Columbia University students encourage high school students on reservations to talk about historical trauma


This article is by Orly Morgan, board member AlterNATIVE Education, Columbia College Class of 2017.

           Summer is known as a time for students to rest and relax after months of classes; but for AlterNATIVE Education, summer means business. The team is quickly preparing to train facilitators, book flights and put the finishing touches on curriculum that it will teach to Native American students on 10 different reservation communities around the country

          AlterNATIVE Education is a not-for-profit organization which started at Columbia University and was designed by indigenous students and non-indigenous allies in response to the very high drop-out rate and low college entrance rate of Native American students.. The program is a one-week  intensive workshop in which facilitators lead students through such topics as Native history, settler colonialism, historical trauma and college prep. 

The main goals of the organization are to encourage Native American high school students to pursue higher education, and to be engaged citizens within their own community.

“It is amazing to see how the conversation evolves throughout the week from ‘Should i go to college?’ to ‘Which college should I go to?’” said Kyle Sebastian, a facilitator and a member of the Columbia University class of 2016.

“One of the topics that I think is really important that gets discussed is historical trauma,” said Violet Victoria, the logistical coordinator for AlterNative and a Columbia University rising junior.

Historical trauma can be broadly defined as the intergenerational psychological harm that has resulted from mass trauma. Historical trauma often manifests in negative and harmful ways.

“The first step toward healing is recognizing that there was harm done [to indigenous peoples], and that that harm is intergenerational. Talking about these issues is cathartic – it’s medicine. You have to clean a wound before you can heal it,” Victoria said.

AlterNATIVE is part of a larger movement among university campuses to focus more on service-based learning. The program was founded at Columbia under the mentorship of Dan Press, a professor and lawyer who has been encouraging the university to engage more with a service-style approach to learning, as a supplement to the traditional classroom approach.

The AlterNATIVE program grew out of a course -- "Issues in Modern Native American Education" -- Press taught in 2013 in which the students examined the data showing that not only did Native American high school students have the highest drop-out rate of any ethnic group in the country, unlike other ethnic groups, their drop-out rate is increasing rather than diminishing.

After studying all of the theories seeking to explain the drop-out rate, the Columbia students concluded that historical trauma provided the best explanation. They also decided that rather than just studying the problem, they wanted to do something about it. Having learned that Native American high school students rarely are given an opportunity in school to talk about historical trauma and the genocide against Native Americans and their culture that caused it, they decided to create a curriculum that gave the high school students an opportunity to talk about those issues, along with Native Americans’ resilience and recovery from the efforts to exterminate them and eliminate their culture.

Violet Victoria, a Cherokee from Oklahoma and a rising junior at Columbia University, talked yesterday with 35 middle and high school students on the Menominee Reservation in the Wisconsin woods.

Now in its fourth summer, AlterNative currently hosts its program in four states on 10 different reservations. The reviews of AlterNative have been overwhelmingly positive on the participating reservations.

Zowie Banteah-Yuselew, a local resident of Zuni Pueblo who helped launch AlterNative on the ground with the organization Zuni Youth Enrichment Program, said: “I've seen AE become a vehicle for not only empowerment but action. The students’ transformation in a week shows and they're being challenged to think critically about their future.”

The program is supported in part through grants and in part through donations and crowdfunding. The AlterNative donation page on Razoo is













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