Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A chance to repay Indian people

Venita Chenault-White, a member of of our tribe struggled with career choices as she neared completing a M.S.W. in Social Work in 1990.

Deep down she wanted to teach and give something back to Indian people, but figured landing a teaching position would take a few years so she went to work at a substance abuse center in Kansas City. A year later an unexpected call came from Haskell Indian Junior College that launched Chenault-Whites teaching career. The school was in the midst of revitalizing their social work program and would soon undergo a name change to Haskell All Nations University. Attendance at the largest Indian university in the United States averages 850 students per semester, representing 140 Indian nations and 40 states.

Making that career change was not easy since she had some trepidation about working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs - an agency with a long history of working against the interests of Indian people - but an older uncle said,

“You can stand outside these institutions but changes to the system must come from the inside.” Chenault-White took his advice and has had an interesting and rewarding teaching experience.

“I feel like I have made a change in the system by preparing Indian students to go back into their communities to make a positive impact.” And most of all, it was a chance to repay the Indian people for their many cultural teachings over the years. She has incorporated these teachings into her classes when it is appropriate.

“Indian people share a core philosophy - a respect for the Creator and a recognition that we are all related,” said Chenault-White. Chenault-White also states that learning and teaching can come from many sources including young people. “I have a chance to learn from the richness of each of their cultures.”

In her classes, Chenault-White integrates knowledge developed by Indian scholars and Indian methods developed in Indian communities. She has a strong belief that the solution to Indian problems lie within these teachings. It is disheartening, for Chenault-White, to see many of her students disconnected from their cultures and sometimes in a state of hopelessness, but she has faith in each one of her students and can see unlimited potential. Chenault-White disagrees with the prevailing “wisdom” of many high school teachers who have said or shown in their actions that little needs to be done to prepare Indian students for college because they aren’t going anywhere.

This practice hurts the Indian college student and in turn the Indian communities. Chenault-White wants to change those perceptions by showing students she cares. Did she make the right career choice? Although some people discouraged her from going into the social work field, Chenault-White relied on her convictions.

“It’s important to do what you want in life.”

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