Kathryn Oswood 29 August 2008 Native Americans and Education



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Kathryn Oswood 29 August 2008
Native Americans and Education
From the pre-colonial, tribal education of oral language, collaboration, and critical thinking to the colonial traditions of text books, memorization, and individualism the pendulum swings. Henry Giroux’s Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope, emphasizes the “…political, cultural, and social margins that confine and undermine knowledge and the process of schooling…” Promoting equity and cultural pluralism will help children of minority groups to navigate from one culture to another while discovering the importance of diversity in the process of learning.
Pre-Colonial Native American Education
The North American continent became populated when immigrants from Asia crossed over the Bering Land Bridge that is now submerged in the Bering Strait. By the time the indigenous peoples encountered European settlers they had increased in number to as many as 900,000 people with over 300 different languages (Library of Congress). The tribes were varied not only in language but also in religion, traditions, survival tactics, and education. Despite tribal differences, oral tradition was the foundation of education.

The children of these diverse tribes were educated by the community, not by specified teachers, as everyone in the tribe had important lessons to pass on; however the immediate family was the most influential. As stated in American Education by Urban and Wagoner, “The rearing of children was everyone’s concern, for they understood that the life of the tribe—the life of “the people”—could be preserved and extended only for as long as the rising generations followed the ways of the old.” The ‘ways of the old’ referred to that of the oral tradition consisting mainly of the performance of chants, songs, dances, or stories. In these stories, differing from tribe to tribe, a child was taught to be a warrior, a hunter-gatherer, a fisher, how to survive alone for days at a time, and about gender roles and tribal hierarchies (Lauter). They were also taught about their tribe’s gods that varied largely do to geographic location. For example, Agloolik, the good spirit that lived under the ice, helped the Inuit tribes with hunting and fishing while in the southern areas of America the Cherokee worshiped Selu the goddess of corn (Burke).

The tribe would not only aid in survival and spiritual education but character building as well. Native Americans did not believe in corporal punishment and valued positive reinforcement by honoring a child’s accomplishments with feasts, hand-crafted gifts and ceremonies (Urban).
Colonization and Assimilation

“I remember you leaving us to be with the Catholics. I remember you coming to visit us with your book of lies, when you told me you could speak German. I remember you were so proud you knew a foreign language. I remember I told you English was your foreign language and you left again.”

-Sherman Alexie

In the nineteenth century, the Federal government attempted many ways to ‘conquer’ the native population through extermination, removal and assimilation. The colonization of the indigenous population of North America became that of mental force as assimilation is inherently an act of exterminating a culture. The goal: to assimilate the native peoples into a civilized and Christian nation. Assimilation left a nation of people detached from any culture as their belief system began to dissolve into a foreign reality where their ‘savage inadequacies’ were magnified (Provenzo).

In 1871 federal funding was distributed to ‘religious groups including Methodists, Baptists, and Catholics’ (Provenzo) to aid the government in their ‘Americanization’ project of the native people. Funding stopped when issues between church and state became evident however the Catholics and the Federal government had similar interests as both parties believed that civilization and Christianity were one and the same. A glaring difference between the two agencies was the governments desire to assimilate natives through reservation day schools and the Catholic belief that close tribal influence was disruptive to the ultimate goal of assimilation. Reverend D. Manley stated,

“Boarding schools, especially those run by the Catholics were more successful since: they educate the whole man-the head, the heart, and the hand…This is the only education that can ever effect the Christian civilization of the Red Man. [Without contract schools] expect to see the Indians become civilized pagans…Indian free-thinkers…who scoff at Christianity as a relic of the past.”

During this period colonization destroyed the tribe ideal by creating a sense of individualism in the native people. Distinctions between native groups became blurred as many tribes would attend the same school. Languages and cultural beliefs became impossible to preserve as the English language grew to be the only common form of communication, thus, creating the “pan-Indian consciousness” ( Provenzo).

“For Indians to become civilized, they must be immersed in civilization,” (Urban). In the early twentieth century the idea that Natives could be assimilated in a few years began to change as the previous beliefs that assimilation was merely an environmental issue, did not prove effective. The National Education Association (NEA) discussed in 1909 that “the races of men feel, think, and act differently not only because of environment, but also because of hereditary impulses.” From this new belief came progressive thought toward child development and creating connections between school and a child’s home life. G. Stanley Hall “urged teachers of Indian children (indeed, of all children) to build on children’s natural capacities and backgrounds rather than obliterate them.” Educators were also beginning to teach the Native children as a “different culture” instead of a “lower civilization”. The incorporation of the Indian culture began to creep into curriculum with songs, arts and crafts, and oral story telling (Provenso).


Progressive Education in the Tribe

“In real life, subject matter is not divided into disciplines. The Indian phrase ‘We are all related’ describes the tribal understanding of life’s interdependence and fluidity. Within the Indian concept of relativity, the world is a living curriculum, a seamless fabric within which several distinct areas of ‘content’ can be seen and experienced in one ‘context.’”

-Raymond Reyes

Through observation and collaboration discoveries are made interchangeably from math to reading to science to art and so on. Lectures, rote memorization, and skills drills have been the predominant teaching style for the United States’ education system. Slowly, a more progressive approach to teaching is becoming a common style as critical thinking, creativity, risk taking, and forming deeper understandings through conversation are being valued. Throughout history Native American children have had low test scores and high drop-out rates due to the clash between ‘white’ traditions and Native American traditions. Using the more progressive design will prove more effective when educating the Native population. For centuries tribes have taught their children through hands-on experiences, involvement of community and family, and the idea that one can learn anywhere. Integrating culture into a predominantly ‘white’ school system is necessary for the success of all children not just children of a minority. Developing a community of learners and the sense of cooperation is inherently connecting the values of the Native Americans into the classroom instead of the ‘factory style’ education that values competition and the individuals’ achievements (Reyes). Education should rely more on partnerships and group efforts of learning and encourage conversation in order for their students to gain deeper understandings that will stay with them and be transferable to outside applications.

As well as varied teaching style and clear expectations the way we assess our children needs to be as diverse as our students. Alternative assessments need to be practiced to ensure that all learners are represented accurately and confidently. Portfolios, presentations, experiments, and essays are ways in which we can differentiate assessments along side standardized tests.
Marysville School District

In the Marysville School District (MSD) there are many Native American schools that teach the Tulalip Tribe children. MSD has an Indian Education Department that works predominantly with secondary education to ensure the success of the Native population by monitoring grades and attendance. There are members of the Tulalip Tribe on the school board as well as Native American liaisons in schools and a liaison between the district and the tribe. The school board and the Tulalip Tribal Board meet consistently to discuss the achievements and needs of the Native children in the district. Also, the Tribe provides funding and grants to tribal schools to support literacy and mathematics programs. Not only is collaboration and cooperation essential in the classroom but between the schools and the communities as well. What we expect from our children is what we should expect from ourselves.


In Conclusion

“[The word] ‘respect’ comes from the Latin respicere, which means “the willingness to look again.”

-Raymond Reyes

It is imperative that educators build on children’s cultural understandings in the classroom in order to nourish their education and everyday life. There has been action taken in finding relationships between academic performance and cultural integrated education such as the Indian Nations At Risk: An Educational Strategy for Action. This document uses the National Education Goals as a foundation in establishing “a set of education goals to guide the improvement of all federal, tribal, private, and public schools that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives and their communities,” (Demmery). This document provides recommendations for parents, school officials and educators, as well as tribal, local, state, and federal governments on how to improve schools and our learners within those schools. Educators can only improve on children’s education by improving on their own. This is accomplished by learning from cultures, rethinking teaching practices and involving diverse voices in local, state, and national levels. It is time that education practices are looked upon again in order to ensure equity and respect between cultures.


Works Cited

  1. Alexie, Sherman. (1992). The Business of Fancydancing. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press.

  2. Burke, Paul. (2008). First People of America. Retrieved August 21, 2008 from http://www.firstpeople.us.

  3. Demmery, W. G., Bell, T. H. (Cochairmen). (1991). Indian Nations At Risk: An Educational Strategy for Action. U.S. Department of Education.

  4. Giroux, Henry A. (1997). Pedagogy and the Politics of Hope: Theory, Culture, and Schooling. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  5. Lauter, Paul. (Ed.). (2002). The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

  6. Provenzo, F. P., McCloskey, G. N. (1981). Catholic and Federal Indian Education in the Late 19th Century: Opposed Colonial Models. Journal of American Indian Education. 21 (1). Retrieved August 20, 2008, from http://jqie.asu.edu/v21/V21S1opp.html.

  7. Reyes, Raymond. (1998). A Native Perspective on the School Reform Movement. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Gonzaga University. Retrieved August 20, 2008 from www.nwrac.org/pub/hot/native.html.

  8. Unknown. (2003). Destroying the Native American Cultures. Library of Congress. Retrieved August 18, 2008, from http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/immig/alt/native_american..html.

  9. Urban, W. J., Wagoner, J. L. (2004). American Education: A History: Third Edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


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