Five years ago, the American Indian College Fund sought to invest in the future by launching the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” – Tribal College Readiness and Success by Third Grade initiative. Wakanyeja, pronounced WAH-KUH-AY-JA, is Lakota for “sacred little ones,” and is a targeted initiative at four tribal colleges to improve early childhood education for Native American children. The initiative seeks to build school readiness for Native children and provide a platform for success by third grade.
Sacred Little Ones has become more than a comprehensive approach to infusing language and culture into early childhood education for Native American children: it has transformed the way early education teachers at Native colleges and universities are trained. It has also generated new culturally rich curricula, fostered community and educational partnerships on and off reservations and provided training and events to help parents and communities advocate on behalf of their little learners.
“Each of the tribal colleges and universities has partnerships with either Head Start centers or tribal schools,” said Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, senior program officer for the Wakanyeja Early Childhood Education Initiative of the American Indian College Fund. “What makes the training distinct is the incorporation of language and culture into the training, based on the needs of the particular communities they serve."
Four tribal colleges and universities have each piloted different approaches to redesigning early childhood education programs for Native Americans from a number of different tribes:
- Ilisagvik College in Barrow, Alaska.
- College of Menominee in Keshena, Wisconsin.
- Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Washington.
- Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“What’s unique about this initiative is that it prioritizes place,” said Yazzie-Mintz. “The teachers who teach in Native communities or communities with large Native populations have the opportunity to attend tribal colleges or universities, and we see those institutions as the first touchstone for their professional development and teacher training.”
Seeding the Sacred Little Ones program within these four tribal colleges enabled them to establish or strengthen two-year Associate of Arts degrees or four-year bachelor’s degrees for early education teachers. It is hoped that these programs will be adopted by the other 36 tribal colleges and universities. Of the 36, 35 are fully accredited postsecondary institutions.
Family engagement is a strong theme across all four sites. Yazzie-Mintz said, “We bring families into center-based learning, and transform the way teachers think about families. Teachers had the assumption that parents weren’t interested … But our survey of parents has shown they want to play a central role, and we want to equip them to be good advocates for their children. We want to help them be more connected and engaged during early learning, so they can take leadership roles when their children transition into K-3 education.”
“When we designed the program, we wanted to make sure that we started with the community to see what parents wanted for their children,” said Dr. Danielle Lansing, early childhood education coordinator/instructor for the Wakanyeja initiative at SIPI. “We used an approach called Photo Voice to conduct research of our families, asking, ‘What knowledge is needed to be a healthy Native American?’ What we heard from them was really about whole child development, and we designed our program for those children to meet the needs expressed.”
All four of the sites have experienced growth since their inception and are providing links to Native culture. Ilisagvik College began with no early childhood education program or an early learning center. Now both have developed and flourished under the Sacred Little Ones initiative. The College of Menominee has reconnected students with their Native culture through the development of beautiful books which have reawakened Menominee stories.
At SIPI, more than 100 tribes throughout the U.S. are served. A number of students in the program are also parents of young children and utilize the SIPI’s early learning program on campus where their children are being taught the Sacred Little Ones curriculum.
Brooke Bitsui is a graduate of the early educator program at SIPI, and her 5-year-old son, Bobby James, graduated from the early learning center. As both a teacher and a parent, Bitsui has seen great outcomes in her son’s transition into kindergarten at a public school.
“He used to be shy, but now he is very outspoken,” Bitsui said. “He knows who he is and who we are culturally, and he’s not afraid to share with the other children from different cultures. The program helped his confidence grow, and he has made a lot of friends.”
Northwest Indian College is working primarily with children and families from the Lummi Nation. The program’s directors sought to build strong connections between all those who are caregivers to children: parents, early education and elementary teachers, administrators and even school cooks and bus drivers.
Nahrin Aziz Parsons, co-director of the Sacred Little Ones Project at Northwest Indian College, said, “We wanted to reach all of the caregivers who touch the life of a child. Connection is very important to small children.”
As a result of bringing together peer learning communities, they were able to build relationships and tear down misconceptions between educators on the reservation and those in the nearby community of Ferndale, Washington. The culture of listening to one another could also be applied to the children, providing them the support they need in order to succeed.
Annalisha Somerville is a graduate of the program at Northwest Indian College; her daughter, Melissa, attended the child care center and just started kindergarten.
She explained, “Brain science says if children don’t feel connected, they can’t learn. Melissa expects to be listened to, which helps bond her to those who listen. Her teacher is blown away by her ability to express her feelings, even complicated emotions like being jealous. She said in 20 years of teaching, she’s never seen anything like it, and she’s very interested to learn more about what we are doing.”
Through Sacred Little Ones, Native children can learn to succeed in school today and continue to excel in the future.