FORT HALL — Jessica Matsaw’s public education was “a huge disservice.”
Matsaw, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member, said teachers repeatedly failed to recognize her identity and incorporate Native American perspectives and history in the classroom.
And Native students today still don’t feel seen in the classroom.
“Whether it’s K-12 or college students, there’s an immense need to have representation, to have recognition, to have appropriateness and cultural relevance,” Matsaw, a teacher and graduate student, said. “Currently, that’s not what’s happening. A lot of our students are having to navigate and function in a dysfunctional place of learning.”
Matsaw was one of three panelists, all Indigenous education leaders, to speak Saturday about tribal education at the Western Literature Association conference. All said the institution of education is failing Native students, but teachers, education leaders, and politicians are in a position to change that.
That’s why Matsaw decided to become an educator and create the classroom she desired. It wasn’t an easy decision: “It’s hard for me … I’m choosing to engage in a profession that has hurt my family.”
Historically, the United States government weaponized education to oppress and weaken tribal communities and take their land — a tactic that was found to be cheaper than war.
Even so, Matsaw decided to go through the University of Idaho’s Indigenous Knowledge for Effective Education program, which “prepares and certifies culturally responsive Indigenous teachers to meet the unique needs of Native American students in K-12 schools.”
She found a community of like-minded people there and imagined being a K-12 teacher forever. But once in the classroom, she realized she was limited in her role — she couldn’t advocate for her students the way she wanted.
And her students encouraged her to do something to better the education system for Native kids, on a larger scale.
So Matsaw is back at U of I, earning a PhD from the college of education, health, and human science. She’s also an instructor for the IKEEP program and is the Shoshone-Bannock site coordinator for U of I’s cultivating relationships program.
“I have to figure out how to work in these two worlds, where I have to know the rules of Eurocentric education in order to advocate for my community and our knowledge system,” she said.
Native teachers face unwelcoming school environments
One problem Matsaw’s trying to solve: how to best support Native teachers in the classroom.
Through research, she’s already identified a root cause behind the lack of Indigenous educators in Idaho: Native American teachers are going into classrooms, but schools “aren’t ready to receive them.”
Having Native American teachers on staff can lead to critical conversations that become uncomfortable, Matsaw said. That discomfort can lead to retaliation, which leads to turnover and low retention rates among Indigenous staff.
“We see a lot of Native teachers that are so excited to return to their communities and their schools, and then they don’t stay,” Matsaw said. “And that’s a problem.”
And she said Native people who decide to become teachers have to make hard choices — like taking a test that contains inaccuracies about Native people, and having to choose an answer they know is wrong.
“But you have to pick it in order to pass the class, to become the teacher, to be in a space where you can talk and learn with your Indigenous students,” she said. “It’s hard.”
Envisioning a better education — one that combines Eurocentric and tribal ways of learning
As an IKEEP instructor, Matsaw also teaches a class for Native high school students interested in becoming teachers.
“The really beautiful thing is that we’re using this (institution of education) that has historically harmed our people to come together and create the space to advocate for what a better school would look like,” she said.
Inside a schoolhouse, students said they learn how to use a computer, or “really generic science,” “really generic math,” and “things that they need to check off in order to go to college.”
Outside of the schoolhouse and in their communities, students learn about being better people and relatives, taking care of the land, taking care of the water, and practicing their ceremonies.
Matsaw then challenged students to envision a school where both types of learning were combined.
“When you start to imagine this, you see that cultural relevance that is really needed,” she said. “It’s just rallying around what young people want to learn about.”
And Matsaw said cultural relevance is more than “sprinkling something (Shoshone-Bannock) on it” or putting a feather in the corner of a handout.
Non-native teachers also have the power to center Native American voices
Teachers who aren’t Native can create space — or elbowroom, as Matsaw calls it — for Native students to become the experts.
Teachers also have the power to decide whose “presence, perspectives and political nationhood” are represented in the classroom.
Yvette Towersap, a Shoshone-Bannock tribal member and the tribes’ former policy analyst, said that teachers might face pushback when they do incorporate culture or diverse perspectives.
“You may have some resistance from within your own school or within your school board,” Towersap said. “That is a reality … That’s what we have to deal with.”
But if so, Towersap encouraged teachers to reach out to the tribes for support.
Matsaw also said non-Native teachers should visit and collaborate with tribal schools.
“But it has to be deeper than powwows,” Matsaw said.
Tribes, the State Board, and the state superintendent can “do better” too
Allen Mayo, member of the Choctaw tribe and administrator at Shoshone-Bannock High, a tribally-run federal school, said they’ve been working on becoming STEM and project-focused, incorporating more Shoshoni language instruction, and potentially adding the Bannock language as a class.
Towersap said education is a treaty right, and one of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes’ strongest attributes.
But she also said the tribes aren’t “strong enough in advocating for K-12.”
The State Board of Education and state superintendent can do better, she said, but then “tribes need to follow through.”
“The community has got to step up and let the schools know you care about your kids’ education,” she said.
Further reading: Take a look at our series on how tribes are fighting to be seen in Idaho classrooms, and more coverage on the conference — including its keynote speaker, a renowned journalist, visiting a tribal high school and Shoshone-Bannock students saying they were often misunderstood or unseen at Idaho State.