Embedding Local Culture in Student Learning
The unorthodox journey of a rural district serving Native American youth that aspires for organizational excellence
BY LARRY W. OUIMETTE/School Administrator, April 2021

Larry Ouimette believes the public respect of local culture has significant bearing on the success of students in his schools. PHOTOS COURTESY OF LARRY OUIMETTE
In the middle of spring break a year ago, the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Indians invited me, the superintendent of a small school district in northern Wisconsin, to an emergency Tribal Council meeting.

It was at this meeting that the tribe’s health department asked our district to immediately shut down school to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the reservation. Council members were committed to protecting the elderly and providing time for the tribal medical community to prepare for any outbreaks. That same afternoon, I joined the school board at an emergency meeting, where the five board members quickly approved the tribal request.

While this might seem an unorthodox way to decide on a school district closure, our response to COVID-19 reflected how closely the Lac du Flambeau School District partners with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Ojibwe Indians. As the administrator of a public school district situated within the Lac du Flambeau Reservation in the Great Northwoods of Wisconsin, I work with a school board that embraces a policy governance model and encourages me to coordinate with the Tribal Council on the district’s behalf.

The COVID-19 closure served as a reminder for us to center the culture of students and their families into our district decision making and practices, a goal I think many of us believe in but something that can be difficult to achieve. I suppose this is what is referred to as the blessing and the curse of the global pandemic. Regardless, it was the impetus for real change, and our lessons in this process are transferable to all kinds of school communities.

A Historical Context

As school district administrator, I recognize that the other executive leader in Lac du Flambeau, the tribal president, lives in a culture where multiple generations of a family often reside together. The Tribal Council’s health department had been tracking COVID-19 before much of the world was paying as close attention to the impending pandemic and understood the dangers of asymptomatic school children bringing the virus home to their elderly grandparents.

Lac du Flambeau’s prekindergarten through 8th-grade population is 550 students. Of this number, approximately 95 percent are members of the tribe.

This scenario illustrates the relevant cultural tradition of sharing family space with several generations in which elders are revered and cared for as the first line of thinking and action.

To provide deeper context about Lac du Flambeau School District’s relationship with the Ojibwe, I believe historical context points to the implications for K-12 education. The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) Indians has inhabited the Lac du Flambeau area since 1745, when Chief Giishkiman (Sharpened Stone) led the band to the region.

The band acquired the name Lac du Flambeau from its gathering practice of harvesting fish at night by torchlight. Lac du Flambeau, or Lake of the Torches, refers to this practice and was given to the band by the French traders and trappers who visited the area. Having inhabited the area for nearly 300 years, the Chippewa Indians maintain a prominent and integrated role in the region’s organizations and systems. I live out this multigenerational context in teaching and learning.

While Ojibwe are long-established here, the minority-majority in the surrounding communities is Caucasian. Historically, the cultures have been far apart in values and life experiences in critical ways. Most recently, in the 1980s Ojibwe tribal members were threatened and harassed at boat landings for practicing their right to spear fish in lakes located off reservation in ceded territory.

Seven Teachings

This cultural divide played out as students moved through the education system. Over the years, generations of Ojibwe families were marginalized and disadvantaged in systemic and personal manners. With historical trauma and oppression at that fundamental level of existence, there can be deep fractures in health care, access to employment and associated outcomes of unemployment, addiction and even legal issues that land a disproportionate percentage of the parents of students in the prison system.

Larry Ouimette (center rear), uses every opportunity possible to highlight history and culture of the Native Americans who attend the Lac du Flambeau School District in Lac du Flambeau, Wis. PHOTO COURTESY OF LARRY OUIMETTE
As a result, in some cases, the home life that is essential to the basic needs of students can be absent, diminished or altogether neglected. In combination with this systematic layer of oppression, the Ojibwe and the majority/minority at times seem to operate in their own silos of life in the Great Northwoods. This makes cultural artifacts front and center to the lives of those students for whom heritage and the story of collective struggle is central and important to their multigenerational shared history.

As a way of connecting Lac du Flambeau’s history with current reality, we seek to contribute to teaching and learning of our students in all spaces of their lives. Our mission is simple and straightforward, but expansive: Do what it takes to foster student success.

Our vision statement places cultural sensitivity at the forefront of the classroom experience. To illustrate our integration of Ojibwe cultural context with Lac du Flambeau teaching and learning, our values are influenced by the tribe.

In addition to placing traditional good-action words, such as respect for themselves, others and the environment broadly at the top of the values list, we take our work to the next highest level by following the Seven Grandfather Teachings: Wisdom, Love, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Humility and Truth. This makes it possible for values of the school to align with values of the home in ways that are meaningful.

According to the historical narratives around these values, the Seven Grandfather Teachings remind us how to treat one another and our children. The teachings highlight that each of us is responsible for taking care of the children and the world around us. In a forward-thinking promise, the children are, in turn, the ones who must care for the earth tomorrow and for the generations to come. The seven teachings are expected to be lived consistently and concurrently.

The way this translates into day-to-day life for Lac du Flambeau School District is through high expectations for students in caring for each other and for their families — within and across the two cultures that may collide when they cross the doorway into the school system and the surrounding communities.

Authentic Partnering

We work continuously at closing the gap between the educational experiences and historical divisions of the residents and students of our community. Primarily, we attempt this by integrating local, culturally appropriate and rich curriculum into subject areas. Secondly, we partner with the local community as closely as possible in school-related but authentic settings.

Examples of our overall integration include our involvement with the tribe in traditional, seasonal activities, such as wild rice gathering and whitefish netting in the fall, snowshoe making, fishing through the ice and participation in traditional Ojibwe winter games, spearing fish and traveling to the sugar bush to gather and process maple sap in the spring, birch bark, strawberry and blueberry harvesting along with deer hide tanning and participation in traditional ceremonies in the summer.

In travel and entertainment literature, Lac du Flambeau is billed as the place to refresh one’s spirit. It is a lovely sentiment that remains authentic about our community. The life spirit of the Ojibwe tribe is alive and well, so we do our part as the major school district in our community to respect and integrate the cultural artifacts into all aspects of education.

As the country deals with the devastating effects of COVID-19 on the economy and all systems, we share those similar, collective experiences of the tragedy, of course. However, on top of these shared tragedies, we live the reality of being a community with families who have already experienced significant trauma for many generations.

Thus, in addition to curricular integration of native content, we also try to add deeper support of student services. In the Lac du Flambeau School District and community, we live the great divide of necessity and strong desire for cultural preservation while struggling to combat the negative outcomes of minority status.

Closing Divides

The purpose of our continuous improvement journey is to continue to close the divide of Ojibwe students as they share educational and residential space with students from surrounding communities. Together, despite our differences, we call Lac du Flambeau and the surrounding area home.

In line with our values, we intend on listening and growing as a community in ways that respect Ojibwe roots and values while paying attention to all avenues to increase success for our students.

LARRY OUIMETTE is superintendent of the Lac du Flambeau School District in Lac du Flambeau, Wis. Gayle Juneau-Butler, a leader coach with Studer Education, contributed to this article.