Rekindling the Heritage of an Unconquered Indian Tribe

Joy Prescott is a fourth-grade math teacher at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Florida and the 2019 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year. This post originally appeared on the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ blog.

Over the course of almost two centuries, Florida’s Seminoles endured three wars with the U.S. government, resisted numerous efforts to relocate to federal reservations in the West, and ultimately made their home in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments—the Florida Everglades. Due to the development boom in exploding South Florida, the Seminoles eventually found themselves on several reservations throughout the state.

The Seminole Indians of Florida endured many challenges and overcome many hardships. A more recent challenge the Seminoles have endured is the diminishment of their culture and Creek language. However, that strong will to survive has kicked in and they are steadily recreating a life that values and preserves their heritage. What better place to start than with their youth?

On the Brighton Seminole Indian Reservation, sits a building that has become the heartbeat of the community. Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School, or “Our Way” school, has allowed this tribe to find a new and unique way to educate their children.

This school was not built to expand a culture, but to preserve one. These students straddle two worlds–one rooted in their rich, proud heritage; the other where they are immersed into academics the same as their counterparts across the world. My students learn how to string Indian beads into necklaces and do science experiments in a lab. They learn how to cook fry bread over an open fire under chickees and take standardized tests in class. They are taught to read, write, and speak Creek—the tribe’s native tongue—and at the same time are challenged with rigorous lessons that cover the Florida standards.

For the past four years, I have had the wonderful opportunity to teach the students at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School. My job as their teacher is to provide opportunities that will help my students see their heritage as something that holds value, while at the same time fostering lessons that will help them grow academically, socially, and emotionally. In order to do this, I needed to build a classroom that felt safe and trusting—a space where students felt seen, valued, cared for, and respected.

Coming into this school, I knew that my experiences were going to be different from those of my students. Because of this, I needed to take the time to learn about their culture and use that knowledge to show value in their lives and identities in a variety of ways.

I began with the small things like learning the proper pronunciation of every student’s name or learning to recite the Seminole pledge and prayer in the Creek language. I initiated “AHA moments” into our math discussions as a way for students to share and learn from mistakes. The students now call these “potato moments” because “aha” means “potato” in their native language.

In my math lessons, I create culturally relevant word problems. By including student names and references to their culture, the subject matter becomes more relatable. We also read books that highlight the Seminole people, such as Escape to the Everglades and A Land Remembered.

I believe that if I can make learning personally relevant to my students then it will have a purpose. A student empowered with a relevant education can answer, “Why do I need to learn this?” They often look to the future to answer this question, imagining big possibilities for their lives beyond school.

Being named the 2019 Florida Teacher of the Year has brought great pride to my students, my school, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and myself. By working together, we are slowly rekindling the language and culture of a people who are no strangers to struggle. The determination of this Native American tribe to overcome adversaries is proof as to why the Seminoles are America’s only unconquered Indian Tribe, and I am honored to be a small part of their journey.

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