American Indian Catholic Schools Network

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In October, the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (AICSN) sent representatives from its member schools to Chamberlain, South Dakota, to the campus of the newest addition to AICSN, St. Joseph Indian School. There, the group shared ideas, prayed, and continued to build camaraderie based on shared goals and trials, on painful pasts and hopeful futures.

This group of seven schools composed of Acoma, Blackfeet, Laguna, Lakota, Navajo, Ojibwe, Omaha, San Carlos Apache, and Winnebago tribes has banded together in collaboration with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education to strengthen the individual schools, empower educators and administrators, and to welcome additional mission schools.

While growth is one of the group’s goals, William Newkirk, the director of AICSN, underscored that the pace is slow in order to build genuine and meaningful relationships. That authenticity is critical, he explained, given the history of abuse, conversion, and forced citizenship that occurred in both Catholic and government schools on Native land for decades. Once there were as many as 300 schools; now only 20 remain.

“Many of those schools closed for good reason, because they weren’t safe places for children or to bring about a true Catholic education,” Newkirk explained. “But some of the schools maybe weren’t a dangerous place, but they weren’t places that offered culturally responsive pedagogy. They weren’t bringing in Native teachers to teach at the school or they weren’t building relationships with the families. The schools that persisted are the schools that have more Native teachers, where you see the ‘Our Father’ written in the indigenous language on the wall, where you see images of Christ as a Native person with Native students. It’s the culturally responsive pedagogy and culturally celebratory culture.”

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Even with the focus on coexistent Indigenous and Catholic cultures, and with acknowledgement and healing opportunities from past traumas, Newkirk noted the schools still face challenges like gaining the trust of community members to send their children to the Catholic school and attracting teachers to their remote locations. They also have challenges unlike others in their dioceses, which is why partnership and conversation with other Native schools is so important, Newkirk said.

“When you’re isolated it’s hard to find hope and find resilience and persistence. What we find is that these schools, more than any physical resource, they needed the resource of relationship. What this network does more than anything is facilitate an opportunity for schools to walk together in solidarity and kinship and to know that they’re not alone,” he explained. That applies for individual teachers, too.

“If a teacher believes that they’re walking in this mission with other Native Catholic schools, I think they’re going to be more likely to stay there, and they’re going to be more likely to provide a transformative education for the students they serve.”

That said, AICSN, alongside its partners in ACE and the Remick Leadership Program, also provides valuable resources. There are summer institutes for teachers and administrators to learn best practices. AICSN has connected ACE graduates with schools and with job openings. They offer enrichment activities like monthly Zoom learning sessions and Lenten Faith Sharing groups. But the most unique offering is a collaboration with Holy Cross College called the Holy Cross Fellows, a fully funded opportunity for current teachers at AICSN schools to work toward a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a teaching license. The selected teachers can work remotely during the school year and then visit South Bend for education classes in the summer.

“We believe these are people that are committed to be in there long term,” Newkirk said. “They deserve to have a bachelor’s degree and their students deserve to have a teacher with the training of a bachelor’s degree in education.”

With all these diverse offerings, the AICSN has a holistic goal: where each school can thrive in its unique mission while bolstered by a strong community of other schools who support them, push them, and cheer for them. That focus on community and on education, Newkirk highlighted, is the heart of Notre Dame’s mission, just far, far off-campus.