St. Paul Public Schools Leading the Way in Indian Education for All

Alyse Burnside and Sherry Kempf of St. Paul Schools Multicultural Resource Center.
Alyse Burnside and Sherry Kempf of St. Paul Schools Multicultural Resource Center (in front of display of student-produced alternative Capitol art).

The state of Montana has a remarkable provision in its Constitution called “Indian Education for All”. It is in Article X, passed in 1999, and it reads in part:

Recognition of American Indian cultural heritage — legislative intent. (1) It is the constitutionally declared policy of this state to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and to be committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage.

It would be great if Minnesota had such a Constitutional provision, but in the meantime a round of applause to the St. Paul Public Schools and its Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) for its efforts to teach all children about our state’s native peoples, particularly the Dakota.

Today we highlight two MRC initiatives. First, it is working towards taking all fifth grade students on a day-long field trip of six sacred Dakota sites in the Twin Cities area. Second, the MRC is replicating a Healing Minnesota Stories art project where students learn about the stereotyped art in the Minnesota State Capitol and how it depicts Native Americans. Then, students create their own alternative Capitol art, reflecting stories from their communities and their hopes for Minnesota’s future.

Sacred Sites Field Trips

The state standards for fifth grade Social Studies include a requirement to teach students about indigenous nations before European contact. Sherry Kempf, outreach coordinator for the MRC, said the social studies textbooks do that through teaching about the Aztecs and the Mayans.

“It overlooks the fact that we had an indigenous nation … right here before European contact,” Kempf said.

She and others have worked to change the curriculum, focusing on our local history. It started in 2011 when Kempf’s supervisor asked her to design a field trip based on the Bdote Memory Map, a map which identifies significant and sacred places to the Dakota people near the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. (The map was created by Mona Smith (Dakota) in cooperation with the Minnesota Humanities Center. The term “Bdote” means confluence in Dakota.)

The field trip includes stops at Coldwater Springs, Oheyawahi (Pilot Know Hill), a traditional Dakota burial site, Indian Mounds Park, Wakan Tipi (Carver’s Cave), Fort Snelling, and Fort Snelling State Park (the site of the 1862-63 concentration camp where Dakota women and children were held after the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862).

For the first couple of years, Kempf advertised the field trip in a newsletter and teachers would sign up on a volunteer basis. The district had about eight field trips in two years.

Then the project started getting more formal. Kempf worked with Rebecca Biel, the district’s Social Studies coordinator. They created a plan to take fifth grade teachers on the day-long field trip so they in turn could lead a field trip for their students. Ramona Stately and Ethan Neerdaels (both Dakota) lead the field trips to teach the teachers. The district’s Office of Indian Education helped develop classroom curriculum to support the project.

St. Paul has 40 elementary schools. The goal was to work with eight schools a year over five years. They are now on year four. The goal is to have every fifth grade student  participate in this day-long trip about Dakota sacred sites. There are now specific lesson plans for teachers to use in advance of the field trips.

Kempf used to have to raise money to pay for transportation costs. This year, the St. Paul schools Social Studies Department agreed to pay for transportation. “That was a big shift in sustainability,” Kempf said.  “The district is saying, ‘This is a real program. We are going to cover it.’ That has been a great success.”

Capitol Art Project

Eagle Woman by Ariana
Eagle Woman (2015) by Ariana, Oshki Ogimaag Community School in Grand Portage as part of the Capitol Art Project.

We have written at length about the art in the Minnesota State Capitol and its stereotyped and offensive representations of Native peoples. We also have written about our art project that teaches students about Capitol art and challenges them to create their own alternative Capitol art. Art teacher Rachel Latuff took the lead in creating this program and it has now been replicated in more than a half dozen schools.

Now, St. Paul school’s MRC is replicating the project districtwide. It is the most ambitious project yet, and we are very grateful for the partnership.

Some background on the MRC: Going back to the 1960s, the district had an African American Resource Center, an Asian Resource Center, a Latino Resource Center, all located in different areas. The MRC was created in 1995 to bring these different programs under one roof, Kempf said.

“Our emphasis has always been around cultural competence,” she said. “But as the need for racial equity has grown in the district … we have shifted our emphasis more to equity, specifically racial equity and gender equity, and how cultural competence fits within equity.”

The Center has a beautiful space in the Washington Technology Magnet School. Until recently, it has decorated the walls with artifacts it had in its collection, some of which were acquired back in the 1960s. The MRC is now shifting its emphasis to teach more about contemporary cultures.

“It was easy to focus on the traditional aspects of cultures, because that is most of what we have in our collection,” Kempf said. “And that can reinforce stereotypes.”

The Healing Minnesota Stories student art project was a good way to pivot to focus on contemporary culture. The MRC has hung Healing Minnesota Stories traveling art exhibit in its space.

“So what this has allowed us to do is really put the artifacts away and fill our space with current cultural representations through the artwork,” Kempf said.

The MRC had an opening reception Nov. 3. It will hold additional showings on Feb. 9 and April 24. Those will feature more art by St. Paul students. Dakota artist and historian Gwen Westerman will speak at the Feb. 9 event. (She and other professional artists also have contributed artwork to display at the MRC.)

The MRC staff has presented the art project to all of the district’s art teachers, to 30 high school social studies teachers, to 30 – 40 literacy teachers, as well as the Hmong Youth Summit. (Here is a link to the resource page that the MRC has developed for teachers.)

So far, three teachers (covering 12 classes) have indicated interest in participating and more are expected. As St. Paul students start developing their own art, it will rotate into the MRC’s display.

Among the attendees at the Nov. 3 Open House was State Rep. Sheldon Johnson (DFL-St. Paul). Kempf said Johnson was interested in having St. Paul student art displayed at his office. “We brought four pieces to his office last week,” she said. Johnson and his aides “have been talking to other representatives, too. He was really excited. They are going to find places to hang up those pieces once the session begins.”

Another exciting opportunity is to create a space in the Capitol for a rotating student art exhibit. The state Capitol is going through a major renovation, and it is creating space for new art. Kempf said she envisions using the St. Paul student art to push forward the idea of student art in the Capitol.

St. Paul Public Schools is opening the project to other districts that want to participate. Interested? Email Kempf and Alyse Burnside, the MRC’s program assistant, at

As for the district’s historic artifacts, Burnside said they have been talking about reviewing them with community leaders to see if they are authentic or “Hollywood.” One idea would be to create a display that critiques the items in the district’s current collection.

For more, see our Capitol Art page.

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3 thoughts on “St. Paul Public Schools Leading the Way in Indian Education for All

  1. Thanks for sharing this! There are some excellent programs sponsored by Mn Humanities Center that folks should check out as well. These are designed to support teachers in expanding their curriculum choices to include absent narratives in their classrooms.


  2. […] As far as Minnesota, the state has Academic Standards Relating to Minnesota Indian Tribes, as well as an Indian Education Program, geared toward providing “meaningful, intentional, and targeted educational opportunities to every American Indian student, while at the same time fostering cultural identity and pride.” In 2016, this blog wrote about St. Paul Public Schools Leading the Way in Indian Education for All. […]


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