Anton Treuer held up the index finger on his left hand.
“What does that mean?” he asked a room full of Redwood Area School District staff.
For some it is a way of counting, indicating the number one, while for others it is simply a way to point directionally indicating something is “up.”
Treuer added for others it is simply a finger.
For people, one action, one word or one gesture can mean different things, and finding out what they mean is critical as people communicate.
“We need to understand the context,” said Treuer, who was the keynote speaker at a staff development event the school district held in conjunction with the Lower Sioux Community.
The event, which was held Aug. 31 at the Lower Sioux community, provided a way for the Lower Sioux leadership to meet with the people who are working with the Dakota children and to show them the resources that are available for them to better understand what it means to grow up as a Native American.
The day included a tour of the community as well as a panel discussion with various Lower Sioux leaders who talked about everything from the tribal courts and health to recreation and education.
The day culminated with the presentation by Treuer, who is a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and is the author of 14 books.
“I am Ojibwe from Leech Lake,” Truer told the group, adding, however, he is the son of a white man of European descent and an Ojibwe woman.
Having a heritage that combines both the white and Native world has provided Treuer with a unique life perspective, as he carries traditions passed on to him by both of his parents.
Yet, he knows that it is the Native American in him that has struggled most, and that is still the case for many of today’s children.
Treuer expressed his pleasure in seeing that the local school district and the Dakota community are working together to explore and implement ways that best serve the Dakota students, adding having discussions is the first step.
The next, he added, is for educators to put what they have learned into practice within the system.
“You have to take it deeper,” he said.
Treuer said growing up he had to “put on a suit of armor” just to go to school, adding in his entire educational experience he had one teacher of color.
It is hard to identify with teachers when that is the case, he added.
Education was not always a positive experience for Treuer, as he said one of his teachers saw his long hair and dressed him up like a girl.
Events like that create trauma in the life of a child, said Treuer, adding he went home and asked to have his hair cut. It was years later, when he was in college when he finally started growing out his hair once again.
While those types of incidents are not happening as frequently today as they did even a generation ago, Treuer said there may be other words, actions and events that a school or a teacher is doing that can cause trauma.
So, it is critical for those working with a different culture, like the Native American, to be keenly aware of what is going on and what they are saying and teaching.
“Historical trauma is real,” said Treuer, adding it is so important that it not be marginalized.
Whether it be the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 or the use of boarding schools, these things caused trauma, and they have created generations of people who did not trust white people, and that lack of trust has been passed on from generation to generation.
Treuer said everyone has what he called an emotional trust bank, and people will not let others into their lives unless they feel that level of trust in them. So, he said, students may portray that stoic Indian persona, like he did.
“When that is happening you need to start looking beneath the surface,” he said.
When a student does not have that level of trust their response may lead to what is known as fight or flight.
So, how does that manifest itself?
Treuer said in the classroom it may be in a kid acting up in class or it may lead to them just not showing up for school.
Treuer said those behaviors are not an excuse, nor are they acceptable, but rather than just look for another punitive solution for them it is important to find ways to get those students to open up.
For the Redwood Area School District, having the Indian education program available for those students is a step in the right direction. Treuer said even basic things like not using “flesh” crayons in the classroom can make a difference, because not everyone in a class has the same color of flesh.
“We are living in a country where people of color are the majority,” said Treuer.
Education needs to be relatable to all of the people being taught, said Treuer.
What people value is a reflection of the culture of those people, and in education what teachers value is reflected in what they teach and how they teach it.
“Nothing can stop a person who knows who he or she is,” said Treuer.
No, said Treuer, educators do not have to be experts in every culture of every student who walks into their classroom. What they need to do is open their arms and be willing to learn from others.
That is what it is going to take for all students to see success in education.