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Expanded programming immerses Indigenous students in culture

Monday, Oct. 12, 2020

Clarissa Leino, Native American Education program director and kindergarten teacher, grew up going back and forth between reservation schools and public schools. Through elders and peers, she received a heritage that she’s helping to pass along to Native students in Brooklyn Center. 

I am from Red Cliff, Wisconsin but I am an enrolled member in Sault St. Marie Michigan,” Leino said, who is now in her fifth year of teaching in Brooklyn Center. “Most of our students are of Ojibwe background; we have a few who are Dakota. We teach what the families want to pass on to students and what the students want to learn. I vet the sources to make sure they’re accurate and authentic; I often use videos from elders in my home community and other communities I know well.” 

When she began teaching in Brooklyn Center, Leino immediately saw opportunities to expand programming. Because of her own exploration, deep connection with her heritage and experience in other programs, she had a good feel for the shape that programming could take.

“When I started in the district, we had Native American education, but were limited in what we offered,” Leino said. “We did drum and dance, but there was room to grow.

“I started doing language and cultural classes after school, and now we offer programming once per week. Every other week, we do drum and dance days; on the off weeks, we do cultural activities.” 

Leino said that cultural activities can range from watching videos to cooking and crafts to hearing from community members. But it’s driven by student interest and community input. 

“Last year our older students were really into history so we spent time learning American Indian movement — key players and ideas. It makes it more meaningful for everyone involved,” Leino said. 


Shifting to an online environment
This fall, teaching Native American Programming has looked a little different. Leino mentioned that her team has gotten creative, finding ways to adapt programming for viewing and online engagement instead of in-person participation. 

“We’ve been able to do cultural teaching live, but with drum and dance, we have to pre-record because the drum sound actually overwhelms the vocals on a live video call,” she said.

Much like pre-pandemic times, the group rotates between drum and dance and cultural studies, but there’s more opportunity for crossover content with nearby Osseo schools.

“Our students generally stay within their school groups, but if they aren’t able to join us at our normal timeslot, they have access to the work that Osseo is doing,” Leino said. “We always hold a joint powwow with Osseo in the spring, so it’s another opportunity to be around other Native students.”

Leino said that Native American education is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that some students don’t know much about where they’ve come from and this is a chance to build a greater sense of identity. 

“Some of our students are raised with their culture and language, so it’s great when they can share with other students whose families have lost some of this through colonization or other reasons,” Leino said.“It’s a good mix of students with different senses of heritage.”

Indigenous Peoples Day