On Aug. 23, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe opened its new charter school, Kwiyagat Community Academy in Towaoc, to kindergarten and first grade students. Kwiyagat means “bear” in the Ute language. The bear is sacred among the Ute people.

This is a progressive and hopeful event.

For too long, Native children have been denied the opportunity to learn in a safe and supportive environment, free of bias and discrimination. Native students are often the targets of harassment and discrimination by non-Native school personnel and non-Native students in public schools, called names like “chief” and “squaw,” and otherwise bullied.

We’re not talking about the days of Indian boarding schools, in which Native children were forcibly removed from their parents and tribes and forced to “assimilate” – which sometimes included harsh punishments and even death.

We’re talking about now.

Consider that as recently as 2018, an Albuquerque teacher cut a Native student’s hair without her permission after asking the girl if she liked her braids.

According to The Washington Post, Leon Howard, the legal director of the ACLU of New Mexico, called the act “unconscionable”:

“Anyone with even an iota of cultural awareness knows that in Native American cultures hair is sacred ... Beyond that, the cruel implications of (the teacher’s) actions hark back to the era of Native American boarding schools, when the cutting of Native students’ hair was a form of punishment inflicted by school masters in a racist attempt to strip children of their heritage and culture.”

In fact, such a boarding school existed here in Southwest Colorado. Ute Mountain Boarding School administrators did not allow Native children to speak their language, according to a Ute Mountain council member who attended the government school, which closed in 1958.

As a result of such policies, many Native tribes have struggled to preserve their languages and to sustain their cultural heritage.

At the new school, children will study ordinary elementary school curriculum – and tribal elders will visit to teach the Ute language and its stories to the little ones.

Kwiyagat Community Academy is the first Native public institution approved by the Colorado Charter School Institute, but it is not the first tribal school in Southwest Colorado.

The Southern Ute Indian Montessori Academy in Ignacio has been open for many years and teaches Ute children from infancy through age 12, combining the Montessori method with the aim to “preserve and share the Southern Ute Indian culture,” according to its website.

It seems ironic that society has shifted 180 degrees from the days when the dominant white culture believed the best hope for Native people was to remove their “Indianness” and make them more like us. Now we can see the error of that notion – that in fact, Native culture is of great value, not just to them but to all of society. Attend the annual Indian Market in Santa Fe and watch as white Americans eagerly query the Native artists about their artwork, their tribes, their beliefs; it’s clear many white people now believe Native people carry knowledge from which all can learn.

On the whole, American society benefits from its diversity. We are made stronger by virtue of our differences. All of us who are non-Native occupants of this land came from somewhere else; we are the descendants of immigrants, with roots in another culture or cultures. Native history and experience in this region stretches thousands of years before that of early Spanish settlers and Northern Europeans, who came much later.

We would like to think it’s not too late to learn from each other, to put aside fears of those who are different than we are. A friend used to say, “There are lots of ways to be in the world,” and maybe the best way to be is curious, interested and open to what we can learn from others.

Congratulations to the Ute Mountain Ute on the new school, and to the Southern Ute for its longstanding tribal school.

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