Charles Grolla is a cultural teacher for the Cass Lake-Bena schools. His myriad experiences provide us valuable insight as to what more we can do to ensure Native students find success. He is a member of the Bois Forte Band, graduated from Red Lake High School, served as a Red Lake law enforcement officer and later earned a bachelor's and master's degrees. Thanks, Charles, for taking the time to give us your perspective on helping Native youth.
Q: As a member of the Bois Forte Band, what was life like for you at Nett Lake?
A: It was a good life, a lot like living in Red Lake. At the time you could hunt whenever you wanted to, fish, trap and set nets. Nett Lake is just like most other Ojibwe communities. The community has a deep cultural connection to the land and its resources, with an extensive history.
Q: Did your parents or grandparents play a significant role in your early life?
A: I spent the most time learning from and was closest to my Red Lake grandma Fanny Johns (Ogimaakwe odoodeman Awaasisiiwan, Boss Woman, a member of the Bull Head clan). The greatest impact on me was made by the Ojibwe teaching “you are a reflection of your parents and grandparents, or the ones who raised you.” This meant that my actions and how I chose to live my life would reflect on my adopted parents, especially my grandma Fanny.
Q: Why did you later choose to live in Red Lake?
A: To live in a sober, traditional Ojibwe home that I had become familiar with and enjoyed very much; a home that was nurturing and supportive of my education and learning.
Q: When did you first realize that your culture was a significant part of your life?
A: I could feel it from the start. I was finally learning what it was to be an Ojibwe person, and that is what drew me in the direction of becoming a good person. The Ogichidaa (warrior) training gave me the tools I need to live a good life and showed me who I am and what my strengths are. It bonded me with other young men at the time that would eventually become, and still are, my support network. What I believe to be absolutely crucial is teaching Ojibwe youth to live a good, sober, educated and productive life.
Q: Was education an important part of your life early on?
A: Not at the beginning. The many foster homes I lived in during my early years did not place much importance on education. I don’t believe it was deliberate. I just think there was too much moving around at one time to fully engage in an education, let alone get comfortable and focus on learning. I must add, it is very hard to be a Native American among other races. I found, certainly in my case, that I had to be constantly on my guard and put up with a lot of blatant abuse and ill treatment. And I know I’m not the only Native to have endured that.
Once in Red Lake, in a stable home, I was able to focus on and embrace an education. It became an area of great importance. I had a mandatory study time, not only to get the most from my classes, but to catch up on all of the school I missed prior to arriving in Red Lake.
Q: Who were the early positive influences on your life?
A: Although there were many, the main influences were my adopted mother Sandy Davidson-Folstrom, my grandmother Fanny Johns-Anderson, my adopted father Dale Johns, and my high school social studies teacher Mr. Ray Brown.
Q: You had a successful career in law enforcement at Red Lake. What did you learn as a police officer that made you a better person?
A: I feel like I matured greatly, almost dramatically, while completing the Indian Police Academy (IPA). I’m confident it helped me become a great communicator, which I still believe I am. I saw a greater, clearer picture of society as a whole; a true vision that our society will become better, not by locking people up, but by working hand-in-hand with the youth to create the positive changes that they need.
Q: What advice can you give young people about the need to complete high school?
A: I tell my students this: the great spirit gave us all a gift; a gift that we will use to take care of ourselves and our families. This gift will help us construct a positive future for ourselves. Getting your high school education, and ultimately graduating, will aid you in finding that gift, and it is among the first steps in giving a positive direction to your life.
Q: What advice can you give teachers of Native American students that would help them help their students to complete high school?
A: Make them realize that they are welcome and build a rapport. Make them feel valued and that they are an instrumental part of the school and classroom. Remember that if you are only teaching them about other cultures, other cultures’ heroes, and have a curriculum that in no way honors or barely acknowledges their Native American history, their people or their way of life, they will, of course, feel devalued, unwelcome, and somehow worth less than the white student sitting next to them. These are things a student will internalize.
Q: What do you think are the reasons for a low graduation rate for Native students?
A: There are not only one or two reasons, or even three or four: there are many. The biggest and most impactful, I believe, are historical trauma and the long, dark history that Native American’s share with the current education system. Remember Native American boarding schools, day schools and mission schools are the only schools that have graveyards; many of which are massive, and many of the graves unmarked. There is still an enormous amount of distrust regarding education, and it’s still seen by many Natives as the long arm of the U.S. Government, maintaining an almost relentless chokehold.
Q: What advice do you have for white teachers who choose to teach in schools with a high percentage of Native students?
A: Please, learn everything you can about their culture and their language. Open yourself up to the families and get to know them. Join them for dinner and build a relationship with genuine trust as the foundation. Also, become involved in their community in whatever way you can.
Q: What advice do you have for parents and grandparents of Native children that would help their kids complete school?
A: Place importance on graduation. Set aside a mandatory study time, and remember that you, as parents, grandparents and guardians are equal partners with the school when it comes to educating your children. You are co-creators, supporters, monitors, models, encouragers and advocates for the child. Contact school staff as much as possible.
Q: There is also a high dropout rate for Native students attending college. What more can colleges do to help Native students complete college?
A: The dropout rate for college is alarming when it comes to our Native American population. Colleges and universities really do have opportunities to make Native American students feel welcome, and those opportunities should be seized immediately. I say provide groups and resources whose specific goal is to make the transition from a student’s Native American community to the college itself smoother. It’s an early step and would work towards an immediate, hopefully positive, connection. Bemidji State University is ahead of the game with their American Indian Resource Center. This entity helped me tremendously while I was obtaining my degree. Other colleges can, and should, follow the same idea BSU has adopted. I have little to no doubt that this would greatly reduce the college dropout rate for Native American students.
Charles is an Ojibwe culture teacher in the Cass Lake-Bena schools and has written two books. They are "Ojibwe Bird Stories of Northern Minnesota," and can be purchased for $40 and "Ojibwe Style Moccasin Game," which can be purchased for $20. Charles can be reached by email at: email@example.com or on Facebook.
Riddle: What did one tail pipe say to the other tail pipe? (Answer: I’m exhausted.) It is exhausting to address the needs of our students who are not finding success in schools but that’s the role of an educator just as it is the role of a doctor to find out why we hurt.
We will succeed at our goal of 100% when we determine what more we can do to help all students find success in school. A lot of work needs to be done.
John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.