As a child, Alena Boklep danced with a ballerina as part of a Redwood Falls school program.
However, Boklep performed as a fancy shawl dancer, showcasing an athletic and colorful style of American Indian dance.
Juxtaposed with traditional European ballet, the cross-cultural event was meant to spark a community conversation.
“I grew up with these types of things already in place,” recalled Boklep, who is Dakota and a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (Nation) in South Dakota. As a youth, she was also chosen as the princess of many pow wows.
These initiatives “sparked my interest and made me proud of my heritage and made me work hard at school,” she said.
So when the district formed the Eastern Carver County Schools American Indian Parent Advisory Committee two years ago, Boklep was eager to bring her own experience to the table, to spark the same interest she developed as an American Indian youth.
“I thought it was well overdue,” said Boklep, of the programming.
Boklep, of Chaska, whose son Emmanuel is a Chaska High School junior, serves as chair of the committee. She is among a group of parents who recently started working to add programs and opportunities for American Indian students.
The school district has 46 American Indian students. Recent state statute requires that districts with 10 or more American Indian students have an American Indian Parent Advisory Committee. Any district with 20 or more American Indian students can receive state funding.
The core committee has grown from three parents in its first year to about seven parents in its second year, according to Mary Jo Nairn, Eastern Carver County Schools lead instructional coach and district committee liaison.
“I think that we really hit the ground running the second year,” Boklep said.
Among the new committee members is Victoria resident Genevieve Lane, whose daughter, River, 5, is a Victoria Elementary School kindergartner.
“I’ve lived in Victoria for the last 10 years and had no idea other native people were around, besides working for the Shakopee tribe for seven years. But I didn’t know there were any natives in my backyard, so that was exciting,” Lane said.
Lane grew up with a variety of different American Indian cultures. She’s enrolled, on her mother’s side, in the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians; her father was Lakota, from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation; and she grew up in New Mexico among Pueblo communities. While she grew up poor, Lane said her family always prioritized education.
Lane went on to earn a master’s degree in cultural anthropology, and was recently working with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community on its future cultural center and museum.
“I understand if I’m going to invest in education, I better do it on the front end. I think those first years are really critical,” Lane said.
What would Lane like as the end result? “For native students, I would say to close the gap in achievement and matriculation for our high schoolers for sure. It’s historically lower than other groups.”
“In light of what’s gone down at Chaska Middle School East, educators and administrators need some more training and resources in dealing with other cultural groups,” she said, referring to a recent incident in which it was reported that a student was the target of racial slurs.
The district has received $29,302 from the state for the 2018-19 school year for American Indian initiatives, Nairn said. “It’s completely, 100 percent, earmarked for activities that benefit the needs of the students,” she said.
There are 145 districts that are eligible for funding, per state statute, according to Dr. Jane Harstad, director of the Office of Indian Education with the Minnesota Department of Education.
“We work with them to try to help them with their plans, and make sure they’re using the most appropriate ways of serving American Indian students,” said Harstad, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Education was once used as a weapon to assimilate American Indians, so there is a mistrust by American Indian families of the educational system, Harstad said.
“This statute serves to help rebuild those relationships and rebuild relationships anew with school districts, and what’s happening with American Indian students in those districts,” Harstad said.
Nairn explained that there are three goals for the funds, that all American Indian students graduate from high school; attain career and college readiness; and don’t face achievement gaps.
Since last year, funds have been used for a variety of programming: a community pow wow; a visit from John Hunter, founder of Twin Cities Native Lacrosse; and a presentation from the Sioux Chef team to talk about native foods.
In October, American Indian scholar Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University, spoke to students about the U.S.-Dakota War. This fall, the students attended the Minnesota Indian Education Association Conference.
However, funds have also provided individualized help for American Indian students, in the form of tutoring, ACT preparation and mentoring.
“It’s a multifaceted approach, depending on what the student needs. If the student needs more academic help, that’s what they get,” Harstad said.
“One of the things that the committee is also committed to, is making sure that the learning environment is optimum, or the best it possibly can be,” Nairn said.
That also involves teaching the adults who teach the students.
So when Treuer visited the district, he not only spoke with students, but also with staff. “He was really giving us a window into native culture that will help us interact better with kids and even provided learning experiences that will better meet our needs,” Nairn said.