The Harvard Graduate School of Education may not have been ready for Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, Oglala Lakota, but she was more than ready for the prestigious university founded nearly 400 years ago, in part to educate American Indians. Delivering the Student Speaker Address at the Harvard Graduate School of Education commencement in May, Red Shirt-Shaw opened by saying, “I’d like to acknowledge the land of the Wampanoag, Nipmuc and Massachusetts tribes on which this university rests.”
Red Shirt-Shaw was one of a cohort of Native American women accepted in HGSE’s Higher Education Program. “I am really fortunate that I came into the program with other Native women,” she told ICMN. The women, as it turned out, came to Harvard to learn—and to teach.
“We, five of us in particular, banded together to revive the Native American student organization, which was called FIERCE—Future Indigenous Educators Resisting Colonial Education,” she said. The other women who committed to rebuilding the student organization were Danielle Lucero, Isleta Pueblo; Kaci McClure, Cherokee/Choctaw; Jordan Johnson, Navajo, and Autumn White Eyes/Oglala Lakota/Turtle Mountain Anishinaabe/Northern Cheyenne/Pawnee.
Red Shirt-Shaw said her experience at Harvard Graduate School of Education was for the most part extremely positive, “but sometimes it was really hard because a lot of us would walk into classroom settings and be presented with information about the demographics of American students and Native students were almost never mentioned. They would do a breakdown of what students in America looked like and there were never statistics about Native American students.
“That was definitely eye-opening for all of us, coming to this institution, so a lot of our focus was on pushing the narrative relative to contemporary indigenous identity—to look at the DAPL movement, which was happening at the time, but then also to understand that Native American students may be sitting in a classroom without teachers even knowing it. We were trying to break down stereotypes and misunderstandings that a lot of people coming into HGSE may have had about what it means to be indigenous in the 21st century.”
One of the things FIERCE did to advance its agenda was to organize rallies in support of the DAPL resistance. “I think a lot of us felt very isolated in not being able to go and actually be a part of the movement at Standing Rock. But we were able to use that as a learning tool—an example of indigenous resistance that people could look at and understand in a contemporary context,” she explained. “We also did panels about indigenous identity, organized movie screenings, and hosted dinners at the Harvard University Native American Program, which was our greatest support network at Harvard.”
Red Shirt-Shaw said she grew up in four different states, California, Michigan, Connecticut, and Arizona, where she graduated from The Gregory School in 2007. She earned a bachelor’s in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 2011 and later went back for her master’s. Then she worked at UPenn in undergraduate admissions with a focus on recruiting and retaining Native American students, followed by a stint at the nonprofit QuestBridge Scholars Program, which partners with 35 colleges and universities to recruit high-achieving low-income students to the schools. She ended up at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school in the San Francisco Bay area and in 2015 founded Natives in America, an online literary space for Native American, Native Hawaiian and Native Alaskan youth.
“At all of these places I was working on having conversations about Native American students, why there needs to be more focus on recruiting Native students to colleges and universities across the U.S.,” she said. “Ultimately my decision to go back to school was driven by the hope that that my work will eventually be focused on recruitment, retention and access for Native American students.”
Red Shirt-Shaw said of her experience at Harvard with FIERCE: “It changed my life; it helped me grow. It gave me a really positive, incredible network of educators moving forward.”
She spent this summer at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Upward Bound program. “This program has given me the opportunity to work with rising high school seniors. I taught 24 of them this summer, developing a brand new curriculum focused on empowering Native youth and decolonizing history, but also focusing on college. I really hope the 24 seniors I’ve worked with this summer walk away from this into their senior year of high school excited about the college process, but also knowing how important their voices are and how important it is to understand our history and our cultural identities and our traditions because the stronger we are in knowing ourselves and where we came from the more powerful we’ll be moving forward.”
Red Shirt-Shaw said she will be applying for doctoral programs for the fall of 2018, and hopes to continue working with youth to empower them for the work ahead. “A lot of our resistance has been started by brave indigenous voices, brave indigenous young voices,” she said.