RSIC Education Column: Bringing our ancestors to school |

RSIC Education Column: Bringing our ancestors to school

Justin Zuniga
Special to First Nation’s Focus
Justin Zuniga

Once a month, I submit a monthly RSIC Educational Advisor-Monthly Report, in which I produce a status update on our Hungry Valley Education Center (Sparks, Nevada) to the RSIC Education Manager at Edu. HQ (Reno, Nevada).

We closely monitor seven distinct “Education Department Goals” as the vital signs of the Tribe’s Education Program. They are as follows, in no particular order of magnitude:

1.) Develop, implement, and facilitate the RSIC Education Department to benefit the community through initiatives, support, opportunities, and programs.

2.) Facilitate academic achievement and career development/advancement.

3.) Increase participation and involvement of students, parents, and the community in student success and post-secondary education and careers.

4.) Develop and maintain partnerships with community resources and schools. Collaborate with other RSIC Programs.

5.) Increase cultural pride and awareness by promoting cultural activities, events, and traditions.

6.) Develop and maintain productive partnerships with individuals and families to improve personal responsibility and accountability.

7.) Promote family-centered approach to improving communication and encouragement.

For our readership, I gladly itemize our Education objectives to garner some sort of accountability from those individuals also receiving services from RSIC Edu. Please feel free to rate us on your score card at home. Even feel free to leave constructive comments or special requests on this story at

This month, let’s address Objective Five, “Increase cultural pride and awareness by promoting cultural activities, events, and traditions,” because that is the sole objective that sets our tribal academic institution apart from the public schools where our enrolled members attend.

All of the other remaining objectives are strategically developed by our RSIC Tribal Admin to reflect the best practices of Nevada DOE (Department of Education) and legitimizes us as an upstanding academic partner. However, Objective Five provides the critical cultural component that makes it uniquely a tribal academic experience.

Objective Five, in essence, empowers our Tribe to push the boundaries of the cultural dichotomy that all Natives navigate. I heard one of my student’s parent’s say recently, “If my child is culturally-centered, then when they face an obstacle in their life they can use their culture as a source of strength to find the best answer.” With Objective Five, we are creating culturally-centered students!

Further, the culture that we are instilling in our students at home is infiltrating the public schools and becoming popularized. Our Tribal culture is finding a hold in these schools, and it’s growing.

The lessons of our grandparents are starting be taught in those classrooms, and the non-Native students are listening too. Our ancestors are coming to school with us, and they are the cool kids. We are changing the culture of our public schools to match the unique needs of our community, instead of our people bending to conform to the public school’s culture.

The cultural tides of our public schools are shifting favorably. Here are some of the tactics we’ve utilized to create that space for students to be their culturally-authentic-selves in their schools.

Of course, possessing a strong cultural self-worth starts with learning your Native Language. RSIC’s Language & Culture program has been the biggest advocate for the Paiute Language classes that are being taught in three WCSD high schools, as well as offering nearly a dozen community language classes ranging from emerging language learners to classes for our Elders to stay sharp.

Further, our Eagle Wings Singers and Dancers are truly “Cultural Ambassadors” as they perform regularly throughout Reno and Northern Nevada, and they share songs and stories of the Great Basin cultures with the general public.

Conversely, I am always in the habit of inviting our school district’s faculty and staff to come visit our RSIC communities and attend a powwow, a basketball tourney, or even attend a sweat lodge.

I bring these non-Native members into our communities and try to explain it to them, “You see! That same culture-shock that you are feeling right now, that is how our students feel when they enter your classroom for the first time. If you are the teacher, it is important for you to feel this in order to connect with our kiddos.”

This positive momentum will continue in our favor as long as RSIC Edu. and other like-minded Natives within our communities keep pushing cultural boundaries as creating cultural awareness in new places. Especially in the classroom, where our ancestors had endured immense trauma, I hope our students are proud to represent their Native culture because they know that their ancestors are proud to see them too.

Justin Zuniga works as an RSIC Education Advisor at the Hungry Valley Center in Sparks. Email him at with questions.


RSIC Education Column: Educators building bridges

November 25, 2019

I am over the moon with how strong our school-community relationship is, how easy it was to grow, and surprised by the willingness of my community, students and parents alike, to move in this direction too.

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