Voices from the Region spotlights stakeholders in Region 11 and their work to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. The R11CC is privileged to collaborate with and share the insights of Jonni Hertel, Ed. S., a third-grade teacher and student success facilitator at General Beadle Elementary School in Rapid City, South Dakota. Hertel, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, holds a master’s degree in educational leadership and a specialist degree in education administration. She has recently been recognized as the 2023 Crazy Horse Memorial Educator of the Year, the 2024 Rapid City Area School District Teacher of the Year, and the 2024 American Legion Post 22 Educator of the Year. She’s been a member of R11CC’s South Dakota project since its launch, helping with the creation of the Integration Guide and participating in the pilot program incorporating the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards (OSEUS) throughout her school and schools across the state.   

Jonni Hertel

What’s your background in education and what drew you to this work?

I’ve known my purpose for a very long time; I knew I wanted to work with children in some capacity at a very young age. I was given my Lakota name in my 20s, Wakȟáŋheža Thewíčhaȟíla Wiŋyaŋ, which means “woman who loves children.”

I owned a daycare for 10 years. Then I went into the school district as a paraprofessional, and that’s where I fell in love with working with children in an educational setting. I moved to Rapid City and started school to become a teacher and was hired right after graduation. I’ve been teaching in the same building for the last 12 years.

I got my work ethic from my dad. He had to quit school when he was in seventh grade to work on the family farm. My dad always made sure that we knew how important education was because he wasn’t afforded the opportunity. My mom had a huge impact on my education as well. She was the first person that I knew who went to college. I remember when I was in first grade, traveling to Black Hills State University where she took elementary education courses. She wasn’t able to finish due to funding, but she was my first role model and that was my first college experience.

My grandfather Sydney Keith was a Lakota Language instructor at Oglala Lakota College (OLC)He Sapa [Black Hills] Center. OLC is where I chose to go to college for my bachelor’s degree. I had a connection to it through my grandfather that I needed at the time, and even though he’s no longer with us, I know he would be proud of me. My great grandmother Lucy High Pine-Swan was a great speaker on Indian education and other issues, many based on her time at boarding school and other life experiences. And my grandmother Madonna Swan-Abdalla was stricken with tuberculosis at age 16 while at boarding school and was sent to Sioux Sanitarium in Rapid City in 1944. She survived to marry, go to college, and teach Head Start on the reservation. She was named North American Indian Woman of the Year in 1983.

I have centuries of strong, driven, resilient, and beautiful women whose blood I carry. Their sacrifices make me stronger and drive the work that I do. The education of our Indigenous students goes back to boarding schools for my family, a trauma that continues to affect my family today. The work that I do with the OSEUS in my building, district, and across the state is to change the narrative for students and families of the Očeti Šakówiŋ. I believe I am who my ancestors prayed for to carry on this important work.

How has the Comprehensive Center supported your work?

I’ve been with Region 11 since the work first started on the Integration Guide—a guide created to support teachers in the integration of the OSEUS by providing a starting point for them depending on their personal knowledge and understanding. When the OSEUS were first put out, there was no guidance or support for teachers, which was a huge factor in the successfulness of their implementation. The Integration Guide gives you a starting point. Now it’s about reintroducing these standards, bringing them back to the forefront for our students, and supporting our teachers with what they need to implement them successfully.

When I started teaching 12 years ago, I felt like I was alone. I took what I knew as a young Indigenous student in the educational system and the experiences that I had and changed it for the students in my classroom and school. I continue to use my experiences and knowledge to support other teachers in implementing these standards in their classroom, and Region 11 continues to help me do that work.

How are you using the OSEUS and the Integration Guide at your school?

Other than consistently implementing them every day into all subjects, I love organizing events and making things happen. In the Integration Guide, Component B calls for teachers to engage with the community to make connections with the students and families that strengthen and protect the whole student. So, I thought, “How can I get Rapid City area schools, staff, and students involved in actively participating in a wacipi [pow wow] and that’s where the General Beadle Winter Wacipi came from.

The idea was to find enough volunteers in the community so Rapid City Area Schools (RCAS) staff would be able to come and experience a cultural event with students and other staff members in order to gain knowledge and understanding, without having to work or be worried about other responsibilities. This year we had over 400 people participate. The meal was sponsored by RCAS Indian Education, prepared by Hangry Buffalo and served by Rural American Initiative staff. We had a raffle and door prizes donated by General Beadle staff and other organizations. We had Black Hills Special Services teachers from the Discovery Program read stories to the kids inside a tipi, students and staff also came down from the Indian University of North America of Crazy Horse Memorial to work the front desk, as well as had organizations come in and put up information booths. There were four drum groups that came and shared their talents this year, which was amazing! It’s truly a community event. My hope is that other schools across the district are able to put on their own wacipi at their school.

Our district currently teaches the OSEUS in about every building, and our school implements them the most. My hope is that every school, at every level, incorporates the standards on a consistent basis whether they have a Native American student population or not. The standards were created to support instruction and designed to align with SD social studies standards, making it easier to implement. Our OSEUS team is amazing! We have an OSEUS Lead Champion in about every building and a lead teacher for the district, and they get information to teachers and provide teachers with guidance and resources that they need to teach the OSEUS. We have a language and culture classroom teacher and mentor as well in our building.

We also have a language and culture co-teacher who works with grades K–2 in the classroom and pulls small groups for lessons. She does such impactful work. It’s so amazing to watch her work with students because she teaches (math and reading) in Lakota. It makes my heart feel good to be able to see her interact with these kids. I think of my grandparents. My grandmother said that it hurt her heart to not be able to speak Lakota at boarding school. So, me watching these students learn and speak Lakota is everything. The work we do is such amazing and important work. Although there is still so much work to be done, it’s good to see the positions being placed in schools to support our students and teachers.

What does success look like for your schools and students?

As a classroom family, we intentionally work to normalize love, compassion, understanding, and acceptance of one another. Success for students is where everybody is seen and heard, and able to be inherently who they are. We all have something unique in us, and no child should be made to feel inferior to others. That’s what was wrong with education in the past, and I still see some of it today. From the assimilation of our Native children and how Native Americans were depicted in textbooks to the way they’re treated and talked about in conversations today. Our people continue to have to fight for a fair and equal education within our system for our children; a system that continues to not acknowledge them as individuals or depict them as knowledgeable, worthy, and successful.

I’m a mentor with the SD Mentor Program. When mentoring Language and Culture teachers, time is spent on the organization of projects, classes, and events that bring awareness and understanding. I’ve had many conversations with parents who are hesitant in allowing their child(ren) to participate in class. I believe this is, in part, because we as a people were never part of any curriculum (in a positive light) or conversation in regard to the education of our children. Older individuals experienced and learned a different aspect of the culture and taught a different narrative about Native peoples.

When I read things about boarding schools, I can relate to them, through the stories that my grandparents shared. There was a lack of empathy, a lack of connection and relationship, and a lack of understanding. By allowing all students to have their identity and allowing them to be who they are, to be seen, and acknowledge them as human beings in our school districts, you can change the narrative. For example, when people discuss Native students’ low proficiency scores, it flows so easily out of their mouth, like it’s acceptable because we have been in this situation for far too long. When do we say enough is enough? When do we stand up for all students and say, this isn’t working, we need to do things differently! What can we do to connect them to our school and their education? How do we create an environment that is inclusive to all students and acknowledge the contributions of everybody?

And that takes me back to the OSEUS. We have them. I implement the standards in my classroom every day. I strive to make sure that everybody in my classroom is seen and heard and acknowledged for who they are. And it doesn’t matter if a school has Native students or not. You live in South Dakota. You can’t say South Dakota without acknowledging the existence and contributions of Native Americans.

This interview was featured in the R11CC June 2024 newsletter.