Addressing Inequities in Education: Considerations for American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Youth in the Era of COVID-19

By Melody Mann, CEI Intern

The effects of historical trauma within the American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities continues to rise (Tsethlikai et al., 2020). With the COVID-19 outbreak surging globally, the AIAN communities are heavily impacted not only by their community’s past pain, but the uncertainty of the present as well. The United States of America (USA) federally recognizes 574 tribes. AIAN individuals represent 1.7% of the population in the USA, with their communities centered primarily in Alaska, California, Oklahoma, and the Southwest/Upper Midwest (US Commission on Civil Rights, 2018). However, despite the recognition of these tribes, AIAN individuals are provided limited access to needed services for health care and other assistance. The systemic inequity perpetuates further to AIAN youth and children as they navigate under resourced education systems (National Congress of American Indians, 2020). 

Understanding Historical Trauma

Children deserve to know the truth so that they can better improve the future by practicing inclusiveness and sensibility. Content created should be reflective of the lived experiences of AIAN communities without any fabrication or stigma. Decolonizing our approach to history instruction is the first step in promoting awareness in our schools (Ethlers et al., 2013). 

With generations of attempted genocide clouding their history, AIAN communities have undergone years of systemic racism, oppression, verbal and physical violence, police brutality, and inadequate land or resources (Lakota People’s Law Project, 2015; Woodard, 2016). These experiences have led to disproportionate rates of disease and addiction within AIAN communities, leading to the increased risk of infection and possible death due to COVID-19 (Tsethlikai et al., 2020). As AIAN youth and children work on keeping themselves afloat in academics, educators should take time to check in with the social emotional well-being of the students. Generational trauma impacts the performance of students as they endure not only the household pressure but the academic expectations given to them during remote learning (The Learning Network, 2020).

AIAN students bring their culture, language, and experiences to the classroom. The narratives students have to share should be celebrated in the classroom. By giving students a space in the classroom to embrace their identities, the learning atmosphere is more inclusive and welcoming. AIAN youth and children can bring perspectives they’ve learned from their families to contribute to the classroom to form a better understanding of linguistic and cultural diversity for all.

Inclusion in the Classroom for AIAN Children

Here are action steps that can be implemented within the community to support the psychological and physical well-being of AIAN students as they work toward their educational goals:

  • Provide more funding to schools to host online family culture nights. 
  • Ensure all students have equitable access to the technology and broadband infrastructures needed for virtual instruction.
  • Incorporate AIAN language and culture studies into the school curricula to raise awareness and educate youth about the linguistic and cultural diversity of the AIAN community.
  • Allow AIAN children to share stories of their families, upbringing, and experiences to form communal dialogue and discussion. 
  • Encourage educators and policymakers to be sensible and respectful to AIAN students and their needs during COVID-19.

Support During Distance Learning

Prior to COVID-19, studies had shown that AIAN youth experience more adverse childhood experience than their peers, including physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, and financial stress endured by their families (Brockie et al., 2015). With virtual schooling, AIAN children are now more at risk than ever before for low levels of school achievement due to their limited access to WiFi connection, technology, nutritious food, and dedicated spaces to study within their homes (Tsethlikai et al., 2020). Educators can orient their instruction to meet the needs of AIAN children in the classroom. Having alternative options available for students to demonstrate their understanding of the content is a great way to provide autonomy, flexibility, and creativity in the classroom (The Learning Network, 2020). 

Take Action

Although we cannot rewrite history, as a collective we can work toward providing the youth and children of today a better experience. By proactively engaging in culturally sustaining practices in content delivery, being sensitive to the needs of AIAN youth and children, and addressing the social-emotional well-being of all students, distance learning during COVID-19 can be tackled one step at a time. 

References 

Brockie, T. N., Dana-Sacco, G., Wallen, G. R., Wilcox, H. C., & Campbell, J. C. (2015). The relationship of adverse childhood experiences to PTSD, depression, poly-drug use and suicide attempt in reservation-based Native American adolescents and young adults. American Journal of Community Psychology, 55(3-4), 411-421. 

Ehlers, C. L., Gizer, I. R., Gilder, D. A., Ellingson, J. M., & Yehuda, R. (2013). Measuring historical trauma in an American Indian community sample: Contributions of substance dependence, affective disorder, conduct disorder and PTSD. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 133(1), 180-187. 

Lakota People’s Law Project. (2015). Native lives matter

National Congress of American Indians. (2020). Tribal nations and the United States: An introduction. 

The Learning Network. (2020.) 80 tips for remote learning from seasoned educators. The New York Times.

Tsethlikai, M., Sarche, M., Barnes, J. V., & Fitzgerald, H. (2020). Addressing inequities in education: Considerations for American Indian and Alaska Native children and youth in the era of COVID-19.

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. (2018). Broken promises: Continuing federal funding shortfall for Native Americans

Woodard, S. (2016). The police killings no one is talking about. In These Times. 



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