3 Indigenizing Your Classroom: A Practice in Inclusive Pedagogy

Qualla Ketchum


Expanding diversity is a national imperative in education as universities work to better serve populations that are underserved in higher education[1]. Education research has shown the importance of students being able to see themselves in their chosen field, particularly for women and students of color (Rodriguez & Blaney, 2020). Representation matters, affecting our students’ sense of belonging in our educational areas, departments, and programs. It is an important step as educators to disrupt outdated and colonized notions or structures, even in small ways, to help improve this identity in our students. This change can be done by incorporating inclusive pedagogical practices into our classrooms, including raising the voices and works of those who have historically not been heard in our fields. Culturally Responsive Teaching can help increase student competencies and support diverse students to feel more connected in the classroom environment (Bazron, Osher & Fleischman, 2005). Culturally responsive educational practices are important for a new university educator because the university environment often has a variety of students from many different cultural backgrounds, and knowledge of these practices will help faculty creatively adapt their teaching to that environment.

This chapter will discuss culturally responsive teaching practices, focusing particularly on including Indigenous knowledge, techniques, and voices in the classroom and how doing so will benefit all students, not just Indigenous students. I will highlight examples of experiences of Indigenous people to illustrate the importance of culturally responsive teaching practices, explain culturally responsive practices employed in my teaching practice, and demonstrate how these practices may be included in your classroom in a culturally responsive and respectful way.

This chapter will discuss…

  • The experiences of Indigenous people in the United States and their relationship to education.
  • What Culturally Responsive Teaching is and how to implement a few culturally responsive teaching practices.
  • The value of including Indigenous knowledge and voices within the classroom.

Being Indigenous in the Academy—My Positionality

It is a traditional practice by Indigenous people to introduce ourselves first by our community and people in our language. This practice mirrors recent calls for researchers and educators to be transparent in their positionality as well as their personal history and perspectives, especially when working with Native communities (Canada & Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, 1996; Castagno & Brayboy, 2008; Haynes Writer, 2008). Haynes Writer (2008) also wrote about the importance of Indigenous perspectives to those outside of the Indigenous community in creating this culturally responsive work, stating:

Our stories and our words are, as well, offerings to non-Indigenous people so they may come to know and move into ally-ship with us for that needed transformative work. (p. 10)

I am Qualla quala (qua-la) Ketchum, and I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I grew up within the Nation’s boundaries in what is also known as northeastern Oklahoma. My technical background has been in Biological Systems or Agricultural Engineering. As an Indigenous student, I have had firsthand experience with the struggle to connect engineering to my culture. This struggle has been identified as one of the factors impacting why more Native Americans don’t become engineers (Kant et al., 2015). I have had to work hard to bring together these different sides of myself—the engineer and the Cherokee and the educator—and it is a continuing process.

I want to acknowledge my white-privilege as a white-passing Native woman, meaning that others do not immediately recognize my identity as a minority. Because of my phenotype, I am seen by society as white, and thus I carry that privilege. I acknowledge that my experience is not the same as those who are automatically coded as a person of color by the dominant culture. I can only speak for myself and my experience. There are more than 573 different Indigenous Nations within the United States which means more than 573 different cultures, languages, histories, and sets of issues. I cannot speak for other Indigenous nations or even for everyone within my Indigenous Nation. The experiences and thoughts expressed here are my perspective as both an Indigenous student and an instructor. It should not be assumed that all Indigenous people experience the academy or hold the same truths as I do.

As a whole, Indigenous people have had a long, storied history with the US education system. Teaching and learning have always been important values in our cultures, mostly in informal ways through our family systems. As an example, the Cherokee Nation built the first institutions of higher education west of Mississippi for both Cherokee men and women as a way of reclaiming our ways of being after our forced removal to Indian Territory in the mid-1800s (Foreman, 1982). However, education was then turned into a weapon used against Indigenous Nations by the US government. The Curtis Act of 1898 was used to dissolve tribal institutions of the Five Civilized Tribes, including the Cherokee seminaries (Conley, 2007). This action paved the way for residential boarding schools and the deeply rooted scars that still exist today from this era in Indigenous communities. For many of our Indigenous nations, these schools, where native children were forced away from their families to become “civilized,” were our first real experience with a formal education system. The horrors in these schools haunt many today (NPR, 2008), but these schools are not as far in the past as one might wish to think. In 1969, one-third of Native students were still enrolled in schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Now, nearly 50 years later, the bureau still educates 40,000 Native students in over 180 schools (NPR, 2008). These schools’ effects on Indigenous families are still felt every day, especially when it comes to feelings toward education. On reservations in Montana, educators and Indigenous leaders have discussed that families do not seem to value or believe in formal education (Field, 2016).

It is with an understanding of these histories and beliefs that the statistics for Native Americans in education become more clear. Native Americans have the lowest graduation rate in comparison to other minority populations. We are the least likely demographic to enroll in college and are the second least likely to graduate on time (Field, 2016). Only seven out of every 100 Native American kindergarteners earn a bachelor’s degree (Begay-Campbell, 2016). Nearly fifty percent of Native American K-12 students attend a public school where the full range of math and science courses are not being offered (Begay-Campbell, 2016). I, personally, went to a public school that fell within this category. This performance gap can also be attributed to a lack of funding, qualified teachers, technology, and internet access (May & Chubin, 2003). From 2005 to 2015, the percentage of 25- to 29-year olds holding at least bachelor’s degrees increased for all racial and ethnic groups except Native Americans (Field, 2016).

I share all of this as a framework for understanding why culturally responsive teaching and inclusive pedagogical practices are important to include in our classrooms. Because of the highly colonized nature of the United States education system and society as a whole, many educators are not aware of this history and experience of Native Americans. We must understand where we have been and where others are coming from when we wish to create and hold welcoming spaces within our classrooms.

Culturally Responsive Teaching: What Is It?

Many new educators have great enthusiasm and commitment to teaching their students well but do not always have the skills necessary for success in the environment in which they teach (McHenry, 2018). Educators also sometimes feel unprepared to teach students of different cultures (McHenry, 2018). This section will explain the purpose and implementation of culturally responsive teaching practices in your classroom.

Culturally responsive teaching builds a cognizance of the value of cultural differences into the classroom and avoids seeing cultural differences as negatives (Morgan, 2009). Culturally responsive education can include the use of culturally relevant examples and assessments and respectful classroom-management approaches (Bazron et al., 2005). Employing culturally responsive educational practices can help students feel a greater sense of belonging in the classroom (Bazron et al., 2005), potentially leading to increased motivation for learning.

Culturally responsive teaching is instructing in a way that embraces the idea that culture plays a role in learning (Harmon, 2012). Students come to the classroom with their unique perspectives, including their histories and respective cultures, such as Indigenous cultures. Students who are a part of a different culture may feel that they do not “belong” in the classroom if references used in the lesson reflect only one group. Using examples that include a variety of groups can help enrich the class and student learning.

It is useful to note that the word “culture” in culturally responsive teaching is used broadly, as cultures can vary within a particular group or system. For example, cultures of Indigenous peoples can be different from one Indigenous nation to another, and while each individual does not necessarily feel qualified or able to speak for everyone in their own nation, much less that of all Indigenous cultures, they may feel prepared to offer their personal perspective on their place within it. Culture can even refer to the culture of a particular geographic area or “culture of place.” For example, the culture in rural Appalachia is different from the culture in an East Coast inner city. Teaching using culturally responsive practices in each of these places would look different (McHenry, 2018). McHenry (2018) notes that moving to rural Appalachia and teaching the children of coal miners was challenging for her, as the students were food insecure and parents were stressed. Having no training in the practice of cultural humility, she states that she decided that her students simply needed more schooling and didn’t understand until much later that while she could drill her students on math facts, she couldn’t fill their stomachs or truly understand the “values, behaviors, language, and culture that defined them and their families.” Knowing details such as the strengths, values, and challenges of different cultures helps you to tailor your lessons specifically to the students you are teaching.

Cognizance of a historical lens is important when engaging in culturally responsive educational practices (Harmon, 2012). Cultural traditions may be linked to that culture’s unique history, which can manifest in your class through differences in the ways students respond to questions, differences in their viewpoints, and differences in their perspectives. For example, Indigenous students sometimes, but not always, express a mistrust of the US government and educational system based on historical knowledge of relations between Native people and the US government, as discussed in the previous section. This mistrust perpetuates both community attitudes toward education and student fears of going away for higher education. This historical context for the US education system can provide greater insight into how different activities and resources will affect other students in the classroom. For example, students from various backgrounds will have different responses to an assigned reading of the “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” statement from the Conference on College Composition and Communication. In particular, Indigenous students have described strong reactions to the quotes in the statement about how learning a new dialect of language in the academy is “to some extent a rejection of one’s culture.” Intergenerational trauma from boarding schools stealing language and ancestral knowledge from Indigenous communities can result in strong feelings arising that would not affect students from other cultural backgrounds. Recognizing and holding space for these students and backgrounds helps students feel more included in the academic environment. It even allows them to gain a sense of empowerment and ownership of their stories (Harmon, 2012).

Interestingly, culturally responsive education does more than empower the students. It empowers educators! Educators who use culturally responsive teaching in the classroom can feel empowered by the exciting sense of being a facilitator in the school, discussions are richer, and true connections are made between people and information (Harmon, 2012). Engaging in culturally responsive teaching practices is fun for the educator as well! And who would not want to make the class more enjoyable to teach? As an added plus, when an educator is exuding more enthusiasm, that excitement is likely to be contagious for students.


There are many different ways to implement culturally responsive educational practices in the classroom. One is to incorporate cultural references into the lessons in the examples used to explain concepts. The use of cultural references can best be achieved by weaving them into the class in a meaningful and intentional way (Ladson-Billings, 1994). For example, one Indigenous colleague often uses traditional storytelling in her teaching while I explicitly use my Cherokee Community Values to guide my classroom interactions. Many majority identity educators express interest in wanting to share these different references with their students but worry about having something to share or sharing incorrect information. As previously discussed, one’s ethnic/racial identity is only one piece of culture. One educator could use their family motto as a way to center different cultural examples holistically. By honestly sharing of themselves and their cultures first, the other examples utilized in class can be received with more power and purpose than those just seemingly tacked on and unconnected to the class.

Another way to incorporate other voices in class is to ensure that other perspectives and accomplishments are included when discussing a particular field’s history. For example, the history of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is often documented as very Eurocentric, leaving out many other perspectives. Engineering feats such as the Inca Road System or the complex water-drainage systems of the southwestern US nations are frequently left unmentioned while the histories of people in Europe take center stage. Many of the courses taught do not have a discussion of history included in the lesson plans. If such a discussion seems overwhelming or difficult to include, a good first step is starting each class with a quote or person of the week that represents diverse perspectives and accomplishments particular to the field of study. This is another way to use culturally responsive teaching practices to highlight voices that are often left out of these conversations. A word of caution, however: This step is often best used in conjunction with the previous step of incorporating cultural references. The use of these quotes and references needs to be sincere and thoughtful. Instructors should be prepared to educate themselves during the planning and implementation of this process. Make cultural references part of the lesson structure, or invite students to present examples of their own so that the cultures present in the class may come out in the discussion.

Incorporating culturally responsive teaching into a specific class can feel a little daunting for a new educator at first. The easiest place to start is with getting to know the students and what communities they represent. Having students introduce themselves is a great way to begin to get to know them and better understand their perspectives. In my classes, however, before they speak I first introduce myself in my native language. This shares a piece of myself and my culture with my students—an important step if I want to ask the same of my students. It also helps put any students from underrepresented perspectives, particularly from other Indigenous cultures, more at ease in academia and in my classroom. It is helpful to give space for every voice to be heard in the classroom while also avoiding pushing students to speak up if they are uncomfortable doing so.

Another effective way to incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices in the classroom is to diversify the syllabus. It is important to examine the readings being used in your curriculum. By assigning particular readings, you are inadvertently telling your students which perspectives are important. In culturally responsive teaching, you want to make sure that the value culture has in the classroom is accurately depicted in your syllabus. Including a land acknowledgment statement in the syllabus is another easy way to create a welcoming space for all students in the classroom. For non-Indigenous educators, this simple step works similarly as my introduction in my native language. It is an easy way to put Indigenous students in particular at ease and other students who value inclusion and different cultural perspectives.

An exciting feature of culturally responsive teaching is its focus on the strengths that culture can bring to the learning, and the classroom community (McHenry, 2018). Culturally responsive educational environments may incorporate culturally related music, food, language, or clothing (Eglash, Gilbert, & Foster, 2013). An individual may proudly express these cultural features from a particular culture as aspects of their personal style (Eglash et al., 2013). Incorporating items such as music or food can help add enthusiasm to your lesson and the classroom, making them a great way to get students more engaged in learning. There are a number of strategies that support culturally responsive teaching.

Syllabus Development

Be intentional with what you put in your syllabus and how it’s communicated. Your syllabus sets the tone for the semester and is often your first introduction to your students. What inclusion statements are suggested or required by your institution? Ensure that your use of these statements is intentional and meaningful rather than tacked on at the end of the document out of obligation. Do they connect and align with the rest of your syllabus and how you manage your classroom? In culturally responsive teaching, you want to make sure that the syllabus accurately depicts the value culture has in the classroom. Diversify readings and ensure multiple perspectives are included and valued. Include a land acknowledgment statement at the beginning of your syllabus. Resources for developing this statement can be found at https://nativegov.org/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment/

Tips for Culturally Responsive Teaching

  • Start class with a land acknowledgment statement and include one in your syllabus.
  • Teach to people, not your topic, using student-centered strategies.
  • Educate yourself on the historical context in which you are teaching. Ask questions!
  • Do a self-assessment of your own vocabulary, responses, and privilege.
  • Use culturally related examples to explain concepts or invite students to offer up their models.
  • Avoid assuming you know a student’s culture. That student may surprise you!
  • Make space/time in your lessons for students of different cultures, such as Indigenous students, to speak up if they wish to share.
  • Act as a facilitator, rather than a lecturer, for your students


Your teaching, and your students’ learning, can benefit from culturally responsive practices. Culturally responsive teaching helps increase students’ sense of belonging and creates a welcoming space within our classroom. An awareness of historical context is also important when engaging in culturally responsive educational practices. It helps to understand where both we as educators and our students are coming from before entering the classroom. Indigenous practices, knowledge, and voices can be incorporated into the school through culturally responsive teaching practices, improving learning for all students. Culturally responsive teaching practices can make your class a more dynamic, engaging atmosphere where references to various cultures are used to help illustrate concepts and enrich the lesson.

Reflection Questions

  • What did you learn about Indigenous cultures through this chapter? Why do you think you didn’t know this before?
  • How do you think you can include culturally responsive teaching practices in your own teaching?
  • How can culturally responsive education improve your students’ learning?
  • How can Indigenous culture in particular be incorporated into your teaching to enrich your lessons for all your students?


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  1. How to cite this book chapter: Qualla, K. 2022. Indigenizing Your Classroom: A Practice in Inclusive Pedagogy. In: Westfall-Rudd, D., Vengrin, C., and Elliott-Engel, J. (eds.) Teaching in the University: Learning from Graduate Students and Early-Career Faculty. Blacksburg: Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. https://doi.org/10.21061/universityteaching License: CC BY-NC 4.0.


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Teaching in the University Copyright © 2022 by Qualla Ketchum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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