"Places of Healing": An Update on the American Indian Catholic Schools Network
Will Newkirk remembers the beauty he saw at White Earth Nation on an undergraduate spring break trip from Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Years later, he recalls the maple-syrup tapping, land preservation, and beadwork that inspired him as an undergraduate.
“This lit a bit of a fire, and I knew I wanted to learn more from the American Indian people and their experience,” he said.
Newkirk also witnessed hardship—pit bulls down the end of a rural road, a ramshackle house with pink insulation tacked to the walls, and an elderly Ojibwe woman who sat silently inside for an hour while receiving her weekly IV treatment from a visiting healthcare professional.
“To see this fellow person isolated like that inspired me to do ACE,” said Newkirk, who taught in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as part of ACE 19. “For me, as a person of faith, I think about how I’m deeply connected to her. Her liberation is my liberation.”
Newkirk is now the associate director of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (AICSN), a partnership between ACE and five American Indian Catholic schools that provides community, professional development, funding, and other resources to its collaborating schools. AICSN will host its second professional development conference for educators and school leaders at Notre Dame from July 30 through August 1.
“Before the network, the schools didn’t have a way to be in touch with each other, and we facilitate that,” said AICSN Director Brian Collier, acknowledging how geographic and cultural distances can make American Indian Catholic schools feel isolated from one another. Open lines of communication can help these schools navigate challenges from financial difficulties and operational challenges like using uniforms and dealing with student tardiness, to issues of cultural preservation in the 21st century. Most importantly, the network gives schools the chance to share best practices for American Indian Catholic schools with one another.
AICSN also supports schools in submitting grant proposals, developing native language and early childhood education programs, and conducting research useful to their individual school needs, all while helping establish dialogue among the partnership schools. Since some teachers in American Indian Catholic schools do not yet hold teaching or college degrees, Collier hopes that AICSN will also be able to provide a teaching degree and certification program through Holy Cross College.
While the partnership makes Notre Dame’s resources more accessible to AICSN schools, it also forges a two-way relationship between the schools and the ACE community, helping ACE educators better understand the cultural richness and importance of sustaining American Indian Catholic schools.
“The schools not only need the support of ACE and are going to be benefitted by the partnership with Notre Dame, [but they] will also benefit and enrich the ACE program,” said Maka Clifford, a teacher at Red Cloud Indian School in South Dakota and a member of ACE's Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. “If we can have the presence of the American Indian Catholic schools among the ACE community, I think that will strengthen ACE as well.”
For Clifford, one of the most powerful impacts of the AICSN partnership has been its role in connecting students from different American Indian Catholic schools with one another. Through the partnership, students from St. Michael Indian School in Arizona and St. Augustine Indian Mission in Nebraska were able to visit Red Cloud, and students learned about one another’s cultures and histories.
“We’re not from the same tribe, so culturally the students come from very different places—different landscapes, different languages, different spiritual components to their traditional lives, but all sharing in the Catholic identity,” Clifford said. “I think it was a really powerful moment, our students being aware of the partnership in a small way, being aware of other schools across the country that are in many ways like them. It helps to break down that sense of isolation.”
Newkirk hopes that the AICSN partnership will also help bring reconciliation to schools that have historically experienced tension between their indigenous cultures and the Catholic church.
“We hope that these schools can be a place of healing,” he said. “A big piece in that is having more native teachers and more native leaders there, because they are the ones who know how the Catholic church has impacted their communities.”
Collier hopes that AICSN will eventually expand to incorporate more American Indian Catholic schools, connecting schools not only across geographic distances, but also across different diocese and religious orders. AICSN is also currently working with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to bring about greater dialogue between indigenous communities throughout the world.
To Clifford, ACE and the AICSN partnership schools share the same hopes for the future of their collaboration.
“Our goal is to create vibrant schools that serve our students, no matter who they are or what cultures inform them,” he said. “The power of good schools transcends barriers.”