By Michael Telek

IFL Video & Marketing Manager

Ptáyela Waúŋspeič’ičhiyapi.

In the Lakota language that means “we are learning together”. This creed is inspiring a new academic endeavor from our partners in Todd County.

The southern South Dakota school district is home to 13 schools with a little more than 2,000 students. 95 to 99 percent of those students are Rosebud Sioux Tribe members and other Indigenous nations of North America. With that in mind, Todd County leadership has put a heightened focused on understanding and employing teaching methods and assessment tools that reflect Indigenous learning styles and cultural perspective.

While nearly all students come from an Indigenous background, the same can’t be said for the teachers leading discussions in the classroom. Only a small percentage of teachers are Native Americans; although, many of the district’s paraprofessionals reflect the student population.

“We really want our teachers to know more about Lakota history, culture, ways of being, values,” said Krista Morrison, Director of Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment at Todd County. “We have implemented professional development for all of our teachers to learn from community members and other experts.”

They’re called Oceti Sakowin Essential Understanding, or OSEUs. Think of it like student-centered routines, but it’s the Lakota lifestyle at the heart of all K-12 work. This includes but is not limited to tribal politics, modern issues affecting tribes, and keeping the Lakota language alive. Morrison says the community has been hit hard by COVID. By losing elder members, they are rapidly losing their native speakers.

“When I walk into a school, I want it to be super obvious that we are serving native students. Colors that are in both languages. Numbers that are in both languages, the months are also in Lakota. Pictures of elders and former leaders. It needs to be evident who we are serving and the identity of our students,” said Morrison.

In addition to these efforts, Todd County partners with Rosebud’s Tribal Education department, and other educational leaders in the district. This group has developed the Sicangu Indigenous Principles of Learning (SIPL). The SIPL team includes the facilitator, RunningHorse Livingston, an indigenous learning consultant, and teachers and leaders from Todd County, Rosebud Sioux Tribe Education Department officials, and experts from Sinte Gleska University, the local tribal university in Todd County.

“We are probably the only district, I think we are the only district in the state, who has a policy that requires all teachers to integrate the OSEUs,” said Morrison. “That was a pretty big move on the part of our school board to do that and so that’s a big shift in thinking and the way in which we work.”

In December, Morrison was part of the team who presented their work to integrate Lakota culture at the Lakota Nations Education Conference. For 43 years, the conference has been offering education training to teachers, parents, administrators, and anyone else who serve Native American students.

For Morrison and her fellow presenters, it was important to highlight this work and counter the narrative that Todd County is “the white school.” Removing that label is no easy task. With a largely white staff and a history of boarding schools in community, those traumas cannot simply be ignored.

Morrison believes that maintaining an open line of communication with the community is the best way to acknowledge that pain and show they are working in good faith.

“It’s not just about teaching the culture, but it’s teaching culturally,” said Morrison. “Make it very student centered. Lots more student talk, student choice. That’s a shift that is going to take a while.”