Children gain Community at American Indian Youth Enrichment


Stephanie Schroeder (center) and her children Lucy and Oscar.

By Kristin Vanevenhoven, Communications Specialist

When Stephanie Schroeder’s dad was growing up, he was not taught Ojibwe. In fact, it was illegal to speak any American Indian language, share American Indian culture, or practice traditional ceremonies until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

Today, he is overjoyed to see his grandchildren, Oscar and Lucy, come home excited to share a newly learned word or virtue from American Indian Youth Enrichment. According to Stephanie, “seeing the kids bringing the language home really fills him with pride. It almost brings a tear to his eye seeing the kids coming back into the culture.”

Every August, parents at American Indian Magnet School sign up their children for the American Indian Youth Enrichment (AIYE) after-school program. Like many parents, Stephanie enrolled Oscar as soon as he started first grade. It is very important to her that her children learn American Indian history and culture since they are growing up in the city instead of on the reservation.

She is grateful for the American Indian staff and the lessons drawing on Lakota Virtues. Many of the students have wonderful first-time experiences at AIYE, including having teachers who look like them, reading stories about American Indian families, and meeting children who share their own cultural background.

Stephanie loves watching her children grow as they learn about their culture. She notices that learning something from their teachers is totally different and often more meaningful than learning from their parents.

This excitement spills over into academic subjects. Stephanie believes, “if a child is struggling to learn something, and the sources they are reading from don’t reflect who they are, they think ‘what’s the point of learning it since it has nothing to do with me?’” AIYE uses culturally specific materials. “Then all of a sudden it starts to click, and they have an interest, and it really starts to matter. And that is how they can be successful,” added Stephanie.

Still today, this cultural piece is often missing from educational settings. Michael Quinn Patton, an expert in program evaluation, writes about the importance of weaving culture and education together.

He lists five main factors that the literature points to as leading to healthy child development: “an emphasis on building strong cultural identity; supporting development of the whole child; teachers who look like them and therefore can be positive role models; dealing with the traumatic effects of poverty; and strong family and community support and engagement.”

“We create a safe learning environment focused on family and community engagement,” said program coordinator, Rebecca Fairbanks Dickinson. “Parent involvement is really important and fortunately, we received a grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (MN DEED) to provide more parent engagement opportunities.”

Last year, AIYE staff invited a group of student leaders to help plan family volunteer and engagement opportunities. The group organized four Family Nights during the school year. One night, families decorated cookies together, on other occasions they made mini Lacrosse sticks, played games, and performed a play. Parents also had the opportunity to chaperone field trips to six different cultural sites. “Inviting parents to complete a project together, to explore new ideas or places with their children, or to see their children interact with our teachers, strengthens family bonds and provides the youth with extra support. It also improves communication and understanding between school and home,” said Rebecca.

One of Stephanie’s favorite memories is trying to teach Oscar about “mukwa” which means “bear” in Ojibwe, while reading the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle. Whenever she would say the word “mukwa” instead of the word, “bear,” he would fight her, and say, “no, mom, that’s ‘bear!’” It was not until later when he learned about the meaning of “mukwa” in AIYE that he understood that she was teaching him the Ojibwe word for bear.

In addition to strengthening families, AIYE also has a positive impact on the broader American Indian community. “For a lot of these students and for American Indians in general, we are almost always forgotten. We are such a small population compared to what we used to be,” Stephanie added. “The kids knew that they were Ojibwe. But it is one thing to know the word, and another thing to actually feel part of the community. By being in AIYE, they finally feel like they are part of that community. And it goes beyond this program, because we see each other in the neighborhood and at community events. And when they know each other, they feel that community piece that is so important to our culture.”

Stephanie ended, “being able to give this experience to my kids has been really powerful for me and to my parents, and it has been an awakening for our spirits too. It’s very heartwarming. It’s just very, very cool. So thank you!”

To learn more about the American Indian Youth Enrichment program, please contact:

Rebecca Fairbanks Dickinson
American Indian Youth Enrichment Coordinator, Department of Indian Work