On August 23, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe opened their new charter school, Kwiyagat Community Academy in Towaoc, to kindergarten and first grade students. Kwiyagat means “bear” in the Ute language. The bear is sacred to the Ute people.
It is a progressive and hopeful event.
For too long, indigenous children have been denied the opportunity to learn in a safe and supportive environment free from prejudice and discrimination. Indigenous students are often the targets of harassment and discrimination from non-Indigenous school staff and non-Indigenous students in public schools, referred to by names like “chief” and “squaw,” and otherwise intimidated.
We are not talking about the days of residential schools, in which Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their parents and tribes and forced to âassimilateâ – which sometimes included severe punishment and even death.
We talk about now.
Consider that in 2018, a teacher from Albuquerque cut the hair of an Indigenous student without her permission after asking the girl if she liked her braids.
According to The Washington Post, Leon Howard, the legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico, called the act “inadmissible”:
“Anyone with even a little cultural awareness knows that in Native American cultures hair is sacred …” hair was a form of punishment inflicted by school teachers in a racist attempt to deprive children of their heritage and their culture. “
In fact, such a boarding school existed here in southwest Colorado. Administrators at Ute Mountain Residential School did not allow Indigenous children to speak their language, according to a Ute Mountain board member who attended the public school, which closed in 1958.
As a result of such policies, many indigenous tribes struggled to preserve their languages ââand to support their cultural heritage.
In the new school, the children will study the regular elementary school curriculum – and the elders of the tribe will come to teach the Ute language and its stories to the little ones.
Kwiyagat Community Academy is the first Indigenous public institution approved by the Colorado Charter School Institute, but it is not the first tribal school in southwest Colorado.
The Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy in Ignacio has been open for many years and teaches Ute children from infancy to 12 years old, combining the Montessori method with the aim of “preserving and sharing the South Indian culture of the Ute”, according to its website.
It seems ironic that society has changed 180 degrees since the days when mainstream white culture believed that the best hope for Aboriginal people was to remove their âIndiannessâ and make them more like us. Now we can see the error of this notion – that in fact, Indigenous culture is of great value, not only to them, but to all of society. Attend the annual Santa Fe Indian Market and watch white Americans eagerly ask Native artists about their artwork, tribes, beliefs; it is clear that many whites now believe that native people have knowledge that anyone can learn from.
Overall, American society benefits from its diversity. We are made stronger thanks to our differences. All of us who are non-native occupants of this land came from elsewhere; we are the descendants of immigrants, with roots in one or more other cultures. The history and experience of indigenous people in this region spans thousands of years before that of the first Spanish settlers and northern Europeans, who came much later.
We would like to think that it is not too late to learn from each other, to put aside the fears of those who are different from us. A friend used to say, “There are many ways to be in the world,” and maybe the best way to be is curious, interested, and open to what we can learn from others.
Congratulations to Ute Mountain Ute for the new school and to Southern Ute for their long-standing tribal school.