American Indian Leadership Program student profile: Bernie Chimoni

As Penn State's American Indian Leadership Program (AILP) celebrates its 40th anniversary, the program's impact is being examined through profiles of some of the people whose life AILP has changed.

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University Park, Pa. -- "The first thing that hit me was the humidity," Bernie Chimoni said of coming to University Park. Bernie is from New Mexico -- Zuni Pueblo. He rode to Nashville with his brother, who then sent him on his way to Pennsylvania. The Keystone State welcomed him with a not-uncommon crisp, foggy morning.

"Everything's all green!" Chimoni said. "I enjoy driving around and seeing the fields. That reminds me of home. My father and I plant a lot of corn, which most people do in the Zuni Pueblo."

Chimoni, a member of the Zuni Nation, is a fellow with the American Indian Leadership Program in Penn State's College of Education. Before entering the AILP, he was a fifth grade teacher at Isleta Elementary School in Isleta, N.M. He started his teaching career with the Zuni Public School District teaching elementary school.

Bernie was cognizant of the need for American Indians to become educational leaders in their public, charter and Bureau of Indian Education schools. He envisioned a program with a reputation and a tradition of leadership to prepare his leadership skills. Reading about Penn State's AILP, Bernie was impressed with the biographies of the program's co-directors, John Tippeconnic and Susan Faircloth.

"I looked at the research that they've done and the (AILP) alumni who have gone into different positions, and I said, 'Wow, these people have really made it in supporting American Indian education,' " he said.

In autumn of 2008 he applied to the program and waited.

"One part of me said, 'How could you be selected if it's nationwide?' " he said. The other part was optimistic. The call from John Tippeconnic came in February 2009, with an offer of a fellowship. "I was stunned. I felt so overwhelmed."

His goal: A master's degree in educational leadership with a principalship certification. The M.Ed. will augment his master's and bachelor's degrees in elementary education. He plans, additionally, to pursue a doctoral degree in educational leadership in the near future.

"We need more male American Indian leaders in education, especially principals," Bernie said. "I view leadership as a collective effort. I have to collaborate with my teachers, students and parents and be their link to the western European thought and theoretical principles that I'm learning here, including research. Because I'm bilingual, I think in both principles. Leadership is a collectivism model. It's a paradigm where American Indians work together and share ideas. That's one way of supporting each other."

The education of American Indians has evolved in the last 150 years -- from the forced assimilation philosophy gradually through increasing self-determination. The federal government's Indian commissioner Thomas J. Morgan wrote in 1889 that "the Indians must conform 'to the white man's ways,' peaceably if they will, forcibly if they must," a proclamation embodied in the Indian boarding schools. The best known of those was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the founder of which, Richard H. Pratt, wrote in 1878 that his objective was to "kill the Indian, not the man" -- to strip American Indian children of cultural awareness and affiliation.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon declared before Congress a new era of Indian self-determination, and Penn State's American Indian Leadership Program was established. In 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, with the federal government maintaining oversight of American Indian education. The gap between forced assimilation and self-determination has been slow to close.

"We're at a point in time in the 21st century," Chimoni said, "when (American Indians) are becoming more and more involved in American Indian education, and we're being looked to to do our own research and to apply it in our schools. Education does open doors to social and cultural capital; it provides employment opportunities. Education will change you for the better. It will make you successful. I have to believe in my Native American youth and people, that they also will be successful."

"Penn State's American Indian Leadership Program is a forerunner in providing high-quality training for American Indian educators," he said. "It empowers American Indians to become highly-qualified leaders. If you have the power to dream, you have the power to achieve."

Bernie Chimoni Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated November 19, 2010