Laporte has unique, integrated Indian Ed program

"I know that Remer is attempting to do this," said Sharon Nordrum, a teacher at the Laporte School. "But as far as I know, I'm the only school that actually is considered inclusive."...

Josh Lasley, far right, and Laporte seventh graders made red willow baskets together last spring. (Submitted photos)

"I know that Remer is attempting to do this," said Sharon Nordrum, a teacher at the Laporte School. "But as far as I know, I'm the only school that actually is considered inclusive."

Nordrum is talking about the American Indian Education program, supported by the Minnesota Department of Education's Office of Indian Education (OIE). Before she was hired in December 2016, the school received OIE funding but didn't have a program. Instead, she said, the funds were spent on appropriate books, videos and similar material.

Approximately 100 of Laporte's slightly more than 300 students identify as Native American.

"There was talk in the summer of 2016 about developing an Indian Ed program here," said Nordrum. "The principal at the time was Kim Goodwin; now she's the superintendent of the school. She did not want the traditional Indian Ed program, where the Indians are called out of the classroom and they go to their own room and talk about their culture. She wanted an inclusive Indian Ed. That meant you needed somebody that would go into each classroom and present the culture to all the students."

This makes Laporte's Indian Ed program different from almost all the other school districts, she said.


Being unique comes with certain challenges. Implementing the inclusive program has not happened without a struggle. At times, Nordrum said, there has been friction as guest instructors brought a living Anishinaabe viewpoint into classrooms where the published curriculum tells a different story.

"I bring in presenters that actually know the treaties," she said by way of example, "so that the students in the history classes, when they get to the treaty part of their American history, are actually getting the true story as opposed to just what is written in our history books."

'Blood memory'

At times, Nordrum admitted, her program struggles with a culture clash.

"When a lot of people look at Native Americans," she said, "they only want to look at the pretty parts of being Native American - our powwow and our regalia and our artwork - but they don't want to get to the root of the battles that we've had, how the struggles still affect our children."

Traumas that happened generations ago are still open wounds for Native people - for example, Nordrum recalled, Native Americans' right to practice their religion was only restored in the 1970s; the last of the boarding schools, where Native children were forcibly assimilated into white American culture, also closed in the 1970s.

"That's not that long ago," she argued. "These struggles that we've had impact how our children behave and learn, what they're learning at home and the stock that a parent puts into school."

The way Nordrum tells about the harsh childhood experiences of her grandparents' generation, she seems to be relating things that happened to her or her own children.


"They said that they were going to kill the Indian and save the man," she said. "They took our children. We didn't see them."

They were forced to cut their hair, work like servants, eat food they didn't like. They were not allowed to see their families. They were beaten if they spoke their own language, said Nordrum, a citizen of the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation.

"What happened to them, it happened to us," she explained. "We are affected by that today - what happened to them years ago. It doesn't go away. It's not forgotten. It's passed down through generations in how you're raised. It's a blood memory."

Bringing culture into classroom

Nordrum spoke highly of Laporte High School teacher Karen Komulainen, whose attitude about introducing Native culture she described as "phenomenal."

"The very first year" in Komulainen's classes, Nordum said, "we did a debate on Columbus Day - if we should keep it our change it. I brought in a panel of people, and the students came up with questions, and they studied it. That was awesome."

This year, she said, "I brought in our Native people that were for or against Native mascots, and we had a debate on that."

Students used the traditional Native game of snow snakes in physics class to study density and velocity. They had an open house with renowned hoop dancer and flautist Kevin Locke. A 12th grade class did a two-week project about murdered and missing Indigenous women, featuring guest presenters Lissa Yellow Bird-Chase and other investigators, including the FBI and the sheriff's office. They made baskets, drums and flutes. They heard from opponents of the Line 3 pipeline replacement.


"I see my program getting bigger and stronger," said Nordrum. "I see us doing more. I envision this program being outstanding in our area. I'm up for this struggle with bringing the culture into the room."

The fact that Laporte's Indian Ed program is sharing Native culture with all students remains important in her view. "All of the children get a chance to hear the songs," she said, adding that her presenters represent "all walks of life of our Native American community, so they see that we're out there. We're doing stuff, too. We're not just deadbeats, like so many people think that we are."

The outcome, she said, is understanding.

"Once you start understanding a people, it's really hard to be racist against a people," said Nordrum. "I think we can build from our children. Maybe we can change how people treat other people from different cultures."

Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at or 218-252-3053.
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