Wisconsin Indian Education Association
Annual Convention
Self-Determined Pedagogy
Top: The WIEA Convention planning team - Sitting:Eva
Kubinski Second row: Denise Thomas (l-r), Rachel
Byington, Karen Martin Third row: Rosalie Grant,
Aaron Bird Bear, Rebecca Comfort, Sean Saiz Fourth
row:Bert Zipperer, Tim Fish, Brian Kingfisher, David
O'Conner
Above: RunningHorse Livingston
Part 3 of 3
By Jonathan Gramling

For the past 30 years, the Wisconsin Indian Education
Association, WIEA, has been hosting an annual conference
on American Indian issues and resources in education. The
2016 conference, held April 1-2 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel,
had to rank as one of the best ever based on the content
and the attendance.

Perhaps 20 years in the future, some people might look
back at this time period and call it one of American Indian
Education’s golden eras. There are so many people doing
good work in the era as witnessed by the almost 500
people who attended at least part of the conference.

RunningHorse Livingston, a member of the Bad River Band
of the Lake Superior Ojibwe and conference keynote
speaker, founded Mathematize and is a nationally
renowned consultant assisting teachers and school districts become more
academically relevant for Native students.
In his presentation, Livingston talked about the historical trauma that indigenous
people still experience, like an emotional earthquake after shock that still shakes
Native people’s lives apart.

“I think for modern indigenous people, historical trauma is one of those things they can’
t sense and yet it permeates every part of your life,” Livingston said in an interview
afterwards. “For some people, it’s the cause for self-medication. It’s the root of
addiction. We have a lot of violence. We have the highest suicide rate in our
communities. I think at various levels of mental health and dependency, it’s very
prevalent. That’s when you see it the most because you see the impacts that it has on
individuals’ lives. And we’ve talked a lot about getting past that. People are aware of
it, but I don’t know if people are aware how it affects your everyday thinking. Just
because you say you know what it is doesn’t mean that you’ve overcome it. You
actually have to be intentional about overcoming it. Being aware is the first step. But
taking steps to overcome it is where we are at in terms of a population.”

For Livingston and the conference organizers, it is important for Native people to have
a say about the educational pedagogy that directs the education that Native students
receive.

“Historically, we’ve been on the receiving end of education,” Livingston emphasized.
“And I think we’re fighting — for those of us who are in this fight — that battle of self-
defining and self-determination to impact things at a very real level instead of just
talking about them. What I find is a lot of conventions and conferences like this are
focused on culture. And that is good. We need to share our culture. But culture without
understanding or without direction is just content. It doesn’t change the way that people
think. It doesn’t change how they might approach their practice, especially for teachers.
So I can know everything there is to know about a tribe and their treaty rights and their
history and I can speak their language and I can do all of this stuff. But if it doesn’t impact who I am as a teacher and I just do the traditional
stand up and lecture for 50 minutes and you guys take notes and then you take a test at the end to see if you remember what I told you, then it
hasn’t had the impact I don’t think that we wanted it to.”

There is hardly uniformity of thought in what Native culture is and how it should be taught. Like any community, there are conservative and
liberal forces that are engaged in the conversation about which direction to take.

“Some of the cultural practices, especially when we say traditional culture, what does that mean,” Livingston asked. “Traditional is such a
relative term, especially for modern indigenous people. Something that might be traditional as a practice might not be traditional for someone
else. So defining those lines between the things that impact us negatively and the things that we can get rid of is so hard because when it is
that deep in your subconscious, you accept it as part of your being. And it is like trying to do anything. Talk about habits of the mind, it’s hard to
break a habit of the mind. And I think historical trauma is even deeper than a habit of the mind. It’s a habit of the spirit. It’s something that you’ve
received from years and years and years of behavioral and environmental impacts that it is deep in there. And you get resistance along the way
too. That’s another big thing we fight as indigenous people as well. You’re talking about doing this stuff and that is different from what we’re
used to. That whole aversion to change also becomes an issue.”

And so, does culture become a museum piece that remains static regardless of the environment that surrounds it or does it adapt and change
as the needs of Native people change? It’s a question where there is no right answer.

“One of the biggest battles that we have in this era of self-determination is preservation versus revitalization,” Livingston said. “I think Native
people especially are a proud people. And so we want to retain the things that make us who we are as indigenous people. But the difference
between revitalizing it to perpetuate it through generations is much different than preserving it. When you are preserving it, you want to keep it
the way it is. If someone wants to say, ‘Indians back then didn’t go to church. We had a spirituality about us,’ so if we are preserving, then there
is judgment about people who go on to read the Bible and become Catholic or Lutheran or whatever they want to do, there is judgment because
it isn’t traditional. It’s not preserved the way that we remember it. And I think we are probably guilty about romanticizing ourselves. But those of
us who are on the education side are more concerned with revitalizing culture. How do you celebrate things in life and spiritually in a way that
is still consistent with beliefs and the culture, but maybe there is a new twist to it or maybe it includes technology. Pow wows are a great
example. There never used to be contest pow wows or Nike symbols on beadwork. You see that now. There is nothing bad about it despite
what people say, especially preservationists who will say, ‘That is not a traditional outfit.’ It kind of is and it will be down the road when
someone else takes it on or when your great grandchild wears it dancing. That’s tradition. That’s culture. It’s a bit of a paradox.”

And regardless of intent or belief, there are social forces that are impacting and changing Native communities in ways that many may be
unaware.

“I think social media for our communities, I don’t think we even know how it has impacted them, especially our youth who would much rather
text to someone or Snapchat someone than actually talk to them face-to-face,” Livingston said. “How is that going to impact our communities?
We pride ourselves on oral history and perpetuating things in non-written form. It’s going to have an impact. We won’t see it until 10-20 years
down the road. But we will look back on this and we will say, ‘We should have probably done something or made ourselves aware of how to
handle it better.’”

For Native educators, this is probably a golden age of curriculum and teaching technique development in which Native people seek a self-
determined educational pedagogy. With this emerging opportunity also come potential risks. What should be brought forward and what should
be left behind? It is something that is best left to Native academics to decide.