Indian Education Program instills knowledge and pride of students’ unique culture and traditions

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Indian Education Act of 1972, enacted to give Native American students equal educational opportunities. Anoka-Hennepin School District has about 500 Native American students. The Indian Education Program, which began in 1974, has four advisors and one coordinator.

Indian Education Program advisors Pam Fairbanks, Mary Beth Elhardt, Rita Rios, and Kathy Eisenschenk are a continuous presence in lives of students’ involved with the program.
Indian Education Program advisors Pam Fairbanks, Mary Beth Elhardt, Rita Rios, and Kathy Eisenschenk are a continuous presence in lives of students’ involved with the program.

They work with students as well as the PAC to encourage and inspire academic achievement, social and emotional development and cultural awareness. (The PAC oversees the program’s budget.) The program also serves as a resource for Anoka-Hennepin staff and promotes cultural diversity between community, staff and students.



Prior to the Act, many treaties that promised education in exchange for land cessions only provided services for a specific period of time, which often expired after 10 to 20 years. Native Americans were left to provide for their own education without sufficient federal support. The education provided by the federal government between the late 1800’s to the first quarter of the 20th Century, sought to “re-educate” Native American students, replacing their Native culture with Western culture.

Thanks to the dedication of Indian Education Program staff, Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) and families, the Anoka-Hennepin School District has one of the highest graduation rates for Native American students in the state. More than half of Native American students graduating from Anoka-Hennepin high schools go to college.

The program is funded by grants and federal money. The Indian heritage of participating students must be documented before they can take part in the Indian Education Program. Usually, the student or the student’s parents or grandparents are an enrolled member of one of the 565 federally recognized tribes.


The program

The district’s success is due in large part to the program’s advisors. Advisors work with students when they are in elementary school and follow them through middle and high school.

Advisors are Kathy Eisenschenk (Anishinaabe, White Earth Reservation, Mississippi Band, Eagle Clan), Mary Beth Elhardt (Ani-Yun-Wiya, Cherokee Nation), Rita Rios (Anishinaabe, White Earth Reservation), and Pam Fairbanks (Anishinaabe, White Earth Reservation, Wolf Clan). They are a continuous presence in students’ lives. For example, Elhardt has worked with current seniors since they were in second grade.

“By following students, we are able to build a relationship with them,” said Eisenschenk who first got involved with the program as a parent, then as a volunteer and has now been an advisor for eleven years. “When they move from elementary to middle school, there is someone who knows them and knows their history. If something occurs in a student’s life during elementary or middle school, we are aware of that when they enter high school. If there is an issue in high school we know the student’s history; this isn’t something that can come across in a 10-minute meeting.

“We take them away from being a number in a big school to being an individual.”

During school, the advisors work with students on academics and talk about their school and home lives. This year, the advisors created specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) goals. For elementary-age students, the SMART goals focus on reading. For older students, they address such issues as core classes, Native American culture and attendance.

“We bridge the gap between school and home,” Elhardt said. “We check on the students’ attendance and how they are doing academically. If there are issues, we have resources available to students.”

Every Wednesday, the program hosts either a Drum Circle potluck or cultural events for students and their families. The program also hosts a picnic for all Native American students and their families each September. For the past two years, the program has hosted a cultural event for the community in the spring. Celebrations are held in the first and second trimesters to celebrate students’ academic success.

Parents are very involved with these activities, sharing their talents and knowledge. These events are very important for students to learn about their culture. While about 85 percent of students are Ojibwe or Dakota, if a student is from another band the advisors will seek out information about their heritage.

As Native American students learn about and celebrate their culture, they are able to share that information with their peers.

“The more they learn about the culture, the better they are to teach it,” Rios said. “If a teacher wants someone to talk about Native American culture, I recruit my students. Telling others about themselves helps them to be more confident about themselves and mature. Hearing from a classmate who is Native American helps to get rid of stereotypes, too. Many times the classmates don’t know the student is Native American.”

The advisors take the students on field trips to nature centers and other historical sites. They also take older students on college visits and hold a college information night for families. Eisenschenk said they are able to provide families with information about what different schools provide as well as information about scholarships available to their students.

The advisors take trips on their own, visiting reservations, attending conferences and taking part in cultural events.

“I took a workshop on Native ricing,” said Elhardt. “That’s the hardest work I’ve ever done. And our ancestors did it for days.”


The advisors

In all they do, the thing the advisors like most about working with the Indian Education Program is the students.

“I enjoy the success of watching the students succeed when they didn’t think they could; it’s great to be part of that,” Eisenschenk said. “And not only have I been able to build relationships with students, but students have been able to build relationships with other Native American students that they would not have without the program.”

“I know I had these relationships when I was young and what that meant to me,” Elhardt said. “This is more than just a job; it’s part of my culture. It’s who I am and what I feel I should do for my culture.”

“The students are able to learn things that will last a lifetime,” Fairbanks said. “And they are able to share that knowledge with other people.”

Rios also enjoys building relationships with students. And for Rios, who grew up in Champlin and graduated from Anoka High School, taking part in the Indian Education Program has added meaning.

Rios did not take part in the Indian Education Program when she was a student. She did not have much exposure to her Native heritage as a youth and is not sure if school officials knew she was Native. As a student at the University of Minnesota, Rios took an “American Indians in Minnesota” class that provided her knowledge and resources she had not had access to before.

That first class led to many more, including her favorite, “American Indian Art.” Rios applied for her position as an advisor as she was working on her graduate degree in art history from the University of St. Thomas. Rios’ experiences both as an Anoka-Hennepin student and college and graduate student benefit the students she works with.

“Having grown up in the district, I felt that I can contribute to the students since I can relate my personal experiences to help them succeed,” Rios said. “I was disappointed to find out that the district has had Indian Education for more than 30 years and that I was not a part of it. However, being a part of it now does aid in helping that. I also enjoy it since I have family who are in the program so they are able to benefit from the services we provide.”


The students: Champlin Park High School

Gabrilla Carroll, a senior at Champlin Park High School (CPHS) and member of the Ojibwe Band, has worked with Elhhardt since elementary school. When she was younger, Carroll participated in the cultural activities, learning to make a jingle dress. Worn by women participating in a pow wow, a jingle dress includes several rows of metal cones that create a jingle sound as the dancer moves. (Elhardt herself is a jingle dancer.)

“My family is not big into the culture,” Carroll said. “Taking part in the cultural events helped me to learn how things work and what different dances mean to Native Americans.”

Now that she is a senior in high school, Elhardt’s work with Carroll is more focused on academics.

“Mary Beth is just so helpful and it’s helped me to try harder in school,” Carroll said. “I am more accountable. Mary Beth wants me to go to college. It makes a difference when you know there is someone who is caring all the time.”

Without Elhardt, Carroll said the college application process would have been more confusing. Carroll has narrowed down her choice of college to a school in Michigan and one in Minnesota.

Carroll recommends other students take part in the Indian Education Program.

“Many Native American students don’t know much about their culture,” Carroll said. “Taking part in the Indian Education Program helps you to understand where you come from and your roots. It’s important not to let our traditions die.”