The location is not one that most people would expect to find a school. Yet, sitting on the corner of Mississippi and S. Raritan Street in Denver, just a few feet away from a Cricket Wireless and a Family Dollar Tree, is the American Indian Academy of Denver (AIAD).
Like the students who walk through the doors, there is a resilience felt while entering the building. There is energy, laughter, and connection. Large bean bags line the halls, providing a safe space for students to take a moment as needed. As youth transition from one class to another, a teacher is usually heard calling the students by their names, encouraging them to get to class. There seems to be an air of acceptance, and for some students it almost looks like relief.
Kaya Duran, a ninth-grader at AIAD shares,“I’m very comfortable in this school. I feel like I can be myself and not be really stereotyped in this school. I think I feel love, like as a community. I see everybody; teachers, principal, students, I feel like we’re relatives. We’re like family.” When asked if she experienced the same emotions at her previous school, Kaya shook her head no, “I only felt it with certain people. The teachers though, because like I said, I got stereotyped, I was known as the savage. I thought, really? Being racist towards me? I found not many teachers gave me the opportunity to turn in late work because of the emotions I was feeling or anything like that. Mental health is a big thing about students or teenagers. Here, we have a professional counselor, for people to talk to. They offered that, and it was a big help. That was a huge difference.”
The idea for the school came after a visit to the National American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. NACA first opened its doors in 2006 as a public charter school with free tuition. They serve grades K-12 and work with students from over 60 tribes. Dr. Terri Bissonette, founder of AIAD, recalls being impressed with the longevity of the program. “They are actually getting close to their 20th year of operation. I was just blown away by the community based nature of their organization. And the fact that they had closed every achievement gap there is between Native students and white students, and they had an outstanding, not only graduation rate, but also retention rate. That’s really what drove the idea of bringing that type of model here to Denver.”
And she did. After years of planning, listening sessions and community meetings, AIAD opened its doors in 2020. The Academy is one of the first schools in the entire nation to offer a curriculum of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics) with a Native American perspective. Recently, the school was approved to expand from 6th to 9th grade, to now include 6th to 12th grade. The new grades will be added in yearly increments starting next year with 10th grade. The school offers students before and after school programs, an on-site professional counselor, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, a student leadership program and STEM courses.
When asked why the school focuses on a STEAM curriculum, Dr. Bissonette replied, “We have 200 tribes represented here in the Denver area. We were looking at what are some of the universal threads that flow through all of those types, so that we can be as inclusive as possible. We’ve always been scientists, we’ve always been builders, innovators, we’ve always been artists, we’ve always been mathematicians. And so STEAM really made a lot of sense. The focus is really around reclamation of the genius of our ancestors.”
AIAD focuses on both academics and connecting youth to traditional ways of living. Daily, students are introduced to values such as, “respect, generosity, compassion, honesty, humility, and wisdom.” Helping to ensure these values are not forgotten, the Academy holds a diverse group of adults on their board. Members include Kelley Mitchell (Secretary), Dineh, from the American Indian College Fund; and Lori Ventimiglia, (Founding Director), from Tipi Raisers, an organization serving youth.
Sena Harjo, (Founding Director), is Seminole/Choctaw/Creek and Denver community member. With a concentration in early childhood education, she is doctoral student at the University of CO in Denver. Sena also visited the NACA campus and recalls, “I was one of the lucky ones to graduate, to have a really good support system, and to get support when my school system wasn’t there to help me. So I knew what it was like, for young kids going through that system. I focus on how the system is set up, or success or lack of success for communities of color. I had gone and visited that school myself. And I kept thinking, wow, Denver really needs this, to have a strong Indian community. It has had a long lasting human community. We’ve been here for a really long time. My family has been here for 45 years, and other families have been in this community for 45 or 50 years or even longer. There has been a need for a tribal education system that is going to help students be successful, since I was born.”
The longing to connect with each other is experienced by many Native Americans, stemming back to 1830. President Andrew Jackson introduced the Indian Removal Act, which gave the US a legal right to remove Native Americans from their tribal lands. As a result there was, “a loss of cultural identity, as tribes relied on their homelands as the place of ancestral burial locations and sacred sites where religious ceremonies were performed. Without their lands, nations lost their identities, and their purpose.”
A loss of identity is a large contribution as to why Native American students’ struggle in the public education system. Dr. Bissonette explains, “It has to do with historical trauma. The fact that traditional schools were not built for us, they were literally built to destroy us. That was the intent of boarding schools. And that legacy continues to haunt us. We talked to high school students, indigenous circles. We asked them, what kind of school do you go to? What do you feel like you’re not getting? Resoundingly, it didn’t matter whether kids were doing well in school or not, what we heard was that students, our students, just don’t feel like they belong in these schools. They have to put their identity down at the door in order to successfully navigate these systems. That lost sense of belonging, that lost sense of identity, is a huge part of why our numbers don’t succeed.”
The loss of identity by Indigenous people was intentional. In a tactic used by the US government to marginalize Native Americans, the infamous “Code of Indian Offenses” was published in 1883. These codes condemned Indigenous traditions including ceremonies, dances, and gathering for feasts. This attempt to disempower Native Americans continues to this day and is proof as to why schools such as AIAD are needed. Dr. Bissonette confirms, “I talked about the mascot issue. I often talk about how it isn’t by accident. These things, rendering us invisible, the marginalization, the subjugation, all of that. It was designed to make us disappear. It started back in the 1900s, when we were at our lowest numbers, our population, there was an assumption among the dominant society that we weren’t going to be. That we were going to cease to exist, we were extinct, or becoming that way. The conflict of the mascots, and all of the logos for companies, the argument that they were honoring this group of people that they had basically rendered extinct. It’s a way of rendering people invisible. Using stereotypes and marginalizing folks, it’s a way of control. It’s a tool of the oppressor.”
Sena agrees, “The school systems, when they were initially set up in this country, were not necessarily set up to create great outcomes and opportunities for people of color. It was more like the systems of management of people. The systems were set up to integrate opportunities for people to work for white people to have the American Dream. The systems were set up the way they were, all of those things are set up, to keep people of color with a lack of access to great opportunities.”
The breakdown of Indigenous people included the separation of Native children from their family units. After having been raised in a multi-generational environment, these children were separated from their siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and parents. Native children were abducted and moved into facilities known as residential or boarding schools. In the article “What Do American Indian Boarding Schools a Century Ago Have to Do With Dysregulated Children Today?” by Drs. George “Bud” Vana and Dakota Lane, it was here the most heinous and brutal damage was done. “From the mid-1800s until the 1990s, as many as 100 American Indian residential schools operated in the United States. In practice, these schools did all that they could to prevent American Indian children from using their tribal language and observing cultural practices, instead using Christian Euro-American practices, ideas, and corporal punishment. In addition, there were reports of rampant physical and sexual abuse.”
The impact from decades of punishment and abuse done to Native Americans has carried down through multiple generations. Known as intergenerational trauma (IHT), Native youth often express their trauma through depression, substance abuse, violence or other self harming behaviors. As a result, it is of utmost importance in working with Indigenous youth, to honor their mental health. The staff at AIAD is trauma informed. Dr. Bissonette specializes in serving students experiencing historical trauma. “One of the first steps is to create a sense of belonging with kids. That means to celebrate and honor who they are and how they identify. We want them to feel good about who they are. We have kids that take two hour long bus rides just to get to our school every day, two hours both ways. We want them to learn the indigenous perspective, to have an opportunity to understand their history and history of this country.”
For AIAD students, this history includes the realization that their ancestors were forbidden to openly practice tradition, speak their language or participate in ceremonies until August 11, 1978. On this day, President Jimmy Carter, passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act allowing Native Americans to publicly gather and practice their ceremonies. The need to rediscover and preserve Indigenious traditions is another confirmation why schools such as NACA and AIAD are needed. Johanna Flood, a ninth grader at AIAD, shared, “I’m very grateful for the school, our staff, and Dr. B, for bringing our school together. If we don’t have this school, our roots are going to die. And we can’t carry on our ways and our traditions. I think it’s important that we learn our language and heritage at a young age.” Kaya agrees, “If I didn’t come here, I would have been probably lost and still trying to figure out who I am as a person. Here, I am coming back and learning one of my big personalities is being Indigenous. 24/7. Showing respect and being humble. Walking the earth and beauty, respecting Mother Earth. A teacher is trying to push the idea of starting a sweat lodge, teaching kids how to maintain it, and basically the rules of it. He prepares us, for when it comes time for us, to have the knowledge to run it. To teach our younger generations, he tells us that WE have to learn this now because our future generations are here.”
Johanna shared how discovering her identity and finding a sense of belonging has had a positive impact in all areas of her life, “I feel like in other schools, I felt very unconnected and was insecure. Like I didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong at the school that I was in, or the class that I was, it was uncomfortable. Here, you walk into class and it’s comfortable. Just like whose set, what clothes or shoes, nothing. None of that matters. Not even with learning and asking questions like I was at other schools. I wouldn’t be able to speak up or say anything to my teachers if I needed help, because it was so uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to talk to people or how to be comfortable. Especially just like with grades and my mental health. It definitely shows.”
Kaya shares, “It makes a huge difference. You don’t know when anything’s gonna happen, everything, life is totally unplanned. Not just our counselor, but all of our teachers. We all like, at least every single person in this building, has someone to go to. Whether or not that’s a teacher, it feels that safe,
that we can talk to anybody.” When asked how having an adult that cares about her mental health affects her education, Kaya replied, “I think that paying attention to my mental health helped me with life, both inside school and outside of school. Getting along with my family, learning from my teachers and what they have been through. Especially with the way our native language is being taught here. I did not know that places were named after native words. Understanding the area around indigenous land, the area surrounding you, like where the root came from, helped me better connect with all of my surroundings.”
The connection of identity and belonging is imperative for any student to do well in school. Sena confirms, “The way we take in energy and information and learn about the world, is by first learning about ourselves. We’re building the relationship between us and the knowledge that’s out there in the world. Being able to identify words, objects, use math and science concepts, that’s all interrelation to who we are. Students from very young, like in early childhood, we teach about who we are as people. Identity is part of the process all the way through. Education is about learning the mastering of skills. That makes you a person who is well rounded, knows of trades and technology. Identity is a big piece. You have to know who you are to be able to know where you fit into that puzzle.”
Sena continues, “All those pieces are built into identity, pieces like resilience and persistence. It’s really important for people in our community, who have been pushed down for years and told that they were less than or not equal, or not worthy of education and opportunity…it’s really important to change that story. To start telling our youth that they are important, that they are worthy, and that their identity does matter. They don’t have to assimilate to be somebody else to become worthy, or to matter. They matter because they are American Indian students. They are special, they are worthy.”