by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A Native hoop dancer displayed her artistry for Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) students during an event hosted by the district’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee (AIPAC). Afterward, several students who are of the same nation as the artist approached AIPAC member Maurella Cunningham to tell her it was wonderful to participate in an event that was reflective of their cultural background after not having done so for some time. “The excitement is seeing kids proud of who they are and proud about their heritage and culture,” Cunningham said.
AIPAC began in 2018 after WAPS applied for and received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). AIPAC’s purpose is to address disparities between Native students and their white peers with graduation rates, grade point averages and suspension rates, AIPAC Co-Chair Patrick Boozhoo said.
AIPAC hosts events that highlight Native cultures by featuring Native educators and artists. AIPAC also offers Native students academic, emotional and social support. Some of the support AIPAC offers include tutoring and assistance with college tours for Native students and their families. “And it’s a lot to try to address that social stigma, and try to help the students with their identity,” Boozhoo said.
Committee members are working to build connections with Native students and families, Boozhoo said. AIPAC members want Native students and families to trust them and know they are there to help, he added. “We’re not just here trying to be a token,” Boozhoo stated. “We want to … try to make an impact.”
AIPAC members purchased books centered on Native histories and stories this year for WAPS’ school libraries and classrooms. AIPAC members also distributed some of the books to families in the district.
Addressing disparities for Native students is why it is important for WAPS to have the committee, Boozhoo said. “And having a disparity because of nothing more than the color of someone’s skin or their cultural background is not okay,” he stated. “And so leveling the playing field and giving every child the opportunity, I think that’s important.”
Boozhoo and AIPAC Co-Chair Angela Boozhoo agreed that they want Native students to feel they belong at school and in the greater community. Patrick said he and AIPAC are “working toward [addressing] how important it is that a child doesn’t have to grow up thinking something’s wrong with them because they’re a different color or from a different culture.”
Groups such as AIPAC may help Native students feel included at school and in the community, Cunningham said. “When they have a group that’s supportive of who they are, they tend to do better overall academically and socially and emotionally,” she stated.
For the greater Winona community, AIPAC hopes to enrich people’s lives by understanding Native cultures, Patrick said. “This was all Native land, pre-colonial, so not knowing that Native history is quite a slap in the face, and a disservice to ourselves,” Patrick stated. “If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
To highlight Native cultures, AIPAC has provided students with opportunities to listen to music that Native artists are creating today to illustrate that “we’re not just art of the past,” Patrick said. “We’re a people that are alive today and still growing and still active. We’re not just this history of the U.S. We’re [part of] current events.” He added, “Natives are still contributing to society.”
Some students also have been learning to play hand drums. Angela said some joyful moments since she joined AIPAC have come from witnessing several younger students’ excitement about expressing themselves through the drums.
The Boozhoos also appreciated the turnout at a talking circle AIPAC held last June. Attendees could discuss positive changes that the community could make to support young people. “And that’s a step toward healing,” Patrick said.
At another AIPAC event, an artist spoke virtually about how his work helps him manage the generational trauma that accompanies generations of Native people facing discrimination.
Attendees of other AIPAC events learned how to play lacrosse and make earrings.
As AIPAC members look to the future, they would like to put some of the funding from the MDE grant toward hiring a person who would let Native students and families know about AIPAC events, as well as the resources the committee offers. The person would also work with WAPS’ teachers on creating inclusive course content that includes perspective of Native people. “And if you don’t see people like you … represented in the curriculum and represented within the faculty, I think that can be something that would be a hurdle or an obstacle for students,” Angela added.
Native science could be included in courses, for example, Patrick said. “Native culture is so much more rich than is expressed typically in school,” Patrick stated.
The Boozhoos said AIPAC would be happy to welcome more members, and those interested may contact WAPS Director of Teaching and Learning Karla Winter at email@example.com.