Closing equity gaps for indigenous students
By Melanie Rossi
GREEN BAY – The Indigenous Ways of Knowing (IWOK) Report, published this spring, uses indigenous voices and perspectives as the main source to build pathways to postsecondary education for indigenous learners.
Nicolet College and Native communities in northern Wisconsin partnered together — with the support of the Lumina Foundation’s All Learning Counts grant and the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) — after identifying the need to “prioritize postsecondary education for Native learners,” the report stated.
According to the Lumina Foundation, “The rate of postsecondary credential completion for the 25,000 American Indians in Wisconsin was 26% in 2019, far below the overall state’s rate of 55%.”
One of the main barriers to raising this percentage is postsecondary education’s lack of cultural relevance for Indigenous students, compelling Nicolet College to find ways of granting credit for prior learning for Indigenous experiences, as well as shape new curriculum based around this knowledge.
To gain this information, the IWOK report compiled the perspectives of elders from seven different Native tribes in the area on the best ways to incorporate Indigenous culture into postsecondary education.
Nicolet College administrators, such as Laura Wind-Norton, associate vice president of academic services, partnered with tribal representatives to establish these new courses.
In order to combine existing educational structures with Native ways of learning, Wind-Norton said, “We have to bridge a very traditional Euro-Western education system… [with] indigenous knowledge and Indigenous Ways of Knowing.”
With the hopes of prioritizing Indigenous perspectives, the Nicolet administrators stepped back, allowing the tribal elders to lead discussions.
“We, as the non-Native folks on this project, took a step back,” Wind-Norton said. “Everything that was developed was developed by those Indigenous knowledge-holders; the folks that we have on the project, a lot of them have a wide variety of educational backgrounds, but they are also highly respected folks within each of their own communities.”
Combining Western structures with indigenous knowledge, in the hopes of granting credit for prior experiences and knowledge, led to some organizational challenges.
In attempt to quantify the vast width of indigenous knowledge into focused curriculums, the elders suggested following a clan structure.
They divided themselves into four separate clans, each focusing on a different way of knowing: Native culture, history, language and governance.
“The Indigenous knowledge-holders decided which clan they felt like they had the most to contribute to,” Wind-Norton said. “It was a lot of discussions, a lot of elders sharing stories, and, really, a lot of relationship-building.”
Paul Ninham, former elected councilman in the Oneida Nation, was one of the Indigenous knowledge-holders who worked in the governance clan.
“I ended up hearing a lot of stories, maybe too many stories,” Ninham said. “It was all based on what I believe, and what a lot of other folks believe, is important information that is relevant to the position of an elected official for their respective council… There is a set of skills that a person needs — there is perseverance involved in there. But in your toolbag you need to understand how tribal governments work… and why we work the way we do.
“So we started picking apart some of those things and pinpointing… What tribal governments deal with, what [they] are charged with doing… and what is the information that [an elected council person] needs to know and understand to make those big decisions for each of their tribes. So we started going through that information, and the information is immense.”
According to the report, the discussions in the governance clan, and each of the others, centered around three main goals: identifying the topics that could become part of the curriculum, determining how to translate lived experience into college credit and developing a rubric for assessment.
Wind-Norton said they are hoping for the first round of course offerings to begin this fall.
“We are still in that implementation phase… We are starting to do more of an intentional infusion of that knowledge — the indigenous ways — into other pieces of our curriculum across the college,” she said.
She added, “It’s about closing some of those equity gaps that we know exist for indigenous students… Indigenous students haven’t got as much attention, and in a district with three sovereign nations within our local college district, they are a very important part of our population… It’s about making sure the students know that this college is their college too and they can see themselves reflected in the curriculum.”