The night of activities for American Indian families in Minneapolis schools began in a quiet, sacred way on Wednesday: About 30 people formed a circle and participated in a smudging ceremony — each standing before the rising smoke of burning sage for the purification ritual.
American Indian students at Edison High School have started their mornings in the same way this week. And schools across the district held presentations, drumming performances and other events as a part of Minneapolis Public Schools' American Indian Awareness and Family Involvement Week.
"People still view Native Americans as a race of the past without realizing we're still here," said Wakan Austin, a junior at Edison and a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
November marks National American Indian Heritage Month, and the district's week of celebrations has grown in recent years in an effort to better recognize its sizable number of American Indian students and the local community. The district recently began displaying the flags of 11 federally recognized tribes in Minnesota and is set to renew its commitment to American Indian students.
"There's no one reason it's important to have this week," said Jennifer Simon, director of the district's Indian Education Department. "It's not just beneficial for our native students — we want and need to create this education and awareness for all students."
Wakan said the smudging ceremonies at Edison have created a learning opportunity for his peers, who often don't know much about American Indian culture. Events like the ones held throughout the week can bring unity and visibility to American Indian students in Minneapolis schools, but the work needs to happen year-round, he said.
"We have a lot of energy from this week, but that needs to carry on," he said.
The 11 tribal flags are provided for every school in the district this year and also displayed in the school board room. They will be presented each year at graduations and district gatherings as "recognition of the history and first people of this land," the district said. And for the first time this year, Minneapolis students have the opportunity to take Dakota language classes.
"What is taught [about American Indians] is often pre-1900 and people don't always know we have 11 sovereign nations in our own state," Simon said. She hopes the flags are a visual representation that will spur questions that lead to understanding, while helping American Indian students feel better represented in their schools.
The Minneapolis school board is set to vote next month to approve a renewed memorandum of agreement, first signed in 2006, with the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors. The document reads that "educational failure has condemned generations of American Indian people to poverty and diminished life opportunities and that this failure must finally be put to an end." American Indian students have the highest dropout and lowest graduation rates of any group in the district and the agreement is "intended to improve the education of all American Indian students district-wide."
Under the agreement, four schools — Anishinabe Academy, South High All Nations, Takoda Prep and Nawayee Center — are named sites for best practice, where American Indian culture and language will be included in curriculum. Four other schools — Northeast Middle, Sanford Middle, Edison High and South High — are named as American Indian Pathways school sites, where American Indian language and culture courses will be offered.
More than 1,500 American Indian students from at least 55 tribes attend Minneapolis Public Schools. The group has the highest dropout rates and lowest graduation rates of any in the district — a stat the agreement highlights as a "crisis."
The new agreement also outlines metrics to track progress, including goals to improve attendance, reading and credit toward graduation for all American Indian students in the district. A full review of the memorandum of agreement will be conducted in two years.
Simon said it shows "that it's everyone's responsibility to educate our communities."
At Wednesday night's literacy-focused event at district headquarters, families broke into groups to participate in a variety of reading and word game activities.
In one of the rooms, Matt Lafave, an Ojibwe language teacher at Edison High School and Northeast Middle School, helped students learn to count to 10 in the language using a game involving carved sticks.
Lafave attended Minneapolis Public Schools as a student and said he would have benefited from seeing his school community acknowledge his culture and language when he was a child.
"It's great to be able to celebrate our identity," Lafave said. "For us, it's not just about one day or one week — it's every day. So it's important to acknowledge that on a district level."