American Indian Academy of Denver is healing our community

We are just in our first year, and yet the American Indian Academy of Denver (AIAD) is making history, providing an education that seemed unimaginable even 10 years ago.

When our kids are able to read native stories, told by native people, and learn Lakota history alongside the Lakota language, it holds the promise of bringing the cultural identities of our communities back to life. 

My two teenage sons can feel comfortable with themselves, and appreciate their Navajo heritage, at a time when they are beginning to build their own identities.

Shaina Oliver

Children don’t know how to react to some of the stereotypes that come from outside the native community, when people see us as foreigners or ancient objects – and say things such as, “We didn’t know you existed.” These encounters are common for our native students attending urban or suburban schools. 

Families come to AIAD from across metro Denver, because the connection to indigenous identity is so important to them. Teacher Pte San Win Poor Bear says, “This school is healing the community. It’s providing an environment for the community to heal.”  

Many of our white neighbors aren’t aware of the violent history of Indian boarding schools that were promoted as vehicles to assimilate indigenous peoples to the “American way of life,” and in the process eradicate Indian languages and culture. Indigenous children were forced to leave their families and stripped of their identities. There were hundreds of these schools across the country, from 1860 to 1978.  Proponent Richard Henry Pratt coined the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

AIAD founders knew well that the dismal statistics of indigenous student achievement in the Denver Public Schools were not a reflection of the abilities or the potential of our American Indian and Latino children. Depriving students of the opportunity to find out who they are and to be surrounded by appreciation for their peoples’ rich history is a key factor in why so many students were unsuccessful before AIAD launched this year as a free DPS public charter school.

Founder and Principal Terri Bissonette says, “To us, we are the people that we’ve been waiting for. We are qualified. We are from our community.  We understand where our families come from, and we understand how to serve the needs of our students.” 

As indigenous people of North America, we have been critical thinkers, scientists, artists, and innovators long before our lands were colonized. AIAD seeks to help students carry that cultural legacy into the 21st century, via a curriculum built around Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM).  

The curriculum infuses indigenous values and perspectives at multiple teaching and learning points throughout each school day.  Wednesday mornings are a time for the school community to gather and share time with elders to reflect on their learning and school experience through indigenous ceremonial practices, customs, songs, and words.  This becomes the focal point of the school culture as students engage in learning throughout the week.  

Humanities lessons present indigenous authors, and AIAD students read the work of these native authors as they engage with their work through critical analysis and cultural reflection. STEM courses are designed so that students learn about conventional science and how indigenous knowledge deepens the insights and discoveries of western science.  

AIAD students have opportunities to expand their knowledge through language courses that include Spanish, Dineh, and Lakota.  Mia, a 7th grader, recently said, “I go to the reservation every summer for Sundance, if they speak Lakota I can interpret for my family. And if we go to ceremonies and they speak Lakota, I can interpret.”   

Students also develop an understanding of the ways in which modern society, and its dependence of fossil fuels, are destroying our communities and the earth. In addition to developing this skill of critical analysis about current environmental challenges, students are also learning indigenous values that embrace the sacredness of the earth’s elements, such as water.  

AIAD 6th graders just completed a unit on water that reinforced why indigenous peoples know that water is sacred.  

The social and emotional support for students at AIAD is evident in the sense of family and community at the school. Throughout the past year’s pandemic, educators worked to make sure families had access to food, by partnering with local food banks such as Spirit of the Sun. They made sure we had access to information about housing and employment, and other resources to help keep our families healthy.

We live in a culture where we have to keep moving forward. Our founder Terri says, “As indigenous people, we as individuals cannot fully actualize our potential until we are contributing to the benefit and the actualization of our community.” 

Shaina Oliver
Shaina Oliver, a tribal member of the Navajo Nation, has two sons at the American Indian Academy of Denver.