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Opinion: 7 tips to respectfully celebrate Native American Heritage Month

How do you celebrate another culture respectfully? Follow these tips

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Honey sings at a celebration commemorating the beginning of Native American Heritage Month in Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2022.

Honey sings at a celebration commemorating the beginning of Native American Heritage Month at the Salt Lake City-County Building on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As an educator and professional development provider for an organization committed to helping schools across the state incorporate the arts into classrooms, I have always valued the inclusion of arts from all cultures. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, I want to share what I have learned in working with the Indigenous people of Utah to create an initiative that amplifies Native voices and promotes the exploration of all cultures. 

About a decade ago, teachers began reporting a reluctance to bring works of art from Indigenous cultures into the classroom after misunderstandings about cultural appropriation. Dances, music and works of art with religious and sacred meanings require an informed instructional approach.

In 2018, I hired Brenda Beyal (Navajo Dineì), an elementary teacher for 34 years, to develop arts-integrated lesson plans for the BYU ARTS Partnership. She helped us identify content in our materials that could be considered insensitive. I asked her to teach us how to do better. I committed to learn more about Native American cultures and to be an ally of these often marginalized groups. 

Today, Brenda is the coordinator of our Native American Curriculum Initiative, collaborating with each of the eight sovereign nations in Utah. Our guiding question is, “What do you want the children of Utah to know about your tribe?” To date, 20 tribe-approved lesson plans have been completed. 

As the initiative grew, seven guiding principles emerged to support our work. These guiding principles have changed the way I see multicultural education and changed me for the better.

First, we learned that our conversations improve when we start with asking everyone to “know your own culture.” Before you can embrace other cultures, it’s vital to understand who you are and where you come from. This provides solid ground to appreciate differences and not be afraid of them. What are the foods, music, dances, styles of art and theater that are prevalent in your own culture? How does your community pass on their values, beliefs and traditions? 

From our first conversation, Brenda and I agreed to “assume goodwill and learn from mistakes.” We asked our team to allow “yourself grace for mistakes of the past and offer grace to others as we learn together.”

We then recommended that when learning about cultures, “use accurate and original sources in history and the present.” As part of this, recognize the value of learning from authentic voices who live in the culture. Respect the “knowledge keepers”: those who speak the language, carry the stories or have mastered traditional skills. Honor the official voices who have the authority to speak for the group. 

To build relationships, we “ask questions with genuine intent and listen attentively.” Then, we check for understanding before we act on what we heard. When we were told that some songs and dances were not for those outside the tribe to perform, we learned the next principle, which is to accept ‘no’ gracefully.” 

As our relationships and understanding grew, opportunities to “embrace partnership and reciprocity emerged, increasing the exchange of ideas, resources and time. This guiding principle has created a community of dozens of organizations with people committed to communicate respectfully and strengthen our Utah community. 

Our last principle is to “allow the time needed for authentic growth.” Early in the initiative, we let go of quotas and deadlines because building trust takes time. We wait until the hearts and minds of those involved align before moving forward. Indeed, we must go slower to go further.

To celebrate Native American Heritage Month, I celebrate all I have learned and my relationships with those who are learning with me. I invite readers to reflect on our guiding principles and take steps to expand their understanding of the diverse people living in and around Utah. Read our tribe-approved lesson plans that have inspired thousands of school children. Listen to our Native American Series on the “Artful Teaching” podcast. Read about the 33 Native artists on the Utah Artist Roster and check out their handles on social media. Visit a museum featuring the work of Native artists.

I hope all of us will discover knowledge and wisdom from various cultures so we can open our hearts to a future where all children find their culture respectfully represented in the school curriculum, and everyone knows that they belong. 

Cally Flox is the founding director of the BYU ARTS Partnership, where ARTS stands for Arts Reaching and Teaching in Schools. Visit advancingartsleadership.com to access lesson plans, blog posts, podcasts and social media links for educators and parents. Opinions expressed do not reflect official policies or positions of Brigham Young University.