Revitalizing Lakota and Ojibwe Mathematics: Meet Danny Luecke, PhD Student and Tribal College Faculty
When Danny Luecke was in college, he had no idea what he wanted as a career. He entered college on a football scholarship, changed his major multiple times, and eventually landed on math and math education. After graduating and unsure what to do next, he spent a few years traveling in Europe and India, but he felt a spiritual calling to return to his childhood home in Fargo, North Dakota.
After he returned, Luecke started working part-time teaching remedial math courses at North Dakota State University. He was drawn to teaching as a career because of his love of interacting with people. After a few semesters, his wife encouraged him to pursue a master’s degree in mathematics to become a math professor.
Today, Luecke is a PhD student studying mathematics education at NDSU. When he entered grad school, he knew he wanted to use his education to benefit tribal communities and learn more about his Choctaw identity. Luecke is from multiple European nations as well as the Choctaw Nation. He reflects upon the bind of embracing or neglecting his Choctaw heritage because of his predominantly white background and experiences. Luecke shares his current desire to honor all of his ancestors.
In the pursuit of his goals, Luecke has built deep relationships with the Standing Rock Sioux and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. His work focuses on revitalizing Indigenous mathematical traditions. “There are mathematical ways of knowing: it’s in the language around the words for numbers, it’s in following the stars and astronomy, it’s in the construction of anything, in traditional games and artistry, how you give directions… all of these mathematical ideas were normal, known, and passed down from one generation to the next,” Luecke reflected.
His PhD research has been in partnership with Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Reservation, particularly with the K-5 language immersion nest, Lakȟól’iyapi Wahóȟpi. Luecke and his community-based research partners wanted to revitalize Lakota mathematics. Though some curricula had “cultural math,” it wasn’t math embedded with Lakota worldview, he reflected, but instead, it was Western math with Indigenous imagery. For example, “pretend to cut a tipi in half and it makes a triangle to talk about the Pythagorean Theorem.” Instead, Luecke and his partners at Sitting Bull College wanted to learn about Lakota mathematics grounded in Lakota knowledge and worldview. To do this, they interviewed elders. Luecke likens the revitalization of Lakota math to language revitalization. “The goal is to learn these ways of knowing again, normalize it, and pass it down from one generation to the next,” he reflected. He is now working on publications about his findings.
While he was working on his PhD research, he learned through a colleague that Turtle Mountain Community College on the Turtle Mountain Reservation wanted to create a new, four-year math education program to increase the number of local math teachers on the reservation. “I didn’t even know a job like that could exist,” reflected Luecke. “I was thrilled.” He is now leading the development of this program. One of the key values of the program is listening to community needs and centering them around Ojibwe mathematics.
“If the program is the same as a math program at NDSU or any other predominantly white institution, that is not okay,” he said. “We knew we wanted place-based education, specifically tailored to the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe community.”
To learn more about what type of courses were needed in the community, Luecke met with Ojibwe language instructors, students, and other community members. A moment of epiphany came when visiting the local high school. Many of the math teachers he spoke with said that students complained about math with the old adage: “when are we going to use this?” To help answer that question, Luecke developed a course called Math in Context. “Bring in anything from any other subject, and we will discuss the mathematics that are embedded in that, whether it’s tribal governance, or economics, or water quality,” said Luecke. In addition to the Math in Context course, Luecke is particularly excited about the development of a three-course sequence titled Ojibwe Math 1, 2, and 3. The new math education program will be launching in fall 2022, and the degree is currently seeking accreditation.
While his research on Lakota math for the Standing Rock tribe hasn’t turned into courses yet, they are hosting professional development for math instructors at this summer’s Dakota Lakota Summer Institute.
Outside of his work and studies, much of Luecke’s life is dedicated to his faith. When asked about self-care, Luecke reflects “My faith in Jesus is what keeps care of me.” He is also a proud father; he and his wife are excited to be welcoming a second daughter in January 2022.
Author Bio: Abaki Beck (Blackfeet and Red River Métis) is a freelance writer and public health researcher passionate about health equity in Native communities, particularly for justice-involved community members. She earned her Master’s in Public Health in 2020 and grew up in Montana.
This article is supported by the generous support of the Tensor SUMMA Grant! Thank you!