Tribal Colleges Tackle Education for All

Nov 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 21-2: K-12 Education, Winter 2009, Editor's Essay, Opinion
By Marjane Ambler

Every day, tribal colleges greet new students who consider themselves failures, unable to learn. In fact, it is often the K-12 educational system that has failed to serve these students. Research points to many explanations for the problems with education throughout our country. While many of the issues can be found anywhere, some are specific to Indian students and involve their people’s history with assimilation, racism, and ignorance.

Education has too often been used as a weapon against tribal cultures, forcing students to choose at a young age between being Indian and being educated. As a result, some people in reservation communities resent family members who embrace education.

School can be an uncomfortable place at best and a dangerous place at worst in reservation border towns. Fellow students still might call their classmates “prairie nigger” or “chief.” Thanksgiving often is a painful time of year when well-meaning teachers ask children to dress up as pilgrims or Indians with construction paper headdresses. Many textbooks still either ignore Indians or treat them as savage obstacles to Western progress.

High school civics classes include federal, state, and local governments, ignoring tribal governments. When non-Indians first learn about tribal sovereignty as adults, it is often in the context of battles over water rights, wildlife management, casinos, or other polarizing issues.

A 2001 U. S. Commission on Civil Rights study said, “One of the reasons that Indian students dropped out of school was that schools provided Indian students with no role models or curricula that was inclusive of Indian culture or of relevance to Indian students.”

In Montana, however, the governor and the state legislature in 2005 provided funding for Indian Education for All in an attempt to address the ignorance that lies beneath the fears and resentments. They asked the seven tribal colleges in the state to create curriculum material for K-12 schools in every community, not just reservation communities.

The students have always learned about women’s suffrage, pioneers, and gold miners, but now all the students will also learn about the distinct tribal histories and heroes of the state’s Salish, Kootenai, Blackfeet, Assiniboine, White Clay, Nakota, Northern Cheyenne, Chippewa Cree, and Crow people. Scholars say that such education will also help with the dropout problem.

This issue explores a variety of other approaches being used by TCUs to address preK-12 education, and many others exist that were not included. They host summer enrichment programs to expose students to college campuses, to exciting career options in fields such as aviation and space, and to cultural traditions in science and technology.

They provide professional training to American Indian teachers and administrators, who become role models. As the tribal colleges and universities work to transform individual lives, they also strive to transform the educational experience for their entire communities.

Marjane Ambler was editor of Tribal College Journal from 1995-2006. She is now a freelance writer based in Atlantic City, WY. For information about the Montana Indian Education for All initiative, see and TCJ, Vol. 17, No. 4.

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