teachers in order to succeed?

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To view previous TEDNA articles and links about eagle feathers and graduation this year, click here, here, here, here, here, and here.

NARF, California Indian Legal Services and the ACLU of CA wrote a letter together for the Superintendent of Clovis Unified School District on behalf of Christian Titman.

An excerpt:

One of the proudest moments in my life was graduating with my master’s in education administration from Oglala Lakota College and receiving an eagle feather for achieving a lifelong dream. That was until 2012, when our oldest son graduated from high school, and my wife and I had the honor of tying his eagle feather on him. And we are looking forward to proudly supporting our youngest son when he graduates from high school in 2017.

Eagles are known by many tribes to be a messenger to the Creator, symbolizing bravery, respect, personal achievement and honor. Eagles are protected under two federal laws: the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. These prohibit the possession, use and sale of eagle feathers and parts, with an explicit exception for American Indians who are enrolled members of federally recognized tribes. American Indian tribal members may wear feathers legally in their possession or utilized to create religious or ceremonial items for personal or tribal use.

This month, thousands of American Indian students across the country are graduating from high school and college, fulfilling a dream for themselves and an honor for their families. And with only 49 percent of Native students graduating from high school nationwide, this is a moment to be celebrated and cherished. Honoring our graduating Native students who attend the 187 tribal schools across 23 states has been a longstanding cultural tradition. Native graduates receive their eagle feathers and plumes and proudly wear them on their graduation caps or tied in their hair. This is a part of who we are and continues to affirm our identity and connection to our ancestry and culture.

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