Sitting Bull’s Vision: A collaboration that works for our children

Nov 15th, 1999 | By | Category: 11-2: Teacher Education, Features
By Kathy Froelich, Sitting Bull College Department of Education chair and Cheryl Medearis, Sinte Gleska University Department of Education chair

Cheryl Medearis and Kathy Froelich, both tribal college graduates, now direct teacher education programs.

(Editor’s note: Sinte Gleska University has affiliated with several other tribal colleges to offer teacher education. This article describes the collaboration between Sinte and Sitting Bull College.)

Sitting Bull has been quoted as saying, “Let us put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.” Two tribal institutions of higher learning located in two different states, on two different Indian reservations have been successfully carrying out Sitting Bull’s vision for their diverse learning communities.

For the past 25 years, Sitting Bull College has been providing a college education for people on the Standing Rock Reservation, which lies on the border between North  Dakota and  South Dakota. Sinte Gleska University (SGU), located in south-central South Dakota on the Rosebud Reservation, celebrated its 27th anniversary in February 1999. Both institutions are regionally accredited through North Central Association. Even though culturally and historically they are very different, Sinte Gleska University and Sitting Bull College have common ideas and philosophies. This collaboration honors the diversity, which benefits students, families, communities, and both reservations as a whole.

Over the last five years, Sinte Gleska University and Sitting Bull College have developed a state-of-the-art model of collaboration. This program grew out of the grim educational statistics for Native American students: high drop-out rates and low achievement scores in reading, math, and science. Historically, talented, intelligent students on the two reservations did not value education. Tribal colleges realized that Native American students were not failing in schools, but schools were failing Native American students.

Also during this time period, both Sinte Gleska University and Sitting Bull College were frustrated as they tried to collaborate with state colleges and universities. Transferring credits from tribal colleges and universities was nearly impossible, and so students were expected to repeat coursework. University residency requirements forced students to leave their families to attend a state university. It became evident that tribal colleges had to provide a different model of teacher education in order to 1) address the problems associated with reservations schools and 2) allow students to attain degrees and teacher certification locally.

The articulation agreement between Sinte Gleska University and Sitting Bull College began after an analysis of the needs of the reservation communities, students, teachers, and the various schools there (grant, government, public, and parochial). A grassroots approach was taken to insure that everyone had an active voice in the decision-making process. Sinte Gleska University had an accredited, dual major, bachelor degree program in K-8 elementary education and K-12 special education. Sitting Bull had no bachelor degree programs prior to the agreement with SGU.

If elementary and secondary students were going to succeed, the curriculum and teaching strategies used in this dual major had to be culturally-appropriate and student-centered. Rhonda White, the first student to graduate from Sitting Bull College as a result of this articulation agreement, said the program met these objectives and made it possible for her to graduate. “It was a real advantage for me to be able to continue working as a Head Start Disability Technician (a position she still holds) while I worked toward my degree. I was also able to stay close to my home instead of going off someplace. My work in the schools made what I learned in college have real-life meaning,” she said.

Even though both institutions had a mission statement and each teacher education department had a similar mission, our success derives from the traditional values of generosity, bravery, fortitude, and wisdom. By looking at the educational systems of indigenous peoples, we relied on this “old world wisdom” to guide our “new world” pedagogy.

In order to convey this philosophy to our future teachers, we have had to provide modeling that truly “walks the talk.” Relying on the traditional concept of “Mitakuye Oyasin” (meaning we are all related), we have been able to establish safe, caring classrooms. As college students are exposed to this philosophy, they are better prepared to accept diversity among students and create communities of learners where everyone is responsible for the success of others.

Sinte Gleska University and Sitting Bull College can attribute the success of this collaboration to their theoretical framework that 1) outlined the articulation agreement, 2) created similar experiences and expectations for students, and 3) established an assessment plan for both the teacher education programs and students.

Theoretical framework

For collaboration to occur between colleges and universities, or between departments in mainstream educational institutions, the theoretical framework must reflect the mission statements of both. We also had to choose a model that was compatible with the traditional values mentioned earlier. The theoretical framework, or model of education, we adopted was a constructivist model of education that ultimately gives students responsibility for their own learning. Under this model, instructors become “facilitators of knowledge” rather than “dispensers of knowledge.” Jacqueline Gennon Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, in their 1993 publication, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms, provided the theory for our model.

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