by Nathan Warner
“If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know where you’re going,” Debra Blair, coordinator for the American Indian Education Program in the Elk River School District says. “American Indians were stripped of everything as a people and as human beings in the 19th and 20th centuries. We’re only beginning to recover our identity from a place of incredible powerlessness.”
Blair views the American Indian Education Program a key to this recovery.
The American Indian Education Program was launched in 1972 when Richard Nixon signed into law the Indian Education Act, reversing decades of destructive policies that dismantled native culture. The policies preceding the 1972 act were particularly devastating, creating boarding schools that removed native children from their families and forced them to give up their language, culture and way of life.
“It was nothing short of cultural genocide.”
The American Indian Education Program came to Elk River over 20 years ago, headed by Merlin Williams. When he retired in 2004, the responsibility passed to Blair.
“It was an incredible challenge, but I’m a real go-to person and it was an extension of my own personal struggle to carry on who my mother was,” she said.
Her mother was Cherokee, but she died when Blair was 14 and there was no one around at that time to teach her about her people and her way of life.
“I was incredibly heartbroken about that,” she said. “I love kids and I love education, so I want to be able to offer children the opportunities to connect with the past that I didn’t have growing up.”
The establishment of the American Indian Education Program stands as one of the hallmarks of American Indian cultural recovery. Debra points to her “wall of fame,” a white board plastered with photos of her students.
“I think one of this program’s crowning achievements is that it has kept so many American Indian students in school.”
Native kids are culturally taught through hands-on methods and the current education system is not in tune with that, Blair says.
American Indian programs help native students value education and connect in the wider world, she said.
“For me, our wider purpose is about sharing our culture with the world. As a people in America, we went from facing abject antagonism against our way of life to the growing awareness and acceptance that is emerging now.
“Non-native people are beginning to be drawn to the Powwow and they love the jewelry and the paintings. Even moccasins and rawhide garments are in fashion again. American Indians as a people are back and they are strong!”
Debra currently teaches 198 American Indian students in the Elk River School District. Classes consist of Ojibwe and Dakota language and cultural awareness. Her big hope is to get the Ojibwe language back as a credit course in Elk River High School.
Ultimately, she says, the single greatest mission is to pass on to these kids the seven sacred teachings of Courage, Honesty, Humility, Love, Respect, Truth and Wisdom.
“That’s what we’re all about here — to encourage them to achieve their potential in the world and to give them a bright future.”
To contact Debra Blair about American Indian education opportunities, call 763-241-3400, ext. 5160 or e-mail her at [email protected]