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Elizabeth A. Wynia

Teach the Way the Student Learns: Culturally Relevant Teaching Strategies Appropriate to the Native American Student in the Speech Communication Classroom

After the speech communication classes at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College were made more culturally relevant to Native American students, the students’ success rates rose by 11 to 12 percent over preceding years. This article discusses communication-related characteristics of the Native American cultures(s) and offers classroom activities that instructors can use in their speech communication classrooms.

Some time back, Dr. Elden Lawrence, Dakota elder and president of Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, a tribal college in northeastern South Dakota, shared a story with a speech communication class. While I suspect that he may have had first-hand knowledge of these events, I would like to state that the main character in the story I am about to share is only coincidentally named Elden. Dr. Elden Lawrence, a highly respected community leader, certainly could not have been involved in the ensuing foray even if it did occur decades ago, before life had tamed his youthful rebelliousness. To the best of my recollection, Elden’s narrative went something like this:

I’ve had many experiences with the white man and his laws over the last fifty years. Perhaps he could still put me away for an incident that happened when I was a young man full of life and ready to take chances, even if my choices could lead to my peeking out from behind bars for a few days or weeks. Although this particular time I was as innocent as any young man could be, who played hard and drank a little too much at times.

It all started with a friend of mine. I won’t name him. Perhaps he still owes me something for all the problems he helped me manifest. Very innocently I had said “Yes” when he had asked to borrow my car for the weekend. My attitude always was, and continues to be, one of generosity when a friend is in need. Maybe I should have asked his intent with my mechanical pony, but if you can’t trust a friend, whom can you trust?

No, he didn’t wreck my car, and it wasn’t stolen. As a matter of fact, I still have no idea what he did with the car. You see, after returning the vehicle, my friend somehow discovered he needed to visit some relatives in Montana for the next several years. I, on the other hand, found out I had a date with the sheriff. My arrest didn’t include any Miranda rights and certainly didn’t include to my knowledge any charges. The only thing I was told was that I was in deep doo-doo because of the incident on Friday morning when the deputy had spotted my car.
I really got sick of sitting in the county jail in a hurry. Talk about close quarters. The only recourse I could see back then was a big time jailbreak. The sheriff, who was probably not a candidate for law enforcement officer of the year in Roberts county, far less South Dakota, had a habit of leaving the keys to the cells laying on his desk. It was an easy trick after he had left for the night to rig up a blanket with my boot tied in it and throw the weighted sling over the cell keys and drag them into the cell.

That’s when the great idea came to me. I would fool this yokel good. I locked the door to the cell and laid the keys back on his desk in case he returned before I was done. I knew he would puzzle over how I had gotten out of the locked jail, but I had an even better second part to my plan. It took me about an hour to find just the right dog. I needed a friendly pooch that looked a little like me for my ruse to succeed. When I left that night, the crossbred dog, half collie and half bulldog, was curled up on my old cell bunk. He must have been thinking he had died and gone to heaven. Rez dogs seldom find artificial heat, even on cold winter nights. For my own part, I decided it would be a great idea to visit my cousin in Rapid City for a few months, and I hastily left town before dawn.

I understand the legend of the redskin who became a dog has grown over the years in the white man’s folklore about Indians. The sheriff, so the stories go, tried everything in his power to turn the canine back into a walking, talking Indian, but had very limited success. Eventually, the unfortunate animal was turned out into the cold, where I’m sure he sorely missed his warm lodgings.

“Everyone knows” that Indians have supernatural powers, right? Hang around the inner circles of tribal people for a while and you will probably hear lots of stories about mysterious and metaphysical dealings—medicine men calling up breezes to cool the dancing crowd at the powwow, sightings of ghostly beings who appear to be accompanying their bones home from storage at the Smithsonian, healings that have nothing to do with modern medicine, and remarkable, unexplainable appearances of eagles. At one time or another, each of these events has been the topic of a speech that has been given in a speech communication class at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College.

Of course, we are only guessing, but don’t you suppose that if the incarcerated man in our story had been white, we would automatically expect the sheriff to have drawn different conclusions once he saw the dog in that cell? We can picture the baffled officer scouring the jail for loosened bars through which both man and dog had passed; he might even look under the bed for a hastily dug tunnel; but the idea of the sheriff thinking the man had turned into that dog does not occur to us because white men not only can’t jump, they aren’t shape-shifters either.
However, Indian people are different, and that’s the whole purpose for our story. Our American Indian students come from different cultures, and their distinctive cultural world view affects their performance and success in our communication classrooms. Currently Native American students rank as one of the highest “at risk” groups in the country (Robinson-Zanartu, 1996). Their dropout rate is twice the national average (Aiken & Falk, 1983). Concerned educators are beginning to question whether much of the problem lies within the educational system, rather than within the students (Aiken & Falk, 1983; Machamer, 1998). Educational researchers are now looking at cultural distinctions in order to both understand and ameliorate some of the difficulties that Native American students encounter in the classroom. The thought is that culture is not a deficiency that needs to be remedied, but rather a teaching tool that can be used to help students not only succeed, but actually prosper in the communication classroom.

The purpose of this essay is to help instructors of speech communication classes use the Native American culture as an instructional tool. We will examine ways in which aspects of the Native American culture can be infused into an existing speech communication curriculum in order to create an interculturally effective course of study for Native American students at the post-secondary level. To say this idiomatically, we are going to examine teaching the way the Native American student learns. Dr. Elden Lawrence (personal communication, March 2001) states the idea like this: if they don’t learn the way you teach them, then teach them the way they learn. This article will discuss some of the cultural characteristics of American Indian communication as these relate to the Plains Indians, and specifically the Dakota people, who live predominantly in North and South Dakota and Minnesota. Secondly, we will examine two culturally relevant communication/public speaking activities: the talking ball and the questions-only speech.

Culture and values
When we examine Native American, and more specifically traditional Dakota, culture, we quickly discover that it contrasts dramatically with mainstream culture. In the first place, the values are very different.

A few years back, there were bumper stickers and coffee cups with the aphorism on them, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That sentence in a nutshell appropriately sums up one of our most defining American values. In a simplistic sense, this definition of American includes many American Indians, because for sure many Indian students want the education so that they can get the job, which will give them the money with which to buy the fancy car. Materialism permeates American life, but speaking in a more traditional sense, the American Indian culture was anything but materialistic. V. Deloria (1988, 1994) explained why the culture couldn’t be possession-driven. The people were nomadic. Possessions meant more stuff to lug around from place to place. Having a lot of things equated more work, not greater status in the community. Darlene Pipeboy, former instructor of Dakota culture at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College (personal communication, March 1994), explained that there was no stealing in the traditional Dakota society because if a person wanted something, she only had to ask for it. The original owner would probably give it away and cheerfully. E. Deloria (1983) named this concept: giving in order to have. The idea was to give when one had extra in the hopes that others would give back when one was in need.

This tradition continues even today. Compliment a traditional Dakota on something that she is wearing, and frequently she will offer to give it to you. The culture admired (s) generosity foremost. Elden Lawrence (personal communication, January 1999) said that back in the “olden times,” if someone were out scouting in the spring and met a skinny Indian, the scout automatically knew that the entire tribe had had a bad winter, because food (which did have real value) was always shared equally among all tribal members. If one went hungry, everyone went hungry. This puts many American Indian students in conflict with mainstream American values. At the heart of their traditional culture, they have always been told “all for one and one for all,” but on their televisions sets and in their classrooms, they are taught the concept of the rugged individual who succeeds by accumulating the toys.

A second value that distinguishes the Dakota culture from the mainstream is respect. In the Indian world, respect is an action word. Respect means being 83 years of age and knowing that you are valued at work because your culture regards elderly people with the deepest appreciation. You are sought out and your voice carries weight because of the wisdom your years have afforded you (personal communication, Iron Moccasin, February 2001). In action, respect means being gay and knowing that your culture believes that you have a special purpose that gives you a meaningful place in your tribe (Allen, 1992). Respect means being a woman and knowing that if your husband ever abused you, you could divorce him merely by putting his belongings outside of the teepee (which incidentally belongs to you alone), and your tribe will support you completely (Iron Moccasin). However, Native American students, whose culture so values respect, reported feeling that Caucasian teachers showed more respect for non-Native students than towards Native students (Bolls, Tan, & Austin, 1997).

Forbes (as cited in Fox, Longbrake, Stands, Whirlwind Soldier, & Woodard, 1992) offered a thorough discussion of Native American values, along with considerations for educational applications. He reported that Native American students who value cooperation and face-saving may pretend to not know the answer to an instructor’s question if that question has already been incorrectly answered by one of their classmates. Other values discussed include view of time as relative, orientation to the present, veneration of age, careful listening, and moderation in speech. Success is valued, but it is defined as having lived in such a way that one has earned the respect of others. It is important to be grateful for life and for culture, and perseverance is valued as a means of achieving success or even of surviving (Akan, 1992; Horejsi & Pablo, 1993).

Aiken and Falk (1983) found that Native American students cited cultural alienation as an obstacle facing many Native American students, in addition to such problems as financing and child care. Havinghurst (as cited in Robinson-Zanartu, 1996) reported that 66 percent of teachers nationwide did not appear to know, understand, or appreciate cultural differences between themselves and their Native students. According to one national survey, Native American parents cited a lack of concern for and value of the Native culture as their number one dissatisfaction with education. The educational problem is not that Native Americans do not value education, but that mainstream education does not value their culture; therefore, the material we are teaching lacks immediacy and relevancy for many Native American students.

The cultural contrast has a direct effect in the speech communication classroom. Padilla’s study (as cited in Machamer, 1998) stated that mainstream society values public speaking ability and encourages it at all levels of education. Traditional American Indian education, on the other hand, values quiet observation and practice over overt questioning and oral argumentation. Machamer further maintains that many of the values taught in the mainstream classroom directly contrast with Indian values. In the mainstream communication classroom, Native Americans are taught to compete, to be independent, and to polish their persuasiveness; simultaneously, they may be leaving the classroom culture to go home to a culture that places great value on cooperation, interdependence, and non competitiveness.

Education is also valued by Native American elders (Robinson-Zanartu, 1996), who credit mainstream education with helping students to prepare for income-producing work, but who themselves teach that the first responsibility of education is to teach spirituality (Akan, 1992). Johnson (as cited in Gilliland, 1992) described the Native student who seeks success as being faced with the difficult task of marching to the beat of more than one drum, with the culture defining success one way, and the classroom defining success very differently. Education that is not culturally relevant places Native students in the almost impossible position of attempting to retain their own diverse heritage while striving to succeed in a context that ignores and even contradicts that heritage. Students may be torn between the two cultures.
An understanding and appreciation of Native American values is important to the understanding and appreciation of Native American students. Instructors who are familiar with this culture and who overtly teach values in a relativistic manner, may find that their Native American students are better able to succeed in the mainstream classroom.

Nonverbal communication patterns
As with values, Native American non-verbal communication can contrast sharply with mainstream communication. The instructor who is interested in teaching as the students learn may find it useful to examine Native American non-verbal communication, and to model it when working with Native American students.

There are some characteristics that many tribal groups seem to share. These characteristics include a disdain for being stared at; a “soft” handshake; an avoidance of direct (stare) eye contact; a quiet reserved expression of feelings; non-assertiveness (Horejsi & Pablo, 1993); and a soft manner of speaking (Fiordo, 1985). However, Herring (1985) cautioned that, as there are so many tribes in the United States, any generalizations that we make regarding American Indian non-verbal communication have to be accepted with qualification.

The concept of respect is preeminent, and translates into every aspect of Native American communication, including non-verbal. Out of respect, Dakota people communicate indirectly. In order to save face and not be embarrassed or cause another embarrassment, traditional and Native American communicators do not directly ask friends for favors. Bunge (1983) told the story of the Lakota, Indian name for the western Sioux, (Lame Deer & Erdoes, 1972) man who was moving and wanted to see if his friend would help him. In an indirect Lakota style, the man would go over to his friend’s house and have a conversation. After perhaps a half-hour of conversation, the man would then mention in an off-handed manner that he was moving. Approaching the subject of moving in this fashion creates a win-win situation for the friend who is free to offer to help or not. The friend who has not been asked outright is not placed in the position of having to say “No” if, in fact, he does not want to help. If he chooses to offer to help, that would be fine, too, but either way there will be no hurt feelings. If the friend does not offer to help, the two men will have had a pleasant time conversing, and both will have come away with a stronger friendship according to the custom of that culture.
This next story was told by Dr. Lowell Amiotte, (personal communication, 1997) a Lakota who teaches at South Dakota State University. Another instructor at the university wanted to confirm that one of his Indian students hadn’t cheated on a test, so he asked the student, “You didn’t cheat on the test, did you?”

The student whose intent was to agree with the instructor answered “Yes,” meaning “Yes, I didn’t cheat on the test,” or “Yes, I agree with you that I didn’t cheat on the test.”

The instructor had been expecting an answer of “No,” which to him would have meant “No, I didn’t cheat on the test.” The instructor mistakenly assumed that the student was admitting to cheating, and he told the student that she would be punished. The matter still could have been resolved if the student had spoken up and explained to the teacher about the misunderstanding. However, the student was culturally prevented from doing so. To speak up and tell the instructor that he had misunderstood would have taken a direct communication and could be construed as being disrespectful. The student preferred to suffer the punishment rather than “correct” the instructor. The student was in a no-win situation, and she chose punishment over violating her cultural norms. Haven’t we all had instances where our cultural training overrode our common sense?

The last significant contrast that we will discuss is time orientation (Fox, Langbrake, Stands, Whirlwind Soldier, & Woodard, 1992; Herring, 1985; Fiordo, 1991; Horejsi & Pablo, 1993; Robinson-Zanartu, 1996). Traditionally, Native Americans are present-time oriented. In contrast to contemporary society, Native Americans see time as a gift from the creator. Time is not money, but rather a way of discovering one’s life purpose, and experiencing the creation. Relationships supersede where time is concerned. Being “on time” is not as important as having patience or showing respect and caring for others. It could be considered very rude to break off a discussion with someone in order to be “on time” for class (Horejsi & Pablo, 1993).

Overall there is a dearth of literature on Dakota communication, especially literature written by those who know the culture first hand, but there exists enough research from which to conclude that Native American values and non-verbal communication differ, often diametrically, from mainstream communication. Also, researchers agreed that the differences can adversely affect the way the Native American student learns.

1. Several communication textbooks were identified for review. It was discovered that the treatment of the Native American culture was inadequate, and that additional materials with a more specific focus on a particular Native American group would be helpful.

2. Written material about Native Americans was reviewed to discover how guidelines for effective public speaking could be enhanced and made more relevant to Native American students.

3. Many Native Americans were consulted in informal and sometimes lengthy communication settings to gather information pertinent to the Dakota culture, specifically, and the Native American culture, generally.

4. A speech communication classroom was made more culturally relevant beginning fall 1998. Student success rates were tracked from fall 1995 through fall 2000 with the following results: Student success rates in the culturally relevant classes increased by 11 to 12 percent over the success rates of the preceding years.

Teaching with cultural relevancy
The talking feather
Both Hollywood and popular fiction have often portrayed Indians as stoic. Even if the stereotype contains an element of truth, according to Lame Deer and Erdoes (1972), Indians tend to be naturally gregarious. In fact, it could be theorized that the concept of tribal implies a gregariousness. However, getting Native American students to verbally participate isn’t always easy. Many students are taciturn. Some have had negative experiences when they have spoken out in class in the past, and they do not wish to repeat the experience. Others want to know what is going on before they expose themselves to the entire class. Several are truly shy. The Native American culture contains a speaking tradition that works beautifully to draw students out even on the first day of class.
Traditionally, elders used the “talking feather” in order to give individual speakers the opportunity to be heard. The elder would hand the feather to whoever had been chosen to speak. The chosen speaker talked until finished, and then selected the next speaker by handing on the talking feather. The second speaker would then talk until finished, at which time the third speaker would be handed the feather, and so on until everyone had had an opportunity to address the issue being discussed. Only the speaker possessing the feather was allowed to say anything. Interruptions were not allowed.

With some modifications, the talking feather works very well in communication classrooms. After the concept of the talking feather has been carefully explained to the class, a ball can be substituted for the feather. The ball can be thrown easily from one speaker to the next, so speakers can remain seated thus saving time and preventing undue attention from being focused on those students who are more introverted and may feel uncomfortable about getting up and walking in front of their classmates. Students are told that if they do not wish to participate, they can choose to pass. However students are amazingly talkative during this exercise.

Before the start of the class, the instructor can generate a list of questions for the students to answer. Questions, which allow the students to discuss their values, are recommended; for example, If you had six months to live, how would you spend your time? What do you like best about your culture? If you won the lottery, what would you do? In what way(s) are you unique?

The questions-only speech
The following questions-only speech assignment was created with ideas taken from Fiordo and Violato (1993) and Travis (1995). While giving this speech, the speaker is only allowed to use questions. Speakers are asked to refrain from making statements during any part of the speech. Objectives for this speech include: students should be able to think critically about a controversial topic; able to lead a group discussion through the sole use of questions; and able to manage communication fear in an interpersonal setting. While giving the speech, speakers are expected to keep the group from wandering off on tangents, and also to make an effort to involve all of the audience members. Speakers sit in a circle along with their classmates.

Students can be prepared for this assignment with preparatory units on listening, the sociological aspects of the audience, and the psychological aspects.

Class one: Listening
Basically, listening Dakota-style and listening mainstream-style are the same. There is, however, one definite cultural contrast. When Francis Crawford, Dakota elder (personal communication, June 18, 1999), listens to someone else speak, he closes his eyes and leans back away from the speaker. He does this in order to focus totally on the speaker’s verbal message. Many speech students have commented in speech class from time to time that they have been admonished by their elders not to make direct eye contact with a speaker, but rather to look away from the speaker out of respect.

The following exercise can be used in order to give students experience with listening “Dakota style.” Students should work in threesomes. Students can be encouraged to work with classmates whom they do not know very well. One student will be the speaker. A second student will listen with eyes shut and leaning back in the chair. The third student will listen by leaning forward and watching the speaker in a politely intent manner. Speakers can talk about themselves so that the exercise will also help students become better acquainted. The exercise should be repeated with each student having the opportunity to perform each of the three roles. The exercise can be followed-up with a discussion of the students’ reactions to the various roles they have played.

Class two: The sociological aspects of the audience
The second class devoted to preparation for the questions-only speech is spent studying the sociological aspects of the audience. Along with discussing gender, age, and religious differences, the second day offers a wonderful opportunity to discuss cultural distinctiveness.
Clifford Chanku, instructor of Dakota culture and history at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College, as well as instructor of Dakota language at the University of Minnesota Morris, shares with his culture classes “Some Basic Philosophical/Cultural Differences between Sioux and Anglo/Saxons” that he has adapted from Reuben Snake (no date available). According to Chanku:

Sioux perspective
1. Success is measured by the kind of person you are and how you relate to your fellow humans, the animals, the earth, and all of life.
2. It is wrong to hoard wealth; instead what you have should be shared.
3. People learn to rely on each other and depend on mutual support from all tribal members.
4. Teach children by example. Don’t use corporal punishment.
5. “Showing off” in public is showing your ignorance.

Anglo-Saxon perspective
1. Success is measured on the size of your home, how many cars you own, amount of money earned, and the style of clothing worn.
2. Social classes have always existed. There have always been the rich, middle class, and poor.
3. Be independent and self-reliant, because no one will care for you if you are weak.
4. Make children obey by authoritative discipline; react to negative behavior rather than respond to positive behavior.
5. The only way to get ahead is to speak up and voice your needs loudly.
According to Tierney (1995) American Indian students learn better in a classroom that merges the students’ experiences outside the classroom with their experiences in the classroom. This merging of personal experience can be accomplished by allowing students to discuss which perspective “fits” their own personal world view.

Class three: The psychological aspects of the audience
Under the heading of psychological aspects of the audience, the class can discuss adapting to unwilling and passive audiences. This class can also be used to teach students the need to discuss controversial ideas with respect for all others in the classroom. This class is important preparation for those speakers who wish to choose emotionally provocative issues such as mascot names, abortion, etc. When a discussion is handled inappropriately, the resulting debate can be divisive and unsettling in the classroom. However if students are given a strict format to use when discussing potentially unsettling issues, the discussion of these issues can stimulate critical thinking and actual growth on the part of the students.

The Dakota culture contains a format that provides ground rules for debating students to use generally, but mostly especially during the questions-only speeches, when highly controversial topics may be discussed. Bill Iron Moccasin (personal communication, February 2000), a Lakota elder, has created a list of what he calls the “Native American Indian Traditional Code of Ethics.” Some of the points in the code are reproduced below.

1. Respect; respect means “to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider well-being of, or to treat someone or something with deference or courtesy.” Showing respect is a basic law of life. Treat every person, from the tiniest child to the oldest elder, with respect at all times.

2. No person should be made to feel “put down” by you; avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.

3. Never interrupt people who are conversing.

4. Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are in the presence of elders, strangers or others to whom special respect is due.

5. Never speak about others in a negative way, whether they are present or not.

6. Show deep respect for the beliefs and religions of others.

7. Respect demands that you listen intently to the ideas of others in council, and that you do not insist that your idea prevails. Indeed, you should freely support the ideas of others if they are true and good, even if those ideas are different from the ones you have contributed. The clash of ideas brings forth the spark of truth.

8. Be truthful at all times and under all circumstances.

9. The hurt of one is the hurt of all; the honor of one is the honor of all.

10. All races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the creator, they must all be respected.

11. To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation, or the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created. Do not fill yourself with your own affairs, and forget your most important task. True happiness comes only to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

12. Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms, in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet solitude and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.

When the ideas in this code are carefully discussed and set out as guidelines for the students’ behavior during speeches, students have a framework from which to discuss “hot” topics without unnecessary emotionalism
The questions-only speech has been a successful addition to the speech communication classes. In the first place, students have demonstrated an unexpected willingness to give this type of speech. They have exhibited both creativity and an enthusiastic involvement in their preparations, including innovative ways to introduce and conclude their speeches through the exclusive use of questions. Secondly, even the most reticent students, who were members of the audience, contributed in surprisingly articulate and knowledgeable ways when their classmates were leading the discussions. As may be expected, the discussions have been animated. A significant number of students of Sisseton Wahpeton Community College are non-Indian. They have also responded positively to the culturally relevant classroom activities.

In this article, I have discussed concrete ideas that can be used in speech communication classrooms. I will close with one last thought. Students hold a great power over educators. That power is their ability to fail. In the materialistic world, success is measured by such things as student retention rates. In the Indian world, all things are thought to be connected (E. Deloria, 1983). We can look at student success from either perspective and arrive at the same conclusion. If our students fail, then we as educators have also failed. Within the Indian culture lie the keys to both their and our ultimate success as we learn how to teach the way they learn.

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* Elizabeth Wynia earned a master’s degree at North Dakota State University, Fargo, and teaches general education classes at Sisseton Wahpeton Community College.