Posted by on Sep 26, 2012 in Uncategorized

Dakota Values and Math Instruction

By : Dr. Erich Longie

Having been involved in tribal politics for many years, I have seen many instances when cowardly, dishonest behavior by tribal workers and tribal leaders has ruined programs, projects, departments, and people’s lives. Eventually, it became clear to me that we were our own worst enemy. If we truly want to improve the standard of living on our reservation, then we have to stop our lying, cowardly, cheating, greedy behavior.

I have not been the only one with this perception. A state representative conveyed to me that the state legislature would likely send more dollars to reservations, but the legislators have been concerned that any funding sent to the reservations would only be misused, which was a nice way of saying, stolen.

Many tribal people I meet appear to agree with me as well. At the dozens of meetings and in the hundreds of conversations I have had with tribal members from many different reservations over the years, we have often talked about how corrupt our tribal officials, our program managers/directors, board members, and tribal members are.

We have often lamented that if only we would return to our traditional lifestyle, the corruption (i.e., nepotism, favoritism, going to work but not actually working, etc.) would disappear and our tribes would prosper and grow.

Therefore, when an opportunity came to submit a proposal on writing ethics courses using our Dakota traditional values as a base, I jumped at the chance to do it. Getting paid to research about a subject that I had always found very interesting was simply a bonus. By reintroducing our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance and generosity to our people through courses and workshops, would it be possible to improve the standard of living on Indian Reservations?

I thought it was.

Many tribal people thought so, too. Almost all of the hundred or more tribal members who attended at least one of my five ethics courses emphatically stated, the housing board, or the tribal board, or the tribal council- should have to attend at least one of these courses. I approached many tribal leaders and program managers. While they all agreed my courses were dearly needed, unfortunately, most of them found a reason why they couldn’t attend them or have their employees attend.

What Does This Have to do With Math?

The Dakota values that will make dependable, honest, hardworking tribal workers, program managers/directors, and tribal council members will also help our children become successful students. Ideally, these values should be taught in the home, but since they are no longer taught at home or anywhere else for that matter, they can be taught in school. Wait, I take that back. There are still some NDN families who practice and pass on these values to their children.

Take the values of perseverance for example. As a (substitute) teacher, I am familiar with many of the strategies students use and the habits they develop which result in them avoiding schoolwork, or not doing a very good job when they do, do their work.

I noticed many students lack the perseverance to finish lengthy and/or difficult assignments. As a result, they would have to turn to the teacher or other students for help. Finally, during a reading lesson, after I made sure all the students were on the page the reading assignment was on, I explained to them, “Reading comprehension means you understand what you read! Do you see the three paragraphs on top of the page? All the answers to the questions on this page are in those paragraphs – nowhere else. I want you to read those paragraphs until you know exactly what is in them. If you don’t understand what is in them the first time, then go back and read them again, and again, if you have to. Once you comprehend what you read, you will have no problem answering the questions on this page.”

It was surprising how many students were able to finish that lesson without asking me for help. I was simply encouraging them to utilize our traditional value of “perseverance,” and for most of the students it worked- instead of accepting that I would have go over the assignment individually with some students who did not want to put the effort into reading the assignment well.

Dakota Values and Math Instruction

Most Native American students do not do very well in math as test scores indicate. To be honest, most tribal schools do not make AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). However, of the core subjects, math appears to be particularly hard for most Native American students to master.

In my opinion, math is probably the easier subject to teach and to learn. Math is an absolute; the answer to 2 + 2 will always be 4 (a basic math fact), and the answer to 9 X 9 will always be 81 (multiplication fact). By simply memorizing these basic math facts, a student’s overall self-confidence and general academic performance will increase. However, memorization requires repetition, and repetition can be boring, especially to elementary school students.

This may be the reason many Indian students never master the basic math facts which makes it that much harder for them to learn higher-level math concepts. This is one of the reasons our students do so poorly in math as they move from elementary, middle school, and on to high school.

As I pointed our earlier, one traditional value in particular I find very helpful when it comes to mastering the basic facts, and that is perseverance. In the English language, the definition of perseverance is: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement. For us older Indians familiar with our history, it means surviving against all odds; it means surviving poverty, surviving the boarding school, surviving the loss of language and identity. Unfortunately, our students today are not familiar with our history and do not understand the meaning of perseverance as it relates to Indian people.

We need to teach our children history from our point of view.

In addition, when a student is not honest about what he or she has done, I remind them of the Dakota value of “honesty.” When they are disrespectful, I remind them Dakota’s were taught respect from the time they were babies. I usually tell them how respectful my children are, due to me teaching them respect, which, I explain was taught to me by my mother. When they start to complain, I also say, “Who taught you to whine?” “A good Dakota never whines,” I tell them.

Therefore, a teacher who is familiar with the Dakota values of perseverance and how it relates to our culture will be able to encourage his or her students to work hard and to not quit, just like their ancestors didn’t quit when they were removed from their homeland and had to overcome many, many hardship to survive. To put it another way, a teacher who has an appreciation and a little understanding of our culture and values will be able to use our traditional Dakota values to motive our students to do better in math.

Dakota Culture and Student Success

A couple of years ago at a conference I showed my ethics courses to the principal at Tate Topa Tribal School. A couple of months later, this principal asked me to teach The History and Culture of the Spirit Lake Oyate to the fifth and sixth graders at Tate Tribal School. It was while teaching these fifth and sixth graders that I realized how helpful incorporating our traditional values into my teaching was in addressing student behavior problems, motivation issues, and honesty issues.

The following year, I began substitute teaching at our tribal school and every chance I got (get, for I am still there), I incorporate my knowledge of our values and customs into the subject areas. It is a lot easier than people may think which makes me wonder why we don’t teach more culture in our schools (Teaching our language does not constitute teaching our culture and customs. It is good that we are teaching the language, but we need to know about the values, the ceremonies, the kinship system, the governing, etc.)

Although there is ample research proving that the more Native American students learn about their culture, the more successful they will be in life, there are few successful tribal cultural programs in Indian Country. This begs the question, “Why then haven’t more tribal schools fully embraced culture?”

In my opinion, the reason is quite simple; most educators have the impression that teaching culture is a huge complicated undertaking that will distract students from mastering the core subjects. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When done correctly, incorporating a tribe’s values and culture knowledge into the curriculum will not require deviating from the normal schedule, taking time from the core subjects, nor does it distract from student learning. In fact, it will have quite the opposite effect; it will enhance student learning, boost student self-esteem, and help address behavior problems. This will help students when it comes to concentrating on math and other subjects.

Dakota Values and Everyday Life

When I started seriously researching our traditional values for the ethics courses/workshops I wrote, I might have had a simplistic view of them. I thought they were mainly buzzwords used by writers to romanticize us.

After several years of researching, I realized traditional values are both simple and complicated. They are simple because; you’re either honest or a liar; you’re either courageous or a coward; you are either greedy or stingy; and finally, you either hang in there when the going get rough or you start whining and give up.

They are also very complicated because everything we do, every action we take, every word we speak is a reflection of one of those values, or lack thereof.

What I didn’t expect when I started my study was the more I researched our traditional values, how much more I would learn about myself. I used this knowledge to assess and improve my own character; it influenced my behavior in meetings, in conversations, in decision-making, and other areas of my professional and personal life.

In many ways, learning about traditional values made my life harder. Before I truly understood what those values meant, it was so easy to lie, to back down, and to give up.

Conversely, they also made my life easier. Now I’m not worried that a lie I tell will come back and haunt me, and many people no longer bother me ‘cause they know I will not be intimidated into doing something unethical. I actually wrote a blog: “Dakota values bring me a satisfaction with my life that I could not find anywhere else.”

In closing, many Native American children are going to have a hard life when they become adults unless we instill the proper values in them. Since we are Dakota, I prefer we instill our Dakota values of courage, honesty, generosity, and perseverance in them. Keep in mind it is not always our brightest and smartest who go off to college or get jobs that make successful careers out of life. It will be the ones who understand early on in life that it’s their responsibility, and no one else’s, to take care of themselves. Successful careers go to the ones who are willing and capable of making their own decisions, the ones who learn to cooperate and respect other people, and the ones who can achieve something that they cannot achieve independently because they are willing to work with others. Success will go to the ones who have the self-honesty to continually examine their lives and improve their lives; and finally, it will be the children who know who they are and where they came from. In my view, these children will be the ones who are taught, who learn and practice our traditional values of courage, honesty, perseverance, and generosity.