Social-Emotional Learning

Connecting with Identity and Place

By Abby Birhanu and Lori Santos, posted on Apr 11, 2022

Adolescents are on a quest to discover themselves through their social relationships. For this lesson, we wanted to expand their quest to include a connection to place and community. Elements of Indigenous pedagogy provided a meaningful lens through which students can see how exploring and connecting to the history of place in their community can affirm one’s mind, body, and spirit. We asked students to explore the Native history of a place and to reflect on their relationship to this place and its community.


SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
SchoolArts magazine, The Social-Emotional Learning Issue, May 2022, High School art lesson, Connecting with Identity and Place
Students╩╝ art expressed their desire to engage in conversations about place and identity, leading to a better understanding of their social-emotional well-being.

Art provides all of us with an opportunity to reflect on the self, society, and what it means to live the human experience. This reflection leads to an understanding of one’s sense of place and identity. To nurture optimal social-emotional growth, students need to feel a connection to place in relation to who they are and who they want to become.

Adolescents are on a quest to discover themselves through their social relationships. For this lesson, we wanted to expand their quest to include a connection to place and community. Elements of Indigenous pedagogy provided a meaningful lens through which students can see how exploring and connecting to the history of place in their community can affirm one’s mind, body, and spirit. We asked students to explore the Native history of a place and to reflect on their relationship to this place and its community.

Creating a Collaboration
We (the authors of this article) have come to know each other through the Anti-Racist Art Teachers collaborative. We both live in the Midwest, have a passion for the interconnection of place and identity, and see the importance of recognizing the complete history of a place. We believe student voices should be central in the conversations taking place in our classrooms and in the art-making process. We created this lesson to give our high-school and pre-service art education students the opportunity to recognize how Indigenous ways of knowing can enrich our curriculum.

Researching Local Indigenous People
We asked students to research the history of the Indigenous people where they live, especially the Osage Nation (Wazhazhe), whose traditional homelands include what is now Kansas and Missouri. After completing a mind map of where they live, making note of iconic places and locations of personal interest, they connected what those places meant to them with the historical and present significance to the Indigenous nations and tribes. They sought to understand how Indigenous people are present, or not present, in iconic landmarks and the history of the places they explored.

Students discovered landmarks throughout Missouri and Kansas, including rivers and street names, that reference Indigenous names without offering specific context about their history or significance. Students acknowledged that before this lesson, they knew very little about the Indigenous history of where they live and didn’t realize that some place names were Indigenous.

Most curricula throughout the U.S. fail to teach students anything about Indigenous people past the early 1900s. Students were not aware of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, and that each is a sovereign nation. These truths prompted us to engage in discussions about how cultural erasure impacts our understanding of where we live.

Contemporary Indigenous Artists
Our quest to combat cultural erasure included the introduction of contemporary Indigenous artists Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (Salish and Kootenai), Norman Akers (Osage), and Matika Wilbur (Swinomish and Tulalip).

Smith’s art addresses identity, histories of oppression, and cultural erasure in relationship to place. Her paintings highlight how the dominant culture fails to recognize Native place names and their significance. Akers’ artwork explores how identity is linked to place and history. Her 562 Project calls attention to one’s right to self-identify and dismantle stereotypes. Wilbur’s art makes connections between community and identity. His work focuses on the complex nuances of cultural identity from tribe to tribe.

Reflections
This assignment helped students find a deeper understanding of identity and place using their voice. The visual output from students showed they were inspired by the symbols, maps, and image-making they saw in the work of contemporary Indigenous artists.

Students realized how art tells stories of how we connect to the places we live, and how we can reconcile ourselves in the historical account of others. Their art expressed their desire to engage in conversations about place and identity, leading to a better understanding of their social-emotional well-being.

The sharing of Indigenous artists opened students up to the reality that Native people are very much alive and present today, and that they, too, are rooted in place and our country’s history. It’s important to acknowledge the history as well as current presence of Native communities to not participate in cultural erasure. By learning to have empathy for others, students can better see themselves in the interconnected human community. To this end, they can empower their own well-being by knowing they have honored and acknowledged the history and present-day stories of Indigenous peoples of this place.

Abby Birhanu is an art teacher at Wydown Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri, and taught this lesson at St. Charles High School, also in St. Louis. AbbyBirhanu@Gmail.com; Lori Santos is an associate professor of art education at Wichita State University. LoriSantosArtEd@gmail.com

National Standard
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

Resources
Anti-Racist Art Teachers

View this article in the digital edition.