The American Indian Academy of Denver will not be closing its doors to students this school year, but students and teachers remain in a fog of uncertainty, not knowing what to expect for the next academic year.
“The announcement of AIAD closing broke our hearts. The school means a lot to people, even if we are an under-enrolled school,” said Galilea Cano, a ninth-grader who attends AIAD with her eighth-grade brother Axel.
“The school is special to me because it’s actually one of the first schools that I ever went to that let me be myself and let me become who I am now and to like it,” said Galilea. “We didn’t really know much about what happened in the past because we were whitewashed until we started going to this school.”
In a communications sent on October 22nd, Denver Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Alex Marrero, discussed the future plans for AIAD. He acknowledged that with any DPS school, student enrollment “drives the fiscal foundation of a school. Low enrollment equates to fewer financial resources to operate a school.”
“The school is currently slated to run out of funds by February 2023, says DPS spokesperson Rachel Childress. “Denver Public Schools has offered to partner with AIAD to bolster the Native American programming at DCIS Baker in an effort to serve the students currently enrolled at AIAD.”
The plans will begin at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. Current Principal, Rachel Bachmann, who is Dakota, reflects on what would happen if AIAD closes its doors.
“The biggest detriment is that we’d have 140 students who are missing out on their language and culture and their ability to really dive in and learn their subjects with their language and culture attached to it,” said Bachmann. “We have indigenized STEAM. It’s not just science and math, it’s tailored to teach students about their language and culture within that. That would be lost.”
AIAD greatly prioritizes the idea of a safe space that allows students to explore their identities. Upon entering the school you are greeted with a ‘welcome’ sign and the sound of students enthusiastically interacting with peers and teachers during their passing periods. People are immersed in a pool of culture as they walk into the school and see student artwork on display that portrays Indigenous culture. Signs say “Are you being a good relative today?” This is an important question that students are encouraged to ask themselves throughout their day.
Axel and Galilea Cano, have been attending AIAD since it opened in 2020. The way each Cano sibling talks about their school shows that they have an appreciation for it that runs deeper than just school spirit. To them, it’s not a school where you are just a number, but a safe space where you are equal and truly cared for by teachers and peers.
“Being safe as an indigenous human is that we have been so unsafe for years. We haven’t been able to look the way we want to look, dress the way we want to dress, to practice the culture,” said Bachmann. “When you talk about a safe space, it’s a space to do that too.”
To Axel and Galilea, a safe space starts by looking at how teachers treat students.
“All these teachers want to get to know you better. They are always here for you whenever you break down, or whenever you’re sad. You can always ask them a question without being sad or scared,” said Galilea.
Axel adds, “A reason why I like this school is the teachers. You can make strong bonds with them and they care about what you say.”
With a safe space comes being able to explore identity as well as spirituality, according to Bachmann. She reflects on her time as a student and realizes that she was taught to think about her culture and identity in a certain way.
“It’s almost like I was taught in a way that Indigenous people aren’t even around anymore, like a ‘has-been’ type of thing, and that there’s still not indigenous communities alive and thriving anywhere,” said Bachmann.
Bachmann’s experience as a student serves as motivation to help students reconnect with their identities at AIAD. Galilea has learned about her native history and her own culture, which she has never been able to do in other schools.
Galilea says that the most eye-opening thing she has learned at AIAD was that people in history have tried to cover up tragedies and massacres. Most holidays, such as Thanksgiving, she says serve as cover-ups. Celebration on certain holidays hides a whole genocide of her people. For Axel, teachings at AIAD, has taught him to be a better peer to his fellow classmates.
“I read something about the Aztecs and how they had very advanced agriculture and stewards, but everything was based around each other. They chose the needs of the community over an individual which made me open my eyes to caring more about my peers rather than myself,” said Axel.
At AIAD, Axel is currently learning Diné, which is one of the three languages taught at his school. The other languages are Lakota and Spanish. To Bachmann, learning languages is also a way of enforcing identity and revitalizing culture and language.
“By providing the language here and providing this education, we’re demanding our culture back and we’re taking it because we don’t have to ask anybody,” said Bachmann. “So like Axel was saying, he’s Mexica in a Diné class and his sister is in the Lakota class. They get to explore this world of indigeneity in ways that no other school provides,” said Bachmann.
Spirituality is another key theme in a safe space. Bachmann points to traditional medicines on the table in her office. To Bachmann, religion is culture.
“We have our culture with our beliefs. Oh, you’re practicing religion? No, it’s cultural that we burn our medicines and put the smoke up in the air. It’s a belief system, but it’s cultural.”
This value of spiritual safety can be seen in the after-school club that Axel participates in where they had recently dissected a bird, but did it in an honorary way that taught the students to value the bird and its parts.
AIAD stands firm in their Lakota and Diné through their curriculum of how to be a good relative through the chant “Mitakuye Oyasin” which translates to “we are all related.” The curriculum is based on the four Rs which are respect, responsibility, relationships, and reciprocity.
“The reason why we prioritize safe space is because other schools don’t and won’t. They might say they do, but the thing is there’s a grander understanding of indigeneity at the school because that’s what the values are founded upon. I do know that as a student myself, at one point, there wasn’t support for my indigeneity,” said Bachmann.
Bachmann encourages other schools to build relationships with their students and to understand how culture can impact who a student is and how they go about life. Understanding that all people’s history is American history is another important factor in trying to create a safe space to support their indigeneity.
“Don’t get me wrong. The spirits of our students are really strong and they’ll want to say that they will be okay, but spiritually, there’s going to be that connection and a big piece missing from the community,” said Bachmann.