Re-Envisioning American Indian Education

Aug 15th, 1997 | By | Category: 9-2: Re-envisioning Indian Education, Editor's Essay
By Marjane Ambler

CULTURAL GRAPHICThe concept of American Indian cultural curriculum emerged not out of educational fads or efforts to be politically correct. It was inspired by the failure of educational institutions to successfully educate American Indian children. Alarming drop out statistics demonstrate the mainstream educational system’s inability by academic standards to educate Indian people. Often those who do succeed in mainstream institutions are considered failures by their own cultural standards. They are not conversant with their tribe’s important cultural values–how to be respectful and generous, how to live in balance, how to withstand hardship, or how to receive blessings. Too many lack self-esteem and suffer from the problems associated with that–drug and alcohol abuse, family violence, and suicide.

Students forced to study in English frequently are not firmly anchored in either English or their tribe’s language. Lacking the vocabulary in either language to articulate their pain and anger, they resort too often to self-destructive or violent behavior. Instead of being bi-cultural and demonstrating the strengths of each culture, the students slide into the chasm between the two.

Efforts to fundamentally change American Indian education have been few. Many universities and colleges include cultural content, calling it Native American Studies, ethnic studies, or comparative cultures. However, Native American Studies courses at most colleges and universities must be generic since they attract students from many tribes.

At reservation-based tribal colleges, courses can address the history, geography, philosophy, language, and arts of the particular tribe. Tribally chartered colleges also can take a leadership role in re-envisioning education, as demonstrated in this issue. Located on reservations, they are ideally situated–theoretically–for researching traditional educational methods, for understanding core cultural values, and for implementing both.

Their mission statements emphasize their dual roles. Blackfeet Community College’s mission says, for example, that the college is “a tribal effort to achieve a balance between educational advancement and cultural preservation.” Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College’s mission says in part that “the curriculum will reflect Ojibwa culture and tribal self-determination. The college will provide opportunities for individual self-improvement in a rapidly changing technological world while maintaining the cultural integrity of the Ojibwa.”

Models for overcoming barriers

It is easier to adopt a dual mission than to implement it, however, especially with the tribal colleges’ chronic underfunding. Tribal college models for curriculum, research, teaching methods, and evaluation are featured in this issue. Each model illustrates strategies for overcoming the many barriers. The first barrier is convincing others that cultural education is necessary for the 21st century. Tribal schools must satisfy not only outsiders but their own community members. They are accused of going “back to the blanket” or “back to the wigwam,” often by Indian parents and grandparents who were told their Native language was sinful when they went to school.

On the other side of the spectrum are traditionalists who believe that cultural teachings are the responsibility of the community and the family, not the schools. Many tribal educators believe, however, that if the schools don’t share this responsibility, the language and traditions may be lost. When Montana tribes first faced the potential death of their languages, they became inspired to teach Indian languages in the schools, as Dr. Richard Littlebear describes in his article on language certification.

Paul Willeto’s article about the Diné philosophy of education illustrates the intellectual challenge that the colleges face when they try to make fundamental changes in their educational system. Diné College was established in Arizona by the Navajo Nation nearly 30 years ago, and for the last two decades, the college has been grappling with the philosophy of learning. Diné College (then called Navajo Community College) started with a few cultural courses, just as the other tribal colleges did. Then they decided to replicate a tribal philosophy of learning that would convey not only ideas but would utilize a Diné thought process appropriate for Navajo students.

Good models rely upon good scholarship. Before a school can provide cultural education, it must research what the local “Native culture” is. This is often difficult because of the narrow definitions and stereotypes that abound, Dr. Mary Hermes points out in her guide to literature in this issue. Too many Native American Studies classes list “Indian legends” rewritten by missionaries on their reading lists. Dysfunctional social interactions are mislabeled as “traditional” in some communities. Hermes’s own research in the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe community in Wisconsin demonstrates the value of personal involvement with tribal elders when researching traditional education. She rejected the conventional, detached observation inherent in the “ivory tower” approach to research.

Additionally, the curriculum material and the instructors also must be evaluated. A tribal elder does not automatically become qualified to teach upon reaching a certain age. For tribal colleges to maintain their accreditation and for courses to transfer, outside institutions have to understand and accept the colleges’ vision of education and their criteria for evaluation. The colleges have had mixed success at this. Significantly, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools provided part of the impetus for Diné College to actually implement its philosophy of learning.

In his article on certifying language teachers, Littlebear hints at the new methods for evaluation that will have to be designed. In Montana, the state board of public education provides for Native language teacher certification in an innovative way that recognizes tribal diversity and each tribe’s authority to judge its own language teacher qualifications.

To deal with mainstream universities’ demands for teacher credentials, Salish Kootenai College (SKC) created a certification process for cultural instructors in 1984. The tribal culture committees decide who is qualified to teach specific skill areas, and then the college develops a resume and a teaching certificate for each instructor. As a result, mainstream universities have accepted such SKC courses for transfer as electives.

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