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Meet Germain Smith, a Shinnecock citizen changing New York's education policy

Germain Smith
Shinnecock member Germain Smith

Shinnecock tribal member Germain Smith experienced the struggles Indigenous students face in high schools on the East End of Long Island. Now, he sits on an advisory council of Indigenous leaders from around the state to address Indigenous education needs.

As the secretary of the Shinnecock Council of Trustees, Smith was selected by the state Department of Education to join this new task force. He said his main goal is to prevent Indigenous students from falling through the cracks like he once did.

Smith attended the Southampton School District but dropped out before graduation. He earned his GED and attended Nassau Community College before completing his bachelor's degree at SUNY Empire.

“It was a long road for me,” Smith said. “And it is because I was not prepared, I didn't have the direction and the support that I needed.”

Smith sees this lack of support across the nation, and “certainly in New York state.” His mission on the task force is to hold local school districts accountable for educating Indigenous students.

Last month, the advisory committee held its first meeting led by Education Commissioner Betty Rosa. The group discussed how to improve Indigenous diversity, equity and inclusion in schools. One topic of conversation was the need for more Indigenous teachers.

Smith said there hasn’t been a male Shinnecock instructor teaching core classes in the Southampton District in a long time. When he attended school, there were no Indigenous teachers.

Smith also sits on a National Tribal Advisory Committee for the Administration for Children and Families as a primary delegate. He is the spokesperson for about 30 tribes spanning from Maine to Florida.

Smith said the push to incorporate Indigenous language in the curriculum is a nationwide movement.

“When it comes to the elders, we have elders in the community that are speaking the language, and they don't necessarily want to go back to college at 50, 60, 70 years old and obtain a master's degree in education,” Smith said.

New York state is working toward a certification plan that will allow elders to teach their tribal languages in the classroom without having to go back to school. Smith said New York is moving in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. He said the state should do more to support Indigenous education needs and acknowledge Shinnecock history in the curriculum.

“The Shinnecock name is used all over town, all over Long Island. And it’s as if we don't exist anymore,” Smith said. “And that's how a lot of native communities feel we're not a symbol, we're not a mascot, we're people that are still here and still exist.”

Maria Lynders is a former news fellow at WSHU.