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Grandmother is storyteller in schools, dispelling cultural stereotypes

by Kaye Hult

Sarai Mays finds niche in teaching culture to school children.

Sarai Mays visits schools in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, as a grandmother storyteller, talking about and dispelling stereotypes of American Indians.  She intentionally does not wear her regalia—native dress—and points out that today American Indians don’t generally wear buckskins.

When her grandson was younger, he came home from school crying one day after classmates told him he wasn’t an Indian because he didn’t have a bow and arrow.

For three years, she has worked with the Indian Education Program of School District #271 in Coeur d’Alene, while completing a degree in virtual administrative assistance to help American Indian students navigate the school system successfully.  The goal is for them to further their education and build good lives.

 About 300 Native American students from about 65 different tribes attend School District 271 in Coeur d’Alene, she said. 

These students have a different life experience from most of the rest of the school population.  As urban American Indians, they may not have close ties with their tribes.  There are similarities among tribes, but also much variation.

Sarai’s background is like many of these students.

Born in Coeur d’Alene out of wedlock, she was raised by her Chickasaw grandparents in the Chickasaw tradition.  As a child, she moved often—New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma—and experienced family turmoil.  Schools she attended had no white students.

Since returning about four years ago to Coeur d’Alene, she found healing in reconnecting with the Coeur d’Alene side of her family.  Her father had a farm, where the Goodwill store in Coeur d’Alene now stands.  Her mother lived across the street.  Sarai has moved back into that neighborhood and feels connected to her parents.

 Sarai and her brother, whose roots are in the Coeur d’Alene and Chickasaw tribes, were the first in their family to attend college.  Not able to go to college when she was young, she graduated from North Idaho College (NIC) in April 2016, the same year she began receiving Social Security.

“I could not do the Indian Education Program without the NIC training,” she said, grateful for scholarships.  “I didn’t know it, but I went to school more or less for this position. I began working here just before I graduated.”

In January 2013, just after her husband died, she was interviewed and she began in April when the program began.

“This position was here to help me as much as I was to help it,” she said.  “This is who I am.  I can finally use my education to help many people.”

Many Native American students move many times and live in groups of two to three families.

Sarai described the situation of many Native Americans.  Many have low reading and math scores, and a low graduation rate.  Poverty is 29.2 percent higher than the general population. The school dropout rate is 237 percent higher.  They are three times more likely to be homeless.

For Native Americans, one in 10 children this year will experience a violent crime.  One in three women will be raped.  There is a 54 percent higher rate of diabetes.  Among males, the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds is suicide.

The 1950 Relocation Act paid Native Americans to work in cities.  This broke up many families, leading to a loss of cultural heritage.  Many have spent their lives wondering where they fit, not feeling they fit in “regular” society or on the reservation.

Many children who are part Native American don’t have cultural ties.  The Indian Education Program helps them connect with that culture, Sarai said.

In 2012, the Idaho State Department of Education developed the program to:  1) support academic success of students to give them opportunities to graduate from high school, and go on to work or college; 2) create and support partnerships in the community that address the unique cultural differences of Native American students, and 3) develop culturally specific learning resources to supplement and enrich the regular academic program, and support students and families. 

“We started from nothing, no blueprint.  This year, we’re beginning to see results,” Sarai said.

They spent the first year determining who was eligible, doing a survey and forming the Indian Education Parent Committee.

Since then, founders and the parent committee have created partnerships in the community to help students who are homeless or need tutoring.

“We provided school supply backpacks at the beginning of the school year,” Sarai said.

“Most of the general population don’t understand the differences between themselves and Native American youth,” she said.

Her sharing cultural differences leads to good conversations. Even teachers ask questions.

“In November, we discuss Columbus and Thanksgiving.  I tell how the American Indians introduced the new settlers to corn and squash,” she said.

Sarai shares that most tribes have a creation story, and shares various myths and legends. 

“Are they true?” she’ll ask, and then, “What do you think?” 

She likes her visits to kindergarten to eighth grade classes to be interactive, and she encourages children to ask questions. 

Sarai listed some activities.

• The program provided five native flutes to five music teachers. A native flute player came to talk about the flute’s significance.

• At one school, Sarai began a Circle of Stories, a series about storytelling and culture.

• Children want to know about contemporary natives, so she has told about ballerina Maria Tallchief, singer Mildred Bailey, author Sherman Alexie, athlete Jim Thorpe, actor Will Rogers, astronaut John Herrington and vice president Charles Curtis. That awareness opens students’ minds.

• As part of learning Idaho history in October, fourth graders from two elementary schools participated in Water Potato Day. On the Coeur d’Alene reservation, they dug, roasted and ate water potatoes, historically a staple of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe diet. 

• For Native American Heritage Month in November, students participated in the national “Rock Your Mocs Day,” posting photos of their moccasins on Facebook.

• Because the curriculum does not offer Native American history after fourth grade, the program is creating a history elective, with elders sharing their knowledge with high school students.

• In November, they led an assembly at Lake City High School.   Quanah Matheson, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s cultural affairs director, talked about tribal history. 

• Along with drumming, singing and dancing, Shedaezha Hodge led some students in a Powwow Sweat exercise, which Sarai hopes some physical education teachers will use.

• Lakes Magnet Middle School holds a March Multicultural Fair.

• In April, they celebrate Indian Heritage Week with the NIC American Indian Student Alliance (ASA).  They invite about 100 crafts people to share their skills.

• Twice a year, they give awards to students with perfect attendance and a 3.0 average or above.

• To support academic success and reduce fear of college, NIC’s American Indian student adviser connects students with ASA. High school students visit NIC for a Tech Tour to talk with students and instructors in programs that interest them.

While she was attending college, Sarai frequently brought her grandchildren with her. 

“Hopefully, my children will see it doesn’t matter how old you are, you can still grow,” she said. 

“This work speaks to my heart.  We help each other like family. Everything we do is to build relationships to help students and their families do better,” she said.

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