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Tamera Miyasato: Decolonizing education with cultural connection

Oct 19, 2020

Photo credit: Elisabetta Giomo-James

Tamera Miyasato’s mission is simple, but grand—to expose Indigenous students to their own culture, language, and history in schools. The pandemic has presented a challenge to preserving an oral tradition, but Miyasato has used video tools to continue her work and even expand her audience. A member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe and a teacher since 2014, Miyasato is dedicated to “decolonizing  education.” To Miyasato, this means changing our mindset and approach to education to reclaim and elevate cultural identity—particularly for Indigenous learners. 

Like mmhmm, her reading group, Indigenous Storytime, was born during the pandemic, and includes the work of Indigenous educators Breanna Lebeaux, Jonita White Eyes, Elaine Locke, Jennifer Eastman, Heather Dahlgren. Marla Thunder Bull and Blue Dawn Little also provide their Lakota language expertise to the group. By sharing stories centered on Indigenous language and values, the group provides children with access to culture they might not receive in their school settings. 

We talked to Miyasato about harnessing the power of technology to make the connections that are so vital to the social and emotional well-being of young learners. 

We love your Indigenous Storytime.

That was in response to Covid. Through my work as a TIE Learning Specialist, I work with Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It's where I grew up and was the school I graduated from. I support them with Title I reading and math services. And when Covid hit, we had already decided to go virtual probably about a week before the rest of the state of South Dakota, and in the chaos and not really knowing what services were going to look like we were like, hey, let's just do some reading. Maybe our learners can just tune in every day. That's really how it started, and it's just completely blown up. I think we grew from 800 members to almost 1400 members like in two days.

You can look at [Covid] as that push to really rethink how we're doing education.

Illustration: Tamera Miyasato

Can you tell us about your educational development work?

The thing that I focus on is integrating Lakota or indigenous culture into our education systems. So we know that there are a lot of studies out there that say, if indigenous learners see themselves represented in their learning, if they can tap into indigenous styles of learning or instruction, they do better. And so at least here in our state, South Dakota, Indigenous students continually fall behind the majority in terms of graduation rate, attendance, and academic achievement. 

And in Rapid City, we're actually situated on treaty land, so these were our original homelands per the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the Supreme Court in 1980 upheld that this was our land. And so it's kind of one of those situations where, hey, you're a guest in our land, and all we're asking for is to be represented in our education systems, and for there to be a push towards bringing equitable opportunity and access to our learners. 

If indigenous learners can...tap into indigenous styles of learning or instruction, they do better.

An educational workshop at the EAGLE Center, Cheyenne Eagle-Butte School. Photo: Tamera Miyasato

So that's been my drive. When I graduated from Red Cloud back in the day, I went on to school at University of Notre Dame, and I was not prepared for that type of learning or that environment. But because I had a strong cultural upbringing with my family and my mother, I was able to succeed—it was still a challenge, but I did it. So providing those cultural experiences for our learners not only helps with academics and achievement, but also with building a strong cultural identity, a strong foundation to adapt to your environment and to really navigate what I refer to as the “outside world,” off of the reservation.

At mmhmm, we're trying to create connections by giving people different visual tools that they can use to tell their story better. Has it been helpful in creating those connections, either between the student and the teacher, or between the students’ lived experience and the curriculum, when you can't sit side by side?

Absolutely. You know, quite honestly, I think that that connection was what really drove a lot of our following in Indigenous Storytime. From the first video that I did utilizing mmhmm, our membership increased. And so we use Indigenous 

Storytime as part of our Title reading services. Because we are virtual at Red Cloud for at least the first quarter, we hope to continue to use this technology to connect with our learners. This is kind of the platform that I've been pushing for us to use and so I was really excited to see the backgrounds and being able to create some of our own that are learner-centered. I think it's an amazing tool to make that connection.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.