Indigenous students put language and culture first in early-childhood education program

huy syaʔyaʔ, huy syaʔyaʔ,
tix̌ ix̌ dubut, tix̌ ix̌ dubut
ɬušudubicid čəd, ɬušudubicid čəd
ʔal kʷi ƛ̕əllaʔ, ʔal kʷi ƛ̕əllaʔ.

Jasmyne Diaz’s young daughters came home one day from the Tulalip Early Learning Academy (TELA), their birth-to- kindergarten child care center, singing a stanza from “huy syaʔyaʔ”—the Lushootseed goodbye song. Over and over they sang the lines they remembered, not knowing what followed. As a member of the Tulalip Tribes, Diaz recognized the Lushootseed words but didn’t know the language well enough to help with the rest of the song. She thought of her great-grandmother—a Lushootseed educator—and her grandmother, who’d earned a doctorate in education. She thought of her three girls and the future she wanted for them. She says, “I decided if they knew Lushootseed, I also had to learn and help them.”

Diaz is now a teaching assistant with the Tulalip Tribes’ Lushootseed Language Department, teaching not only her own children but many of the community’s young students. She says she appreciates the important work TELA is doing to educate the tribe’s littlest learners, infusing their early education with the language, culture and teachings of their elders.

TELA is one program in one Indigenous community. But all across the country, there are not enough early-childhood teachers to meet the need—educators like Diaz, who are invested in and represent the community they support. When students see teachers who look like them, studies report a positive impact on engagement and achievement in the classroom.

The University of Washington is working to address this need, building on the success of initiatives like My Brother’s Teacher, an innovative fellowship program that recruits Black and brown male students to study teaching. This fall, thanks to a $38 million grant from the Ballmer Group to increase and diversify Washington’s early-childhood education workforce via scholarships and other support, the UW College of Education and partnering tribal communities will welcome an inaugural cohort of Indigenous undergraduates studying early-childhood education.

By building and growing this initial group of educators with Native communities, program leaders hope to apply the learnings to more communities who have been furthest from educational justice.

The first-of-its-kind program is being co-designed by tribal leaders and UW staff and faculty. College of Education Dean Mia Tuan says the process is intentionally slow, in order to authentically involve and benefit the community. Tuan has learned from experience: She’s spent the last five years developing the Rainier Valley Early Learning Campus, which similarly aims to make early-childhood teaching accessible to a diverse group of potential educators. “What we found [in building that campus] was that the neighborhood did want the UW, under certain circumstances,” she says. “We weren’t going to swoop in and take over. We weren’t going to be the experts.” They specialized in what the University does best: “We have students, we know professional development, we know best practices. We wanted to marry high-quality child learning and high-quality adult learning.”

We need to train our educators so they understand the tribal community, the children, the history and sovereignty, the culture and language, and why we need to promote and save it.

Sheryl Fryberg

In creating this new Indigenous cohort and planning future cohorts, Tuan helped the program focus on being accountable and responsive. “If those students don’t have a good experience, if they don’t feel like who they are in their entirety is welcome, they’re not going to come back. Whatever our identities are, we want to know they can be incorporated into our craft,” she says. “It’s on us to figure out how to do that.”

Working with tribal leaders to figure that out is Filiberto Barajas-López (P’urhépecha), director of the college’s Indigenous Education Initiatives and Native Education Certificate Program. When the Indigenous Education Advisory Board got the news about the Ballmer Group grant, Barajas-López says they had a long, meaningful conversation about being intentional in approaching and partnering with tribal communities in this work.

“The money is great, but people are really excited about the deep focus on early childhood. Our board, who are members of tribal communities, recognized that the conventional approach doesn’t always work. There’s a rich history of people who have grown this work in their Native communities already. The only way was to co-design, addressing the communities’ core concerns and vision.”

The college surveyed the state’s Native nations to identify those concerns, garnering responses from members of 14 of Washington’s 29 federally recognized nations. The replies highlighted the need for Native early-childhood educators and more accessible training, particularly in rural communities where travel can be a barrier. Many noted the need for culture- and language-based curricula, hands-on experiential learning, and trained educators familiar with not only the language but decolonial and Indigenous ways of knowing—another reason representation in the classroom really matters.

Barajas-López has been working closely with TELA director and Tulalip Tribal member Sheryl Fryberg, who has spent a career with the tribe in human services, health and education. She points to the national Head Start program’s 50-year report, which emphasizes the deep impact of early learning on young people’s school, career and life—and she’s seen how a lack of quality early learning is reflected in national K–12 educational statistics. “It’s been more miss than hit in terms of education for tribal children,” Fryberg says. “I want to create a strong base for our children. But it takes instructors really well versed in generational trauma, to embed the language and culture so it’s not an add-on, it’s part of the program. We need to train our educators so they understand the tribal community, the children, the history and sovereignty, the culture and language, and why we need to promote and save it.”

Diaz understands why tribe members may not be interested in becoming teachers—after all, the institution of education wasn’t built for Native kids. “How many of our parents and grandparents have had horrible, horrible situations with the educational system?” she asks, referring to the vicious history of the U.S. forcing Indigenous children into violent government-run boarding schools. “That trickles down. The only time I learned any kind of Indigenous history, teachings, anything, was when I went to a tribal school.”

This is why Fryberg and Barajas-López are working alongside other Native education leaders and elders to build a program that’s accessible and attractive to Indigenous students. “We owe this to Native communities. When a community says what they need, identifies what they’re doing, and we can help with that, we’re contributing to their nation building. We are helping them thrive on their terms.”

Though the focus is currently on early childhood, Fryberg hopes this investment will springboard into K–12 education as well, and that perhaps Diaz’s children will benefit before they graduate. Currently, the Tulalip Tribes do teach the language in three high schools in the Marysville School District. “We’re at a turning point,” Fryberg says about increased state and federal support for Indigenous learning. “This partnership with the UW, and funding provided to do this, is an amazing gift that will change the trajectory of education in tribal communities.”