Robert Cook: Indigenous communities share a sense of optimism

Robert Cook. Photo courtesy Teach for America

The intersectionality of Asian American Pacific Islander and Native students
By Robert Cook

Hau Mitakuyapi, Anpetu waste. Robert Cook emaciyapi yelo, Oglala Lakota hemaca yelo. Na iyuha cante wasteya nape ciyuzapi yelo. Good Day relatives, my name is Robert Cook, I am from the Oglala Lakota Nation and I shake your hand with a good heart.

Last month, we celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and honor an immensely cultural and diverse group in our country—encompassing backgrounds from the Asian continent and the Pacific islands of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia (including the Hawaiian Islands). As I reflect on the contributions, sacrifices, and strength of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, I am reminded of the distinct cultural background and history that connects the AAPI and Native communities. We are bound by years of oppression and a painful history in this country, but we remain connected through the thread of hope and optimism for our culture, traditions, and our children.

American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians are the indigenous people of the United States. The indigenous history of the Native Hawaiians, in many ways parallels that of American Indians—the self-determination of our languages, culture, and traditions, and the resolve of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians to regain and protect our right of governance and local control. These obstacles can be seen in the failure to expand economic development and great education opportunities to Natives.

It is not acceptable for our children to lack access to a great education. Too often, AAPI and Native communities are left out of important conversations about ending educational inequity and working towards social justice across our diverse cultures and peoples. And our AAPI brothers and sisters are often stereotyped under the “model minority” myth, inaccurately labeling AAPIs as privileged and academically high-achieving.

One way to combat the exclusion and false assumptions that permeate our education system is through disaggregated data. Testing data doesn’t measure everything our tribal vision desires for Native students, and scores don’t always provide the complete picture of our kids’ abilities, but data can give us a lens through which to see how our students are performing in the classroom and empower us to demand change if they aren’t receiving the academic support and education they deserve.

And it can do the same for AAPI students; build awareness of the realities AAPI students face and ensure that our society understands the graduation rates, academic performance, and educational inequity that exists within the AAPI community. Having access to testing data that shows the performance of low-income, minority, special needs, English-language learners and other student subgroups can help us see where inequities and gaps exist in our communities and provide opportunities for improvement. In fact, this month the U.S. Department of Education announced a program that strives to encourage states to disaggregate data on Asian students. This is a step in the right direction, but there is still more work to do.

The contributions of Native Hawaiians, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders have helped shaped the history of our country. As we celebrate and honor their impact, we must also ensure that educational opportunities exist for the next generation of AAPI students and leaders.

Throughout May, and every month of the year, we must take time to reflect, incorporate culturally responsive lessons and curricula into our classrooms, and celebrate the rich heritage and ongoing cultural contributions of the AAPI community. We must commit to learning more about historical and current issues and inequity that impact AAPIs to this day and act alongside our AAPI allies and partners to address these challenges, so all children have opportunities to pursue their hopes and fulfill their dreams.

Robert Cook (Oglala Lakota) is the senior managing director of Teach For America’s Native Alliance Initiative where he works in partnership with tribal communities in Hawaii, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Dakota to improve outcomes for Native students. Robert resides in Summerset, SD and is a former K-12 administrator, and an award-winning teacher.

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