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Breaking the Assimilationist Trajectory

Dr. Alex Red Corn

Title: Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Kansas State University College of Education.

Age: 39

Education: B.S., education, University of Kansas; M.S., education, University of Kansas; and Ed.D., educational leadership, Kansas State University

Career mentors: Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, Portland State University; Holly Mackey, White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities; David Thompson, Kansas State; and Debbie K. Mercer, Kansas State

Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Be patient, but persistent. Prioritize your relationships with the communities with whom you work."

Dr. Alex Red Corn’s family left the Osage reservation in Oklahoma when he was in elementary school, but he always remained connected to his heritage — somewhat.

“I had grown up going to ceremonies, but it was this kind of packaged thing that wasn’t happening consistently,” said Red Corn.

While working as a social studies teacher in Kansas City, Red Corn had a realization.

“My Osage world was not merged with my professional identity,” he said. “I was working in a non-Indian community, not building new relationships with American Indian education professionals, and not really focusing much of my work around those topics.”

The history of Native education in the United States is fraught with dispossession. The federal government made various promises about educating tribespeople, but was more focused on assimilation, an approach nicknamed “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

“They tried to strip Native people of their culture and their language,” said Red Corn. “They weaponized schools.”

Red Corn began to feel like an uncomfortable part of that lineage.

“I felt like I was continuing that assimilationist trajectory by just sitting in the status quo,” he recalled. “I wanted to figure out how to merge being Osage with my everyday professional work.”

Red Corn pursued a master’s degree focusing on the infrastructure of tribal governments and how they serve their citizens through educational programs. He learned that, contrary to his expectations, over 90% of American Indian children attend state public schools, rather than federal Indian schools. In these programs, they don’t learn about their native language or tribal history.

“You start to realize that assimilation trajectory is kind of still in motion with everybody,” he said.

Red Corn developed a goal: to help Native nations become more involved in the education of their own people.

“You can build the capacity of tribal governments to build partnerships with the local public schools so that they can get [their] language spoken, collaboratively do teacher training, anything that allows the tribe to have influence over the curriculum and the learning that happens every day,” he explained.

It’s a slow process, but he’s having some remarkable success.

At Kansas State University (KSU), where he is an assistant professor of educational leadership in the College of Education, Red Corn has created an indigenous education leadership certificate program, built on standards assembled collaboratively with the local Tribal Education Department. He also built the Osage Nation Educational Leadership Academy, a master’s degree program delivered in the Osage community, open to Osage citizens and employees.

“The Osage Leadership Academy is really a model of what it looks like to make sure that higher education institutions are actually serving to advance the priorities and interests of Native nations,” said Dr. Meredith McCoy, assistant professor of American Studies and History at Carleton College. “[Red Corn] has used the structures that exist within [KSU] for building excellent educational leaders, and he’s used them to amplify and advance Osage priorities when it comes to the well-being of Osage children.”

Red Corn also revived the dormant Kansas Association for Native American Education, now housed in the KSU College of Education, and became chair of a state-level committee called the Kansas Advisory Council for Indigenous Education. He’s someone, according to McCoy, who makes things seem possible.

“Alex is a good person to dream with,” McCoy said. “He’s an innovator and a builder, a connector of people and systems, an organizer within and beyond academic spaces.”

Though he has accomplished much in the past few years, Red Corn knows that there is a long road ahead.

“[Our task is] patiently building relationships to make sure that the work we’re doing is sustainable and that it’s spreading across the state,” he said. “There’s so much to be done.”

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