Community-Research Partnerships in Indigenous Science and Language Learning

Faculty Research of Ananda Marin and Teresa McCarty

As a land-grant institution, UCLA sits within Tovaangar, the lands of the Gabrielino/ Tongva peoples, known in English as the Los Angeles Basin and South Channel Islands. Over the years this has been a place for rich community-based scholarship in Native American and Indigenous Studies. Within UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies (GSE&IS) that scholarship has grown to include Native American and Indigenous education.

Leading this scholarship are Ananda Marin and Teresa McCarty, faculty in GSE&IS and American Indian Studies (AIS) at UCLA. Both collaborate in teaching qualitative research meth­ods courses, and they are involved in different but complementary projects on Native American educational practices. Through content and form, these pedagogies are designed to cultivate community-based languages and knowledges and promote Indigenous education equity and self-determination.

Ananda Marin (African American/Choctaw/English descent), assistant professor of Social Research Methodology in GSE&IS and AIS faculty, has been involved in a decade-long communi­ty-research partnership focused on creating the contexts for remembering and imagining indige­nous pedagogical practices, specifically for STEM. This partnership brought together community and university scholars from the American Indian Center of Chicago, Northwestern University, the Menominee Nation’s Language and Culture Commission, and the University of Washington Seattle. Principal Investigators on this cross-institutional collaboration are Megan Bang, a schol­ar of Ojibwe/Italian descent and professor of Learning Sciences at Northwestern University and Douglas Medin, a professor of Psychology at Northwestern University.

Working together, community and university scholars carried out basic re­search to explore variability in how di­verse cultural communities construct re­lationships between the natural world and cultural worlds (typically meaning human worlds), or nature-culture rela­tions for short. Collaborators also used community-based design

Ananda Marin, assistant professor of Social Research Methodology in GSE&IS and AIS faculty.

research (CBDR) to develop and implement science-rich programs. As a method, CBDR positions community members to be the decision makers on curricu­lum development, thus promoting edu­cational self-determination. Much of this work took place in “informal educational contexts”—that is, youth and family pro­grams that took place outside of school and across the seasons.

Marin participated in CBDR proj­ects at the American Indian Center of Chicago. A primary goal of those par­ticipating in the CBDR projects was to co-create contexts for Indigenous ed­ucation in Chicago, home to a large, multi-tribal Native community. This meant privileging Native epistemolo­gies, or ways of knowing, such as the importance of living in relationships. The team developed land-based education models, including teaching practices that foreground learning through relation­ships with land, waters, and more-than-human life. Walking is used as a primary methodology to explore both forest and urban landscapes, serving as the fore­ground for lessons about topics such as plant biology, the water cycle, and eco­logical systems. Practices were also de­veloped to (re)story Chicago as a place of Indigenous migration and Indigenous homelands. “In other words,” Professor Marin says, “the team actively worked to resist historicizing narratives that simul­taneously erase continuity in Indigenous experiences and spread deficit narra­tives about urban Indigenous commu­nities.” Making Indigenous lifeways in Chicago present took shape in many forms. For example, along with commu­nity teachers, youth and families began to engage with a number of practices including gathering plants from the AIC Medicinal Prairie Garden and collect­ing maple sugar during the late winter and early spring seasons. Participants also became familiar with fire ecology practices or fire technologies. Marin ex­plains, “in contrast to digital technolo­gies, fire technologies are just one of the many ‘original technologies’ among Indigenous peoples. Community teach­ers Adam Kessel (Lakota/Italian/German descent) and Eli Suzukovich (Little Shell Band of Chippewa-Cree/Krajina Serb descent) led our use of fire technologies to carry out spot burns in the Medicinal Prairie Garden.”

Reflecting on these experiences, Marin commented on the holistic, in­terdisciplinary, and relational nature of STEM practices within Native communi­ties. “When you talk to Native scientists and researchers, what you commonly hear is that STEM is embedded in most of our practices,” she says. “So, there’s not necessarily that kind of divide that we make in Western ways of thinking, like ‘this is science, this is math, this is engineering.’ It’s included in everything that we do.”

In designing their curriculum, Marin and her colleagues have transitioned away from methodologies that privilege a single individual as an expert, imparting knowledge to others. Instead, making relationships with land, water, and more-than-human beings became the primary context for education; thus, exploring the world through walking became an important tool for teaching and learning. Marin believes that this multi-faceted ap­proach supports positive identity devel­opment among Indigenous youth and in­creases engagement with the sciences.


“Professor Marin says, “the team actively worked to resist historicizing narratives that simultaneously erase continuity in Indigenous experiences and spread deficit narratives about urban Indigenous communities.”

One of the practices that Marin and her colleagues have studied in depth is family nature walks. In this line of work, Marin has conducted in-depth analysis of video recordings from Native families’ walks. Marin and her colleagues found that while on nature walks, families story or retell their experiences in ways that position land, water, and more-than-hu­man beings as active subjects. In addi­tion, young Native children between 5 and 8 years old use verbal and embod­ied resources to position themselves as knowers and contributors. Marin states that this kind of engagement is typical among Indigenous families; however, it is not always valued in school settings. She believes that STEM teaching meth­odologies that emphasize the links be­tween human worlds and the natural world will benefit Native children and all children.

Teresa McCarty, George F. Kneller Chair in Education and Anthropology at GSE&IS, and faculty in American Indian Studies (AIS) at UCLA.

Teresa McCarty is the George F. Kneller Chair in Education and An­thropology at GSE&IS, and faculty in American Indian Studies (AIS) at UCLA. Together with a team of researchers, she has been exploring an innovative instructional approach called Indige­nous-language immersion (ILI), in which all or most instruction is in the Indige­nous language. The study, titled “Indig­enous-Language Immersion and Native American Student Achievement,” is in its third year of a four-year grant from the Spencer Foundation. Co-principal in­vestigators on the study, which is based at UCLA, are UCLA Professor of Social Research Methodology Michael Seltzer, Tiffany Lee, a

Diné/Lakota scholar and chair and professor of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexi­co, and Sheilah Nicholas, a Hopi scholar and associate professor in the College of Education, University of Arizona.

According to McCarty, the rationale for the study is twofold. First is the con­cern in Native American communities about the loss of Indigenous languag­es among younger generations. The decline in Indigenous language speak­ers is a consequence of settler colonial­ism and English-only policies that have been implemented across generations. Modern education practices generally have not been supportive of bringing children’s community-based experienc­es and knowledge, including language, into the classroom.

“You have a situation of language loss coupled with continued disparities in Native American children’s school ex­periences,” McCarty explains. “Knowing English alone has not remedied educa­tion inequities for Native American stu­dents as a group.” 

Learning math in Hawaiian at a full-immersion Hawaiian-medium elementary school. Photo: Tiffany S. Lee, Indigenous-Language Immersion Study

In light of these realities some Native communities have turned to an innovative approach in which all in­struction is delivered in the Indigenous language, which children learn as a second language. “While we know of success stories using this approach,” says McCarty, “there is no national da­tabase that educators, researchers, par­ents, and policymakers can look to for information on these programs.” Herein lies the second reason for the study: to develop a national database that is both broad in terms of geographic location, language, and culture, and that looks in depth at specific programs as case stud­ies across the United States.

ILI schools emerged in the 1970s and early- to mid-1980s, first established by Mohawk communities in Canada and the northern U.S. and the Māori in Aotearoa/New Zealand, followed by Native Hawaiians and the Navajo Nation in the U.S. Southwest. From these begin­nings, many communities across North America have established ILI programs, including summer, after-school, and adult programs. Within the U.S., the re­search team has identified about 250 ILI programs. Many immersion schools are community-based.

For example, says McCarty, one of the very first immersion schools is completely parent-run; the parents built the school facility them­selves and many are teachers there. While not all schools are completely community-run, all have high levels of community and parent involvement.

“As one teacher told us the first day we visited one of the ILI preschools, ‘This isn’t a place where you bring your child to school and drop them off at eight and pick them up at five,’” says McCarty. “Parents who choose this pathway for their children are making a commit­ment to sustaining their Indigenous lan­guage and identity. Often the parents take classes to learn the language to support their child’s learning at home. Parents volunteer and spend a great deal of time at the schools. We see par­ents in the classrooms, working side by side with the students at their desks and with teachers.

“Parents and families often relocate from distant places so that they can be near one of these schools. They make a commitment to reengineering their lives so that their children have this oppor­tunity. What also tends to develop is a close connection with other families at the school and across generations with­in families.”

“Parents who choose this pathway for their children are making a commitment to sustaining their Indigenous language and identity….More than a single curricular change, these are whole-community efforts.”

Across the United States, ILI schools look quite different. Some offer multiple language immersion programs (for ex­ample, both Spanish and ILI tracks) while others offer both English-medium and Indigenous language-medium tracks. One thing Professors McCarty, Lee, Nicholas, and Seltzer are interested in is why parents with demographically sim­ilar backgrounds choose to enroll their child in ILI or English-medium school­ing. What kinds of opportunities to learn and outcomes are evident for students from similar backgrounds in the two pro­grams? And what can the two kinds of programs learn from each other?

Although it’s too early to talk about findings, the very motivation to conduct the study arose from positive outcomes reported for some ILI schools.

Ananda Marin, Megan Bang and her daughter, and Adam Kessel on a forest walk in Chicago. Going on forest walks is a practice that community teachers regularly facilitated with youth and families. Teachers also incorporated forests walks into their curriculum design processes.

“We had evidence from certain sites that attendance, graduation, and college-going rates were higher, and that test scores were on par with or bet­ter than mainstream English programs, even though the tests were in English, not the language students were learning in,” says McCarty. “So, this is a promising practice, but we didn’t have any system­atic data on that.”

The work of Professors Marin and McCarty illustrates that equity in educa­tion can, and should, involve more than curricular changes alone. Youth, families, teachers, and researchers must togeth­er reexamine the end-goal of education, and ultimately be willing to shift estab­lished educational practices, in order to best benefit communities and support Indigenous futures.

“It’s a different kind of innovative practice—more than a single curric­ular change,” says McCarty. “These are whole-community efforts, looking forward from the work that they’re doing now to the next generation, and the next generation, and the next generation be­yond that. So, it’s about something larg­er than getting students to do better on tests, or even helping students to learn their Indigenous language.”

For both Professors Marin and McCarty, their community-research part­nerships are bigger than improving edu­cational outcomes alone. As they write, “It’s a commitment to decolonizing edu­cational environments and much more— namely, cultural continuance, reclama­tion, and resurgence.”