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American Indian School Leadership

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

Recognizing and nurturing the cultural identity of students, staff, and the community is a culturally responsive leadership approach that has benefited schools, particularly in the American Indigenous communities. Indeed, scholars collectively argue that the cultural and social capital of Indigenous First Nation, and English language learner students are routinely not recognized or valued, and thus their geniuses not tapped (Ginwright, 2004; Monkman, Ronald, & Théramène, 2005; Ream & Rumberger, 2008; Yosso, 2005). Ahnee-Benham and Napier (2002) suggested that the validation of Nation and Indigenous cultural practices must be a part of any leadership practice. Whereas Western researchers critique the role of strong relationships and help as nepotism in education, this assistance can be an admirable aspect of social-capital that can play a positive role for school leadership of First Nation peoples.

It has been widely reported that minoritized school identities are often marginalized, excluded, and eventually pressured out of school (Ferguson, 2001; Lipman, 2003; Monroe, 2006). But culturally responsive schooling accepts and validates the Indigenous home cultures and proclivities of students. So although receiving a good education and having highly qualified teachers is paramount, these benefits do not transcend the need for Indigenous identities and communities to be valued in school—in their authentic expressions—and the principal is central in constructing these spaces (Chambers & McCready, 2011; Ginwright, 2004; Khalifa, 2010). It has been difficult for educators and researchers to accept this native, Indigenous student though, and schools often become hostile to many of these identities (J. Davis, 2001; Ferguson, 2001; Low, 2010).

Wayne (2009) examined the experiences of American Indian public school district education leaders on an Indian reservation. In his endeavor to preserve native knowledge and also support the cultural identity of the community, he opted to involve parents and communities in the process of creating a culturally relevant curriculum. As the study verified, “Cultural identity has an impact on the voice of the individual, tribe, and community, and having a voice is essential to feeling valued, respected, listened to, heard, and validated as American Indian people” (Wayne, 2009, p. 170). By inviting the community to take part in critical educational decisions, school leaders will have made an effort to take care of some of the cultural conflicts that are bound to arise between school administrators and the broader community outside school.

Warner and Grint’s (2006) study, similarly, challenged the Western leadership approaches by developing a first/Indigenous nations leadership model to illustrate that leadership approaches adopted by some American Indian tribes are merely different but not deficient. As Warner and Grint stated, “American Indian leadership was often interpreted by non-Indigenous observers as an inability to lead rather than a different ability to lead” (p. 225). According to Warner and Grint, Western models usually exemplify positional leadership, whereas American Indian leadership models quite often value persuasive methods. The findings from their study confirmed that persuasion works best in American Indian education institutions not because “American Indian traditions are ethically superior to traditional western models” (Warner & Grint, 2006, p. 227), but because they are different and culturally responsive components of leadership in American Indian school contexts.

IINII uses a revolutionary Design Thinking process to help your students and staff members gain an understanding of one’s sense of self and what they deeply value. Having an understanding of one’s values matters because research has shown it is linked to better well-being, less stress and delinquency, and increased confidence in one’s ability to succeed. Understanding students’ values can be developed with culturally responsive practices that reflect a student’s identity and experience. Particularly helpful is focusing efforts on cultural competence and relevance and providing opportunities for staff and students to practice bridging differences between diverse identities in a safe environment. To learn how you can create a safe and dynamic learning environment that honors your school community, visit our website at, or contact us at or 1800-507-2502.

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