Everybody experiences first-day jitters at a new job, but I had no idea what I was getting into when I began my first day as a speech-language pathology assistant at the Marty Indian School, a private school on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I felt confident that my SLPA training had prepared me well. But I knew little about American Indians and the Yankton Sioux (Dakota) culture and the challenge my unfamiliarity would present!
My first experience with my own lack of cultural understanding happened almost immediately. I scheduled the children on my speech-language pathology supervisor's caseload for treatment and thought little about it. However, when appointment time rolled around, the child often would be nowhere in sight. I was always puzzled by this behavior, because in my experience if someone made an appointment, it was crucial to be on time—in my culture, time matters. In Yankton Sioux culture, however, strict adherence to a specific time is not valued: I often would hear references to "Native time" or "Dakota time," which appeared to be flexible and rarely rushed. How could I work with children who did not make it to their appointments on time?
The solution seemed straightforward. I would go to the classrooms and get the children. This plan proved to be easier said than done because I still didn't understand some essential tenets of the Yankton Sioux culture—community is particularly valuable and family is more than just your immediate family. If I wanted to have influence over the punctuality of the children scheduled for speech-language treatment, I needed a better understanding of what motivated their behavior.
I began by reinforcing the fact that because time was limited during the school day, it was essential to start and end "speech therapy time" on a particular schedule, so that everyone had a chance to have treatment. I also realized that to be taken seriously, I would have to become part of the community. I needed to reach out to the children outside of treatment, talk with them about their lives and become someone they could trust. I started spending free time with them. I learned that many did not have fathers (or sometimes mothers) and often lived with grandmother and grandfather, or aunt and uncle. Regularly parents, grandparents, adult brothers, adult sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins lived under one roof.
My second culture clash resulted from taking the children out of their native language and culture classes. Even though I'd been authorized to pull them from this and other non-core classes, I encountered some resistance and realized I needed to show my respect for the community tradition. I began to talk with the teacher, who taught me what it means to be Yankton Sioux and about some critical tribal values:
- Living today is more important than thinking about tomorrow.
- Patience and waiting, rather than action and immediate completion, are considered respectful.
- Extended family is tremendously significant—even clan members outside of the nuclear family are considered part of the greater family unit.
- Giving is more valuable than saving.
- Cooperation and harmony are more highly valued than competition.
After gaining this new appreciation, I was better equipped to understand and respect the teacher's position, and was able to, in turn, show her how speech-language treatment would help her students become better communicators, making her lessons easier.
Today, when I walk down the hall, I have kids run up to me calling, "Mr. Krumm." Quite often, they give me hugs or high fives.
With perseverance, an open mind and the willingness to learn new concepts, I have been able to find my place in the Marty School. I could not imagine working anywhere else. No matter where my career takes me from here, I know that these incredible children have taught me much more than I ever taught them. And for that, I am more grateful than I can ever express.