Indigenous Evaluation Can Decolonize Us

Nov 15th, 2006 | By | Category: 18-2: Traditional Wisdom Our Strength, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie
GROUP OF TEEPEES

Photo by Ken Blackbird

I am excited about the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s (AIHEC)’s new initiative on indigenous evaluation, perhaps because, in recent years, I have been fortunate to observe firsthand how indigenous perspectives can be used to evaluate education.

When our local group of Native educators and activists discuss issues in our public K-12 systems, one friend, a scholar of postcolonial education, always insists, “What would our elders think? How would they view this activity?” or “What should people working with our children know about our people and our history?”

Hoskie Benally, a Diné elder, who evaluates drug and alcohol treatment centers that serve Indian people, also stresses cultural competence. He assesses staff using criteria such as the ability to speak the language of the tribe one serves and knowledge of traditional philosophy and practices. This assessment is valuable because it implies what might be done about the identified needs.

At first, applying an indigenous methodology can feel awkward because we are so used to relying on mainstream measures of effectiveness. For our local activist group, the process required frequent consultation with fluent speakers and elders; nevertheless, we soon became convinced it was critical to do this. We realized no one was going to enable us to think indigenously but ourselves. And the process of thinking about what is best for our people based on what is inherent and essential in our cultures had us practicing decolonization before we knew it.

If we choose to ignore the ongoing effects of colonization, we risk becoming dismissive – marginalizing indigenous language programs, relegating the teaching of traditional wisdom only to specific departments and individuals, blaming parents alone for their children’s so-called deficits, and, in the end, simply perpetuating ineffectual education.

Deliberately facing this challenge is no easy undertaking because it requires us to think and act differently from how we have been conditioned.

At Crownpoint Institute of Technology (CIT, Crownpoint, NM) I participated in our self-study for accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association. I learned the HLC review team had asked for evidence of Diné cultural infusion across the curriculum because the college’s mission and philosophy emphasize Diné teachings.

A committee of staff and students searched out such evidence and facilitated corrective measures where it was lacking. Rather than expecting the Diné Studies Department alone to address cultural infusion, the committee helped examine how traditional Diné wisdom underscores everyone’s work at CIT.

Some opposed this process; a few non-Native teachers felt only Navajo staff should be responsible for “sacred Navajo teachings,” others said the students didn’t appreciate traditional teachings, so why bother.

Even so, the committee remained focused, and in the end the statement was reaffirmed. Campus elders stepped forward with their own stories about how CIT had evolved and how it now serves the purposes of the Navajo Nation. This renewed pride in the institution’s tribal identity was easily as valuable as receiving full accreditation from the HLC review team.

At the 2006 Summer Retreat for tribal college and university (TCU) presidents, I heard one president admit he was at first taken aback when elders had criticized the Lakota language program on his campus and urged him to create an elders advisory council, but then he later agreed with them.

He recalled studying Spanish in college in much the same way that his students were studying Lakota language; a way that he admits did not lead him to speak Spanish. With input from his council of elders, this college president is now looking forward to students learning to speak Lakota the Lakota way. The voice of community wisdom is essential to uphold the premise of indigenous evaluation.

Consistent affirmation of the relevance of traditional or indigenous perspectives and values is essential in organizations serving Native people. Sadly, there are some Natives who see little value in traditional ways anymore. And they can be the loudest critics of indigenous-based approaches.

In our region, public school tribal language programs are frequently marginalized when school boards, administrators, and even parents decide that the outcomes of such programs do not figure into the state-adopted criteria for success, a determination based primarily on English language competence. As a result, language and culture programs are barely supported, enough to meet minimal requirements only. An indigenous evaluation process would certainly ask how the crisis of tribal language loss is being addressed.

Similarly, in this issue, writer Paul Boyer identifies the danger of colleges being sidetracked from tribal sovereignty goals due to the “narrow and short-term expectations” of those who fund them. Emphasizing only mainstream thinking weakens cultural survival, indigenous thought, and traditional values.

And when educators must compile data that have no relevance to them or to their community, they may begin to brand all data gathering as pointless.  Hopefully, new indigenous evaluation approaches will better balance all aspects of the work of tribal colleges, including their cultural work.

Making use of traditional wisdom comes down to deciding whether or not to accept the cultural identity we are born to. Whether you measure high or low on cultural competence, whether you claim or disclaim your Native heritage, one way or another, it affects you.

Perhaps, for students and staff alike, our cultural identities exist primarily in our hearts. They are based in part on how we grew up and in part on what we learn during our lifetimes. I think indigenous evaluation can be useful to entire colleges or to each of us as individuals – the process entails identifying who we came from in order to discover who we are. And it helps us decide what we need to do with that information.

By the way, I came away from my first AIHEC meeting feeling particularly restored. I heard some frank admissions about the diminishing knowledge of indigenous language and culture among TCU students, but alongside that were spirited discussions of strategic planning, sustainability, and accountability. Coming from recent experience in K-12 public education, where administrators rarely express concern about language and culture issues with real sincerity, I was amazed.

It is critical that we continue to realize the effects of colonization on our current knowledge and systems of learning, particularly in a time when our indigenous languages, keys to our culture and our unique thought, are disappearing at such a rapid rate.

It just makes sense that centers of learning and healing should involve people who are appropriately informed, inclusive, culturally respectful, and collaborative. It also makes sense to recognize and to consider the powerful impact that colonialism has had on our communities.

It is no surprise that all of the writings in this issue of Tribal College Journal underscore the relevance and survival of traditional wisdom in our tribal colleges – they’re about valuing ourselves and keeping us whole.

Tina Deschenie (Diné/ Hopi) is the editor of Tribal College Journal. She has over 20 years of experience in American Indian education.

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