NIOBRARA, Neb. (AP) — As he sits alone in his classroom, Redwing Thomas can feel the eyes of the Santee Sioux Nation upon him.
Thomas, a tribal member himself, teaches the Dakota language and culture for grades K-12 at the Isanti (formerly Santee) Community Schools. This year, he also teaches those subjects at the Santee campus of the Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC).
Along two walls of his classroom, portraits of tribal leaders represent the Santee Sioux history, from its original Minnesota homeland to the forced 1860s relocation of members to the current reservation in northeast Nebraska.
“These are our great ancestors,” he said. “I recount that trail so people understand why we’re here at Santee today. People have got to know it.”
In honor of his work, Thomas was recently recognized as the 2021 recipient of Launch Leadership’s Ron Joekel Award. Uncomfortable with the attention, he hadn’t planned to attend the awards ceremony but changed his mind at the last minute.
At the awards program in Lincoln, he spoke of the efforts of the entire Santee school and community. In addition, he addressed the importance of embracing and celebrating cultural differences, the Yankton Press and Dakotan reported.
While Thomas wasn’t seeking it, he had caught the attention of state officials. Lane Carr with the Nebraska Department of Education met Thomas during a visit. Carr also serves on the Launch Leadership board and nominated Thomas for the Ron Joekel Award.
The award recognizes an educator who elevates student voices and who creates leadership opportunities and advocates for them, according to Carr. In particular, Carr noted Thomas’ use of hands-on experiences in the classroom.
Larry Baker, the school’s secondary principal and athletic director, described Thomas as a “1% person” because of his unique talents as both an educator and individual. Thomas sees his work as a mission, not a job, and has traveled long distances to sing at funerals or lead traditional healing prayers, the principal said.
“There is urgency for Redwing. He is determined not to let the language and culture die,” Baker said. “We have maybe three or four (residents) on our reservation who speak the language. We’re lucky to have him here.”
As one of Thomas’ hands-on projects, students are filling a wall with their images of what makes up Indian Country.
“It is more than a place. It’s its own world with its own functions, its own culture and its own protocol,” Thomas said. “It’s a world that’s mostly misunderstood, but it’s something that is a very beautiful place.”
One project went far beyond his expectations when students produced a mini-documentary — reflecting their perspective — about the Santee Sioux history. They conducted all the research and production, even working weekends and holidays.
“I wanted them to be proud, and they showed it with this particular project,” he said. “They’re always told how bad it is with Santee, what’s wrong with Santee. They get pushed down, and our kids are pushing back and pushing each other up. Everything is about going up and not down.”
While painful, it’s important for students to learn about the Santee Sioux forced relocation and other tribal struggles, Thomas said. “We’re survivors, and we can take that survival instinct and push back and become the best we can,” he said.
Thomas teaches the Dakota language, which is offered as the cultural language rather than one of the European languages. He takes no credit, but he was pleased when the school district changed its name from “Santee” to the traditional “Isanti” name in recent years.
Not all of the history and culture is taught in the classroom.
Last July, a procession passed through the reservation carrying the remains of nine children who died from 1880-1910 at the government-run boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. A procession escorted the children to their traditional burial ground on the Rosebud Sioux reservation in western South Dakota.
During the procession, the vehicles and escorts stopped briefly at the Ohiya Casino outside Santee and the Fort Randall Casino near Pickstown for prayer, honoring and remembrance. The Isanti school recently held a Day of Remembrance for the children who died in the boarding schools.
“It’s very painful, but it’s a very important part of the process to have our ancestors back. They are our grandmas and grandpas, our great-grandmas and great-grandpas,” he said. “Yes, they were children at the time, but having them back now is so very important. It’s closure, it’s healing and it’s strength all wrapped up in grief. It’s a mix of emotions, and there is beauty in all of that.”
The story about the boarding schools and the children’s remains is just unfolding and has gained tremendous momentum, he said.
Thomas is making an impact on today’s young tribal members, according to student Octavia Blue Bird.
“I believe he is a good teacher because of how involved he is with the class he teaches. He makes sure you understand it, and if you don’t, he will tell it in another way,” she said. “He is very one-to-one with you. He is very real, too. Thomas will tell it how it is, and he will also give his experiences.”
Thomas holds a great gift of story telling, Blue Bird said.
“He knows how to keep everything interesting and intriguing. Along with how good of a teacher he is, he also has a big impact on us children,” she said. “He inspires me with different things every day. He pushes us to do our best. He is the best because he wants the best. He advocates for the betterment of not only ourselves but everyone around us. He is very caring and just overall a great teacher.”
Thomas admits he didn’t plan to serve as a Native American cultural instructor. For that matter, he didn’t even plan to remain on the Santee Sioux reservation.
After high school graduation, he attended Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. College didn’t work out, and he returned to Santee, finding himself unsatisfied with life.
“I knew I wanted more. By then, I was a young father, 18 years old with my first child. It was tough, and I couldn’t have done it without my parents,” he said. “I remember looking at (my son), he was just a baby. I wanted to get my life on track.”
Thomas saw an advertisement for a language teacher for a program serving Native Americans. Intrigued, he applied and was selected from among 200 applicants. The five chosen for the work were sent to schools across Indian Country, conducting programs across the United States and Canada.
He began teaching in 2003, first at the nearby Marty Indian School in South Dakota for two years. He developed a passion for working with children and sharing the culture in which he was born and raised.
The Native American culture can be found in many ways, such as the regalia at powwows, Thomas said. “This isn’t novelty dress up or some show we’re putting on. This is our people and their culture and language that need to be celebrated,” he said.
Native Americans hold an awareness of their culture, but they have been forbidden to practice it over the years and have been punished for it, Thomas said. He wants to bring back those practices for all generations.
“It’s something that’s been kept from us over time,” he said. “It’s the process of rebuilding, reclaiming and renewing interest.”
The learning process isn’t limited to Native Americans, Thomas said. He noted the controversy surrounding mascots and stereotypes.
However, Thomas also stresses to his students that the historical actions of one group toward another doesn’t define today’s individuals. Also, he reminds them that they can hold racist attitudes toward others.
“I don’t want our kids to hold a historical grudge,” he said.
The students also need to realize they represent the Santee Sioux wherever they go, Thomas said.
“When you go to Yankton, show them the beauty of who you are, because it reflects on the whole tribe,” he said. “You are there as an individual, but people watch your behavior and it reflects on all of us.”
Thomas credited a team effort for recent successes at the school, but he does believe the students, staff and tribal members have responded positively to his classes. “I think, when the culture became a big part of it, you could see a flip. When the culture was set free, a big turnaround happened,” he said.
At the Launch Leadership ceremony in Lincoln, Thomas said he noted that diversity brings strength to the nation. “I like to see us as a big jigsaw puzzle, where everyone is a special piece. When you put it all together, you form a beautiful picture.”
However, Thomas realizes much work remains beyond his lifetime. “It took three or four generations to take it out of us, and it will take three or four generations to get it back.”
As he reflects in his classroom, Thomas thinks about himself as the young man who once left the reservation in search of something else.
“I love Santee,” he said. “I left, came back, left again and then returned. I’m here for good. I want to be here and it’s where I belong.”