Melissa Deletant teaches art in the Uintah schools, one of Utah’s most diverse districts. At Lapoint Elementary, which borders the Ute reservation, the population is mostly a mix of Native Americans and the white descendants of Mormon ranchers. Instead of seeing these differences as a challenge, Melissa sees opportunity.
Raised in a homogenous rural Pennsylvania community, Melissa’s first teaching job was in Virginia where 96% of her students were minority populations. Notions of being “color blind” evaporated when she realized that embracing each student’s unique background, perspective, and gifts would help her see the whole student and create a culturally responsive environment.
At Lapoint, one of her favorite projects each year is creating a school-wide display for Veterans Day. One year it was hundreds of individually painted poppies. Another year it was a massive flag, with each student responsible for different parts. But perhaps the most powerful display to date was when each child, from kindergarten to fifth grade, painted a portrait of a local veteran.
The six-week project began with kids learning the basics of sketching faces and moving on to self portraits before tackling portraiture. When it came time for kids to choose a photograph of a veteran to paint, Melissa suggested they select someone that they felt looked like them, hoping to strengthen connections. She assumed that Native kids would choose Native veterans, and white would choose white. But as the children stared at the many faces staring back at them in a variety of uniforms, there was no clear correlation between a child’s ethnicity and that of the veteran they wanted to paint. “Kids don’t care about skin color,” Melissa said.
Melissa had seen the Ute Veterans Monument along Route 40 that celebrates the Native population’s contributions to the armed forces in every major conflict for over 200 years. At five times the national average, Native people have the highest per capita involvement of any population to serve in the U.S. military and the Ute are no exception, embodying what many refer to as the “warrior tradition.” Her vision was to get a photograph of an actual veteran into the hands of every child. Some kids might bring in pictures of family members who had served. But for those children who needed a photograph, she turned to the local veterans. When she approached the Ute tribal liaison and asked for help, he willingly gave her access to tons of photos and sent pictures of himself, his siblings, and their father.
Melissa’s projects often work on a variety of levels: in addition to honoring veterans and teaching drawing and painting skills, she understands that participating in the arts creates empathy. Art allows us to “celebrate things that are unique to each family. And within a project like this, we can see differences and see what unifies us. As we celebrate both aspects, it brings us together.” This unity becomes real in a literal sense as the community gathers together, seeing what the students have created. Each year Ute veterans, dressed in military and tribal regalia, are invited to participate in a flag ceremony while Red Spirit, a native drum group, performs an honor song. One of the hardest parts of COVID is losing this shared gathering space, where student art brings the community together to celebrate their differences and recognize their sameness.
Melissa believes that a project like this shows how art experiences teach the whole child. For example, elementary school art classes are a wonderful place for friendships to form and flourish. She encourages curiosity and empathy, and discourages competition. As second graders see the whole school’s veteran portraits on display, they can see how much more advanced their work is compared to kindergarteners. They also can look at the fifth graders and see where they can progress in time if they keep developing these talents. Art classes are social studies, learning about different cultures and finding new ways to appreciate your own. Art classes are science classes: paints are “chemicals” to be mixed and explored, finding the right drops of color to replicate skin tones. Art classes teach kindness and validation as kids learn to critique each other’s works in ways that reflect growth and individual abilities.
During November, our nation celebrates Veterans Day and Native American Heritage Month. The BYU ARTS Partnership is grateful for the gifts and hard work of teachers like Melissa Deletant who find meaningful ways to honor both groups of Americans, groups who have sacrificed for and blessed our country since its birth. May we all gratefully carry the reminder that art can unite communities while also highlighting the special things that make each of us unique.
Heather Sundahl is a freelance writer and editor who works for the BYU ARTS Partnership, the Utah Women & Leadership Project, and Mormon Women for Ethical Government, bringing diverse experience and perspectives to educational conversations. Recently moved from Boston, she lives in Provo, Utah with her husband, children, and cats.