AFT Members Eembrace Native American Education And Culture

aft members with books


By Virginia Myers

AFT members, leaders and staff immersed themselves in the National Indian Education Association conference Oct. 5-8, celebrating Native culture and tradition while also learning new ways to ensure Native people can thrive—whether they are AFT members, their students or the families in their communities.

The event drew one of the highest participation rates ever, after an extremely rough two years with a pandemic that hit Native communities particularly hard. People from at least 350 Native nations, tribes, bands and clans attended to hear inspirational speakers, celebrate with traditional music and dance competitions, and attend workshops that covered everything from Indigenous-centered and culturally relevant curriculum to increasing enrollment of Native people in higher education, supporting school readiness, preserving Native languages, fostering student resilience, teaching “like an elder,” supporting career and technical education, closing the digital divide and more.

AFT members from six states representing preK-12, PSRP and public employee locals attended, some traveling five hours to the closest airport in order to travel to the conference, held in Oklahoma City.

Lucy Real Bird, who teaches music and her native Apsáalooke language at a Crow reservation school in southern Montana, was inspired. “Going to a national conference and meeting all of these people, learning all the awesome things they’re doing, just empowered us,” she said.

Real Bird met “awesome authors” and learned strategies to gain more respect and resources for her school district. “A lot of the tribes are so much more progressive than us, and we strive to be like them,” she said.

The AFT offered workshops on community schools—places with wraparound services and close connections to the families and other community stakeholders—as well as a session on healing the trauma of Indian boarding schools, where children were forbidden to speak their languages and where many suffered abuse and neglect, and a workshop on the importance of authentic and current representation of Native American culture in education. Among the more popular events were the book giveaways the AFT organized with First Book. Author and Cherokee Nation citizen Traci Sorell was on hand to sign and distribute her newest book, We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know. Other titles, spanning preschool to young adult readers, were equally enticing and included Firekeeper’s Daughter, Fry Bread and Rez Dogs.

A history of commitment

It’s no surprise the AFT turned out for this conference: The union has strong connections to Native American education. The Federation of Indian Service Employees is an AFT affiliate, and includes more than 5,000 members, 80 percent of them Native American. Many are teachers and staff at tribal schools, and others work for federal agencies providing services to Native American communities in cities, towns and tribal lands across 21 states.

Native American issues surfaced at the AFT’s 2022 convention, when delegates passed a resolution to support the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act and related policies that recognize and begin to address the trauma experienced by Native children who were sent away to schools that stripped away their traditions and language.

And the AFT has long believed in providing education content to ensure all children—and the adults who teach them—know about the rich history and current lives of the people indigenous to this land. Share My Lesson, the AFT’s free online exchange of resources for and by educators, includes videos, lesson plans, webinars and more, exploring everything from art and dance to sovereignty, bias and racism, and ways of life among the many nations, tribes, bands and clans that include AFT members, the children they teach, the people they serve and the communities in which they live.

“Being part of organizations like AFT gives us these opportunities and resources,” said Real Bird. “We were able to network and meet other people, and [see] what they’re doing—and how they’re changing things for their people and for their communities.”