Interview with Felicia McNair, TAPP Family Advocate for Oregon's Klamath School District

Hania Marien's profile
Hania Marien

I recently had the opportunity to interview one of our TAPP Family Advocates. Please join me in learning about about Felicia McNair, Family Advocate in Oregon’s Klamath School District - what led her to this position, some thoughts about culturally responsive teaching for Native students, and her reflection on her experiences with TAPP.

Felicia McNair, TAPP Family Advocate in Oregon’s Klamath School District, was born in Klamath Falls, not far away from where she now works. Prior to joining the TAPP team McNair worked as a Johnson O’Malley (JOM) Coordinator for the Education and Employment Department. JOM programs are supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support education services, and coordinators work with, and support children (pre-K to grade 12) who are eligible for the program’s services. McNair focused on the Summer Enrichment program, leading after school cultural activities allowing youth to celebrate and share their traditional values. Later she moved to Northern California where she became the Site Manager for the California Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programs for Native American people in Modoc County. There she coordinated the Youth Leadership program that was based on the youth leadership development in fifteen counties in California. She then returned to Klamath and began working for the Klamath City Schools with the 21st Century Community Learning Centers after school program as their First Grade Facilitator.

Can you tell me a bit about your own educational experience? Did you connect with the material presented in your classrooms? Do you remember any particular lessons, school experience or educators that contributed to who you are today? Is there anything you would have liked to see more of in your classrooms as a child or young adult?

Most of my childhood and teenage experiences in school were negative. During the years of 1960 through 1970, I experienced a lot of racism – and due to me being Native American I was unable to practice my traditions or even learn my cultural background. What I was taught in school was one sided. I yearned to learn more about who I am and what my people did to survive. That is when I began my search to understand my background. I began asking my elders to teach me my traditional values, so I could teach my tribal youth about what I gained throughout my life; but more importantly, for them to know who they are and where they come from so the children wouldn’t grow up like I did. One of the main things I mention to the native youth is telling them about myself and how I had to repeat 1st grade because I chose to be with my Dad all the time rather than being in school. Yes, being with father was fun. I learned a lot about how to survive out in the woods, but the consequence of staying away from school was having to repeat first grade. I tell my students that it was embarrassing, and that I was ashamed. But more importantly, that I learned from my mistakes and I walked out of there with a diploma in hand. Now that I am older and look back, it is humorous. I do not let that one mistake I made when I was young affect me because that is what life is about: you make mistakes, you learn, you move on and enjoy what the future upholds for you. In high school I loved sports and I knew I had to have good attendance and grades to play. I made sure I was at school every day and committed time to my studies. This is a huge part of who I am today. I was the second of six kids to graduate from a family where my father had a ninth grade education and my Mother had a sixth grade education from boarding school. And due to that, my parents, especially my Grandfather, continuously expressed how important it was for us as Native American’s to have our education so we could survive out in this world. I took everything that was told to me to heart and I strived every day to be the woman who I am today. I still hear their voices as if it were told to me yesterday.

Recently there has been a large focus on increasing the diversity of texts presented to students in the classroom. Did you have a favorite childhood book? Can you reflect on any particular stories you personally connected with?

I came from the 70’s and the “American Indian Movement” (AIM) greatly influenced my teen years. I really liked hearing Russell Means and John Trudell speeches and how they stood up for not only their tribal people but all Native Americans, and that really influenced me. I took a lot of English classes, poetry specifically and competitive speech. I would have loved to have better (not so one sided or the “savage Indians”) choices in books. I like tribe specific books because it’s nice reading about all tribes – but you want to know that your tribe had just as much to offer as others. I like books that not only teach us as Native people but as humans like everyone else. This can provide a better sense and understanding of who we are and why we are who we are. My children read about Captain Jack, our Modoc Hero, at a very young age. They had to know who they are as a Native/Indigenous individual.

What are some unique experiences and values that you would bring to a space as a student or educator?

My strength is years of cultural and traditional teaching, re-creating implements used on a daily basis in a village setting. There are lessons taught in everything you do, every task had a song that showed how you were grateful. Thanks-giving is a daily expression. I believe creating and molding identity while building self-esteem is important. I also focus on creating a structured environment through traditional values and teachings. I was raised, quite literally, out in the forest at our family camp site. During this time, I was raised in a two parent family that was not male dominant in daily roles. My Mother also hunted, skinned deer, broke them down and both parents cooked. Others perceived us as “third world poor” – but I was never hungry, always had clean water, fresh meat, and fish smoked jerky. Tule mats, rabbit skin blankets and clothes, and I learned how to make them all. I ate crawdads or crawfish, wood grubs, wild strawberries, wild celery, wild Onions huckleberries and learned how to identify them. I learned how to heat water using hot rocks – I didn’t know I had a hands-on education that few had the opportunity to experience.

An article written by the Herald and News mentioned that your family drums and dances. Can you tell me a bit about the importance of these activities to you personally? How might an educator draw on such values and experiences in the classroom?

Drumming, singing and dancing in the circle is a way of life for my family. It is a way we have made a tight family bond. Traveling all over many cities, towns, and states laughing with and learning other tribe’s ways, is central to realizing similarities as well as differences. It allows us to connect and create lifelong friendships. The circle also reinforces our teachings to our children about respect of each other and the circle, a spiritual feeling with creator, and the importance/value of everyone before self. How we respect nature, mother earth, our Elders and how they are our wisdom keepers. As a traditional dancer I was taught that we gently step on our Mother not stomping on her. That we are to be as grace as a floating Feather. How each dance style has its own way of healing and spiritual significance once again making us all connect in one way or form. When we step into the circle we become one. In teaching it is important to consider that the circle teaches respect for our Veterans, the flag both American and Native. Eagle Feathers are a huge part of Native and American lives. They are spiritual for both worlds. We learned how to dance with pride while remaining humble. Dancing for those in a prayerful way and for those who are not able to dance. Teaching that the making of regalia – how most of it comes from a living being and needs to be made with love and respect – is important. It is not just art but an extension of self, your family and your people.

If an educator wanted to create a culturally responsive lesson specifically for you, what would it look like? What subjects would it cover? What books/authors would be included? What area of the world would it focus on? What language would it be taught in? Who would teach it?

A more accurate historical teaching in our classrooms. Not just our ancestors’ experience but that of our people today and the struggles we have. The success stories need to be told, not only Native students but to educate all students. What might be someone’s weeds is another’s pharmacy or grocery store, even as clothing (not just animal fur was used as clothing). Imagine how different this would have been if our ancestors could have kept their strengths and just built on it instead of being treated less than human or unintelligent. Also teaching a cultural traditional way of life. Not as an art project but to verify the value of this knowledge in today’s world. Teaching how Native people actually live in two worlds and why that is important to maintain, would be important. This is considered a historical year regarding No DAPL and how many tribes and races have gathered together regarding one cause that affects many. RISE should be shown to students and what actually happened. How reporters have faced imprisonment for reporting stories. How that affects the constitution. Education can happen without becoming politically biased.

Were you familiar with the idea of culturally responsive instruction and restorative discipline before stepping into your role as a Family Advocate with TAPP?

Yes, I was familiar with culturally responsive instruction, but maybe not taught in the way I have been recently. My children told me this is how I taught them. I had not heard of restorative discipline before stepping into this role – but I really like the concept and look forward to some positive changes. The Elementary School has some great sensitive teaching staff that I wish I could have had growing up. And the Principal I can’t rave more about. It’s been a great experience working here.
What type of support do you believe will be key in the next few months and years? How can TAPP support you in these efforts? Providing materials to maintain students’ attendance status, food for family get together and help to make school exciting. Identifying and offering trainings or supports for families who need help to increase attendance, and making sure they know it is a team effort and they are not alone and no one is trying to punish them.

As TAPP comes to a close, what advice would you give to future family advocates? How will you apply what you learned in the TAPP project to your future endeavors?

To be positive and celebrate successes. Every student should feel that their presence is important to everyone. Also by keeping parents continual and consistently informed and involved. They need to know that their participation is also very important. Creating and maintaining school wide awareness is central. We need to continue to employ Native teachers in our school who bring the “Traditional” with them. We need Native people who model pride in who they are as a Native person. It is not enough having an individual teaching our Native children the same way that has been taught all these years because it is not working. We like the idea, the “Best of Both worlds.”