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   from the issue of March 22, 2007

Indigenous educators find second chances at UNL


This is the first of a two-part series on UNL's Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program. This story centers on students currently enrolled in the program. The March 29 story will feature program graduates who are teaching in Nebraska's Native American schools.



Driving from the south into Macy, Neb., is like driving from the rolling hills of Pennsylvania into rural Cambodia.

That's only a slight exaggeration.

Located on the Omaha Reservation, an expanse of Missouri River-fed farmland in north central Nebraska, Macy recalls the squalor of a developing country. Beer bottles and cans litter the road that leads into town, and collarless dogs skirt the town's perimeter in feral packs. Housing tends toward trailers or look-alike pre-fab duplexes.

For an outsider visiting for the first time, things appear dreary.

First impressions can be misleading. The Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program is one of UNL's most innovative educational programs. Serving students from several communities, the program originated in Macy and is now based out of Walthill.

ENROLLED STUDENTS - Pictured are some of the students enrolled in the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program. The group includes (front...
ENROLLED STUDENTS - Pictured are some of the students enrolled in the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education Program. The group includes (front row, second from left) Michelle Blackbird and (second row, third from left) Lavette Saunsoci. Courtesy photo.


The program is a partnership among UNL's College of Education and Human Sciences, Little Priest Tribal College, four Nebraska K-12 school districts, and the Nebraska Department of Education. The program recruits and trains American Indian students living in or near four communities in northeastern Nebraska (Santee, Winnebago and Walthill, in addition to Macy) to become certified teachers. After graduation, it is expected - though not required - that these students will return to their home communities to work as teachers.

Fifteen students were selected to participate in the program, an extension of a similar program, the Native American Career Ladder, which has already placed 20 teachers in classrooms across the state. The students, who must possess an associate's degree before entering the Indigenous Roots program, take traditional education classes as well as distance and on-line courses. They also develop culturally relevant and bilingual learning materials and curriculum related to Omaha, Winnebago and Santee Sioux culture.

Faculty advisers believe that Indigenous Roots participants will lead their future students to greater academic success and will develop stronger educational programs in their home communities. They also hope that their graduates walk away from the program with increased confidence and a strong sense of their ability to effect positive change.

Additionally, research suggests that Native students benefit academically from having Native teachers. "It will make a significant difference if we continue to place Native role models as teachers in classrooms with Native American kids," said Nancy Engen-Wedin, project director.

A necessary change...

There's a well-worn path between Michele Blackbird's trailer and her father's home, which sits on an adjacent lot in Macy. Blackbird and her daughter Isis walk the trail many times each day. Living close to her dad and her brother is a perk for Blackbird, who recently returned to her hometown from Lincoln.

There are drawbacks, too. Blackbird left behind a good state job with benefits and a close circle of friends. But, Blackbird - a former corrections officer at the Nebraska State Penitentiary - explains that the change was necessary.

"When I would drop my daughter off at daycare, she would say to me, 'Don't let the inmates hurt you.' I decided I needed to find a different career, for her peace of mind."

After considering her professional options, Blackbird applied to the Indigenous Roots program and headed home. There is no question that in leaving Lincoln, she gave up some of her quality of life. Macy's median household income is only $19,500, and 49 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Almost half of all homes in Macy are headed by single women.

Blackbird had a jump start when she began the Indigenous Roots program, since she had already received her bachelor's degree in creative writing from Creighton University. In addition to taking classes with UNL faculty, Blackbird earns $8 an hour as a practicum teacher at Macy Elementary School. In her "free time," Blackbird tutors some of her Indigenous Roots classmates, and mentors UNL students.

Staying in the program has been a struggle, but Blackbird recognizes its importance in her life. "Obviously when you make a life change, there will be drawbacks," she said. "The dynamics here (in Macy) are different than the dynamics anywhere else in the world. But I am glad I did this for my daughter." Blackbird will graduate in about a year, and hopes to work in the Macy school's Language and Culture Center.

A powwow mom...

"I'm a powwow mom," said Lavette Saunsoci, a soft-spoken 37-year-old. Today she is distracted because her youngest son, Skye, is ill. She juggled a hectic schedule to sit down and talk about the Indigenous Roots program.

Saunsoci is Shoshone-Bannock, and grew up in Idaho. She married an Omaha man and has lived in South Sioux City for 13 years. In the late 1990s, she received an associate's degree in liberal arts from Nebraska Indian Community College, and worked in a drug and alcohol after care program. A few years later, she took a position as office manager in the Macy school's Language and Culture Center.

"Because I worked in the school, I saw how important teachers are to young kids," she said. "It seemed like a neat job because I would have summers off. We travel a lot in the summers because my kids participate in pow-wows, and with regular jobs it's hard to get away. I also thought it would be rewarding, because you're making an impact on the lives of young people."

"The program is very intense, and it has required me to make a big sacrifice," she added. "I miss being able to have a meal ready for the kids when they come home, or being able to help them with their homework. But it will be worth it in the long run."

Her husband, who recently had a kidney transplant, is one of Saunsoci's biggest sources of support.

"He's the one who tells me to keep going," she said. "Sometimes I feel like I can't do it, but he tells me to stick with it, to do this for myself and for our kids. The older kids have really stepped up and help out when they can."

Saunsoci does not hesitate when asked about her favorite part of the Indigenous Roots program. She has loved working with her practicum supervisor Judy Prewett, a first-grade teacher at Macy.

"I like that she speaks to the students with respect," Saunsoci said. "When we have students that act up, she deals with it in her own way. The kids respect her more because she doesn't just yell at them; once you start yelling at students, you've lost control of your classroom."

"She's also really artistic," she added. "There's not an art program for elementary kids, so when she can, she incorporates art into her teaching."

Saunsoci hopes to graduate in 2008, and she plans to stay in Macy for a while.

"Ultimately I would like to take my degree and everything I've learned and move back to Idaho and teach on my reservation," she said. "As long as I can find a job!"

Indigenous Roots Communities

• Schools served by the Indigenous Roots Teacher Education program are: Santee Community School in Santee; Winnebago Public and St. Augustines in Winnebago; Walthill Public School in Walthill; and Umonhon Nation School in Macy.

• Students in the Indigenous Roots program and its predecessor, the Native American Career Ladder, are educated specifically to teach in Nebraska's Native schools. The program currently has 15 students enrolled and has placed 20 teachers in classrooms across Nebraska.

Program students

Listed by the school they work with, here are the names of current Indigenous Roots Program students and their tribal affiliations.

Umonhon Nation School (Macy)

Lavette Saunsoci, Shoshone-Bannock/Western Shoshone
Michele Blackbird, Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska
Kyla Cline-Snake, Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska
Adrian Saunsoci, Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska

Walthill Public Schools

Pat Phillips, Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska

Winnebago Public Schools and St. Augustine's Mission School

Oscar Earth, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
Kristine Decora, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Janelle Decora, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Aubrey McCauley, Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
Brenda Murphy, Lineal Descent, Wampanoag Tribe

Santee Community School

Lizzie Swalley, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska
Nepthys Justo, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska
Donnelle Saunsoci, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska
Troy Saunsoci, Umonhon Tribe of Nebraska
Tristan Runnels, Santee Sioux Tribe of Nebraska



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