"That’s really something I want to do as a future teacher on the reservation—globalize the thinking of students, and globalize the experience of students. It’s important that they learn their own culture and history, but it’s also important for them to branch out and know the world."


Since graduating from Red Cloud in 2005, Maka Akan Najin Clifford '05 has traveled the world pursuing his passion for international education. During his time at the University of San Francisco, he studied abroad in Japan and became fascinated with the struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples. That experience led him to New York City, where he earned his Masters in Peace & Human Rights Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. This year he returned to Red Cloud to teach Lakota studies to the high school’s juniors and seniors.  We sat down with him to discuss his journey, and what he hopes to share with his students. 


Q&A with Maka Clifford

Maka, tell us a little bit about growing up on the reservation and how you got to Red Cloud.

I was born on Pine Ridge and grew up in the Wounded Knee district, on the outskirts of the town of Manderson—off a little dirt road sort of in the middle of nowhere. I went to school at the Wounded Knee District School until sixth grade, and then I jumped around a bit, spending a year in Rapid City, a year back on the reservation at Wolf Creek School, and then a year in Taos, New Mexico. In tenth grade I finally got to Red Cloud, and graduated in 2005.

Since leaving Red Cloud and Pine Ridge, your journey has been a global one! Tell us where you’ve been and how its inspired you.

My experience at Red Cloud was great, but I knew I wanted to leave the reservation and do something really different. I also knew I wanted to go to another Jesuit school, because I liked the educational system and the fact that Jesuit schools focused on values and ethics. I found the University of San Francisco, another Jesuit institution, applied and was accepted. I also got the Gates Scholarship. Without it, I don’t think I could have gone to USF—but because of the Gates, I was able to attend.

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but at that point in my life, I thought I wanted to be a performing arts teacher. So I spent my first three years of college immersed in that major and working in the theatre. And then I had the experience of studying abroad.

At that point, you traveled to Japan – how did that shift the focus of your studies?

Yes, I went to Japan for a semester, and while I was there, I spent time with a friend of my mother’s who was a Japanese professor and who teaches some courses on indigenous studies in Tokyo. It was 2007, the year the United Nations passed its Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was also the year the Japanese government formally recognized the Ainu as the country’s indigenous population after decades of denying them basic rights. There was a huge conference held to celebrate that brought together indigenous peoples from all over the world. I had the chance to participate in conversations about the future of indigenous populations and even signed the declaration on Ainu rights.

After that I realized this was my calling—to be involved in indigenous studies and human rights. It was my senior year, so I came back to USF and changed my major to international politics. And with the help of the Gates Scholarship, I was able to stay for a fifth year and finish that degree.

You ultimately went back to Japan to teach English, but then ended up halfway around the world in New York City.

After graduating from USF, I went back to Japan to teach English with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, and had wonderful experience. It solidified my desire to be a teacher, and I gained actual in-class teaching experience. And the area I lived in was former Ainu territory, so I got to have a lot of conversations with local people about Ainu heritage and their connection to the land. So I was still able to explore my passion for indigenous cultures, even while teaching English.

I ended up applying to Columbia University’s Teachers College because it is one of only two programs in the country that offers a graduate degree in human rights education. I was blown away when I got accepted, I couldn’t believe it. And it was exactly the degree I wanted. For me, human rights and indigenous studies was what I wanted to do—and even better than I could do it in the realm of education. When you go into international studies, they usually make you pick a region, but I chose indigenous peoples.

You just earned your Masters last spring. What brought you back to Red Cloud?

I had been away from the reservation for seven years, since high school. So I had was this desire to come back to get some teaching experience and to be with my family—and it seemed like the time to do that.  And Red Cloud just happened to have this position open. I never expected to be teaching Lakota studies specifically—but I’ve been incorporating a lot of my knowledge of indigenous studies into my teaching, and it’s been really fruitful.

You’re still planning to advance your education—what are your hopes for the future?

I think I’d be a bad scholar if I didn’t further my education, and that lofty goal of the PhD is still definitely in mind. Right now I love being here—the reservation will always be my home and there’s no question this is where I will end up. But in my youth, and in the name of gathering experience, I’d like to go back to Japan, or work elsewhere abroad and continue that internationalization process.

Ultimately that’s really something I want to do as a future teacher on the reservation—globalize the thinking of students, and globalize the experience of students. It’s important that they learn their own culture and history, but it’s also important for them to branch out and know the world. And I’ll get to do that here at Red Cloud, when I start teaching an elective on world indigenous people’s history. I’m still creating the curriculum for the class, but I’m so excited about it. I love international education. I love bringing Lakota people into the international conversation. If I do leave to earn my PhD and then come back to Red Cloud, I would love to start expanding that global aspect of the school.

You’ve had an extraordinary journey—and it’s just beginning. What is the greatest obstacle you’ve overcome so far?

At first, leaving the reservation wasn’t hard—because when I got to San Francisco, everything was new and different and exciting. But then you start missing home, and that was very difficult. But I was very fortunate to have a mother who was very strict about education. There are many parents on the reservation who value education, but they also value having their children at home. And one of the biggest problems for students is that, when you call home from college and say you hate it and you want to come home, there are many parents here who tell their kids to come back.

I was very fortunate to have a mother who said the exact opposite. I made that phone call and said ‘this is hard and I hate it, no one understands me, I’m the only Indian here and there is so much ignorance and so many stereotypes…’ And her response was, ‘well, tough luck.’ She said she knew it was hard and said I could call her whenever I wanted, but that I wasn’t allowed to stop until I was successful.

How did your time at Red Cloud prepare you for your global journey?

I think Red Cloud encourages success despite the obstacles that exist in students’ lives. There are obvious challenges facing students on the reservation that they don’t face in more economically affluent communities. But Red Cloud encouraged everyone to succeed no matter what. My teachers were challenging, especially in the Spiritual Formation Department—which is where I think I got my desire to enter another Jesuit institution despite not being Catholic.

I had a Jesuit teacher named Phil Cooke, SJ for ethics, and I’ll always remember him challenging us to think deeply, even about the most controversial issues. That was something that always stuck with me, his challenge to students to think in depth. I think every teacher pushed me to be better, and to think critically. That’s what really helped me to succeed.


Photo by Angel White Eyes '08
last updated: November 22, 2013