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SD Department of Education
Jan. 2020  
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LEADER FEATURE: ‘Our children are sacred, our family is our priority, our elders are precious’

Juliana White Bull-Taken Alive became the director of South Dakota’s Office of Indian Education in May 2019. We recently talked with her about her vision for the office and how her extensive experience in education is informing her work at the state level.

White Bull-Taken Alive has been a middle school teacher, an elementary school principal, and a school board member. She has worked in higher education at Sitting Bull College, where she led student support services. She has also managed teacher leadership development for Teach for America, and most recently led the tribal education department on the Standing Rock Reservation. She is currently a doctoral candidate in transformational leadership at Concordia University – Portland.

Tribal consultation
In her role as director of the Office of Indian Education, White Bull-Taken Alive sees an opportunity to apply her previous experience leading the tribal education department of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She helped develop the tribe’s framework for tribal consultation as required in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

On the Standing Rock Reservation, the tribal council now invites public school districts on the reservation to its office to share how their schools are meeting the needs of the tribe’s students in the areas of language, culture, and the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings. White Bull-Taken Alive feels the process is leading to meaningful dialogue between the tribe and schools:

“That conversation has created such a connection for those schools that had never actually been to the tribal office or were unfamiliar with how tribal government worked. It’s empowered our tribal council and enlightened our school leaders.

“So this is something that really pushes me to do this work [at the state level]. I understand there is this whole system on the reservations where there’s a tribal education department doing its work. And then the state is doing its work. In my new role, I want to help make that connection, so that everybody is on the same page, and that we’re not doing separate things for the same reason.”

Now at the state level, White Bull-Taken Alive has also helped the South Dakota Department of Education do consultation with tribes: “I believe that as time goes on, students are really going to benefit from everybody having these conversations and actually talking and having meaningful dialogue and informing and being transparent about what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it – state to tribe and tribe to schools and local levels. It’s a good energy. It’s got momentum, and I hope to keep moving in a good direction.”

Educational equity
Educational equity is also important to White Bull-Taken Alive. She sees equity as all students having the same access to resources and opportunities, and for all students to be aware of their options. “In educational equity, there are meaningful conversations happening that are really going to impact lives—not only students’ lives, but families and communities,” she says. “Everybody is communicating. Equity helps to get that information out to everybody and considers everybody in education, where they are.”

Poverty: Monetary or spiritual?
When White Bull-Taken Alive considers the role of poverty in discussions of equity, she looks at two senses of the word: “Is it monetary poverty or is it spiritual poverty?” she asks. “Because the whole Lakota culture is based on spirituality and prayers, and when we have to separate that and make our culture academic, we’re dismantling what we know and what our ancestors knew. But I think educational equity will be when we can put it all back together and it can serve all of our indigenous students in every way that it was supposed to, in terms of academics and spirituality.”

In preparation for more in-depth strategic planning, White Bull-Taken Alive has outlined four priorities for the Office of Indian Education:

  1. Collaborate with tribal education departments to ensure strong communication among tribes and the state departments of Tribal Relations and Education.
  2. Manage and facilitate the South Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council, whose role is to promote the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and make recommendations to improve indigenous education in South Dakota.
  3. Monitor and manage grant opportunities to improve indigenous education.
  4. Host the annual Indian Education Summit.
The Department of Tribal Relations was recently awarded Bush Foundation funding for the Wóokiye teacher project. Wóokiye is a Lakota term that means to help, aid, assist. The goal of this project is to create and implement a network of support that will help, aid, and assist teachers as they become proficient in using the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings.

In talking with White Bull-Taken Alive, one notices her emphasis on the phrase, “indigenous education.”

Why indigenous education?

Proud to be an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, White Bull-Taken Alive continues to live on her home reservation. Learn more about her perspective on success on the reservation:

Teaching is the family business for White Bull-Taken Alive. Her father was a long-time teacher, and her son is currently student teaching.

Three generations of teachers

 
     
 

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