Woape Foundation Stories

Fighting under-representation in Education

Our Board Member Charitie Ropati discusses the under-representation of Native peoples' in our schooling and curricula

18-year-old Charitie Ropati writes about her work developing Native-centric curricula in the U.S.

As an Indigenous student and a member of the Native Village of Kongiganak, Alaska, I never saw myself in the history I learned in primary and secondary school.

My knowledge of my people came from the lessons my mother gave me and the stories my grandmother told me. From my mother, I learned how to speak my native language, understanding that the words that rolled off of my tongue represented thousands of years of resistance and survival. From my grandmother, I heard about the days when my ancestors fully relied on the land and sea, hunting seals and harvesting berries from the tundra. They taught me to be proud of our Indigeneity and to speak of our history so that I don’t forget it — and because our ancestors weren’t always able to do so.

But the education I received at home wasn’t like the one I received at school. In Alaska studies, a required course to graduate high school in the state of Alaska, the teacher spoke of my people as if we were of the past, like we were just a picture in a book. The class erased the first inhabitants of this country. It erased me.

As an Indigenous student and a member of the Native Village of Kongiganak, Alaska, I never saw myself in the history I learned in primary and secondary school.

I was tired of learning history that refused to acknowledge my people. I realized that the Western construct of history needed to change. So, during my senior year of high school, I began to quantify these feelings by researching more about the education of Native students in my district in Alaska and across the U.S.

I found that American Indian and Alaska Native students have the lowest graduation rates and highest dropout percentages in the U.S. In Alaska, the graduation rates of Indigenous students are among the lowest, despite the state having the highest percentage of Indigenous K-12 students. According to the 2018-2019 Anchorage School District report, Alaska Native and American Indian students in my district have a graduation rate of 62.88% and the highest rate of dropping out compared to any other demographic.

If Alaska Native and American Indian students felt their required classes were culturally relevant and inclusive of the Indigenous perspective, we would be more engaged with our education. We shouldn’t have to study in an environment that fails to acknowledge the atrocities Indigenous people have faced. Western education dehumanizes the narrative of Indigenous people and doesn’t acknowledge the resilience and diversity of Native culture. We need to understand the history of those that came before to reconcile what happened in the past and what continues to happen to Indigenous peoples.

As an Indigenous student who has learned in predominantly white environments, increasing Native representation and improving dropout and graduation rates is important to me. I decided to address these issues by decolonizing the Anchorage School District’s curriculum. I began by targeting the Alaska studies course.

With the help of Dr. Maria Shaa Williams, Director of the Alaska Studies Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and Dr. Richard Manning, professor at the University of Canterbury, I developed an accurate and inclusive history sub-curriculum of Indigenous peoples that highlights the traumas faced by my ancestors and focuses on an Indigenous perspective through readings, videos and movies. I also incorporated Alaska Native guest speakers to talk about specific events, including the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Boarding School Era. It is no longer OK to accept classes that refuse to acknowledge the histories of Indigenous people. Native students must speak out and educators must listen to our voices. Politicians and legislators must address the issues Native students face. Our voices need to be amplified, especially when it comes to conversations about what we learn.

The majority of the students who were part of my research not only felt my Alaska Native centric curriculum was valuable, interesting and important, but also that my curriculum was better than the current Alaska studies curriculum. My high school now teaches my new curriculum in the Seminar program, which is a specialized program. I hope to expand my curriculum throughout the Anchorage School District.

I want education systems to amplify the voices of my ancestors. I want Native youth to feel seen in their classes. If U.S. schools want to better accommodate their Indigenous students, they need to work to decolonize their classes.

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Malala Fund
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