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"Indigenous Voices" class offers teachers, staff a vibrant portrait of a diverse culture

Donna Chrisjohn and her family speak during the CCSD P.A.S.S. meeting on Nov. 20 Donna Chrisjohn offers a varied perspective in “Indigenous Voices,” the class she leads for teachers, administrators and staff from across the Cherry Creek School District.

For more than two years, Chrisjohn has taught the class through the district’s Office of Inclusive Excellence as a way to provide critical context, background and perspective regarding Indigenous people for those work with students on a daily basis. Chrisjohn created the course with Dr. Aspen Rendon, COSA at Sky Vista Middle School and member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.  The 15-hour course includes historical background and an exploration of contemporary issues; the curriculum seeks to offer a living portrait of a vibrant, far-reaching and diverse array of cultures.

“The overall idea behind the class is to provide indigenous perspectives, whether this be in a school setting or day-to-day life,” said Chrisjohn, a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and a descendant of the Dine Nation. “This class is meant to give the teachers and the administrators in Cherry Creek Schools a perspective that they don’t necessarily know or understand.”

Chrisjohn and her family have an immediate stake in fostering that kind of awareness in CCSD. Three of Chrisjohn’s five children are currently enrolled in Cherry Creek Schools – she has a daughter, Tanksi, enrolled at Walnut Hills Elementary, a son, Anpetu, at Campus Middle School and another son, Talon, a senior at Cherry Creek High School.

Chrisjohn, a member of the district’s P.A.S.S. (Partnerships for Academically Successful Students) committee, said that teaching the class has given her the chance to address stereotypes and misconceptions that she, her family and her peers continue to face on a daily basis. Indeed, the initial impetus for the “Indigenous Voices” class came out of her own children’s experiences in the classroom, when derogatory and inaccurate costumes purporting to represent Native American culture were included in an annual spring festival.

“That sparked me to have a conversation with executive directors in the district. (Assistant Superintendent for Performance Improvement) Michael Giles, who was the director of the district’s Office of Inclusive Excellence at the time, saw it as an opportunity for me to get involved,” Chrisjohn recalled. “What started out as potentially negative experience became an opportunity to have a conversation and to educate – not just for native children, but for all children in the district.”

Chrisjohn has used the class as an opportunity to create critical awareness for CCSD staff and to directly impact all students in the district. The class curriculum includes elements pulled from a wide range of sources, including material directly from southern Ute tribes in Colorado. Chrisjohn offers a broad historical view, tracing the larger sweeps of U.S. history and exploring why the Indigenous voice and perspective have long been left out of the traditional narrative.

While the past plays a role in the course, Chrisjohn explains that the instruction isn’t designed to isolate Indigenous culture in a static, historical box. A big part of the class is about contemporary issues and personal struggles; she strives to incorporate her own experiences in the instruction.

“One of the top things I try to convey is that we are still here. We’re in the here and now. We’re not historical pieces of art. We’re not one part or one voice,” she said. “We do exist now and we are living in spaces within the mainstream society. I want people to understand that first and foremost.”

It’s a message that can get lost, especially at this time of year, she notes. For Indigenous people, the arrival of the fall means engaging in difficult conversations, she explained. The beginning of football season brings the rollout of stereotypical, cartoonish mascots lampooning Native culture and history. The debate regarding the celebration of Columbus Day versus Indigenous People’s Day summons painful discussions, and Halloween often means pushing back against offensive, appropriative costumes.

And though November is officially Native American Heritage Month, any acknowledgement of the designation in the broader culture gets swallowed up by Thanksgiving and a narrative that can often sideline an entire culture.

“It’s really difficult to move into the month of November and to feel that this is a month that represents us,” Chrisjohn said. “Despite all of the hardships, even during this month, we still make every effort to be proud and to show our beautiful culture and who we are. I think that says a lot about Indigenous people on the whole.”

At the P.A.S.S. meeting held on Nov. 20 at Overland High School, Chrisjohn had the chance to speak about her personal experiences and provide an overview of the curriculum and overarching messages of the “Indigenous Voices” class. She wasn’t alone. Talon, Anpetu and Tanksi were at her side, and each had a turn at the microphone to present to the entire group.

Talon took the opportunity to talk about his everyday experiences as a student at Cherry Creek High School. He spoke about dealing with stereotypes and misconceptions; he explained how he makes his own daily efforts to educate his peers and offer an accurate view of his own background and lived experience.

“I have the chance to educate people at my school,” Talon Long told the group. “There’s more to me than just what people see.”

Spreading that message isn’t always simple. Correcting misconceptions and upending stereotypes takes time, a truth that Donna Chrisjohn knows all too well.

“Change takes time, and that can be frustrating. But working to reach every teacher and administrator will positively impact every single student in the district,” she said. “This is the first time that I’ve been invited to the table as an indigenous person, to share and to help with the diversity and equity issues in the district. That’s a positive. My kids are still experiencing the same stereotypes and misconceptions that I did, and I want to see that change.”

Posted on Nov. 25 at 10:30 AM