Photo courtesy Facebook/Navajo Technical College
Students practice weaving a sash belt at Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

The Case for Indigenous-Based Education

Duane Champagne
March 22, 2013


The most critical and radical contemporary approach to schooling today is culturally based education. Its virtues and drawbacks are many.

Briefly put, culturally based education recognizes and supports cultural diversity, language and community relations. It regards students as individuals and focuses on how they are socialized into a culture or society. It extols multiculturalism.

That’s all well and good. And yet these methods are unlikely to satisfy the needs of indigenous communities. That’s because they are usually interested in more than preserving cultural orientations within a larger society. However, the culture that manages and supports education also controls those orientations.

Today, tribal leaders are searching for better ways to educate tribal children who need strong community loyalties and understanding of their culture and history—not to mention the skills and grounded identity to sustain them when they engage with larger political, cultural and economic institutions. But these needs are not met by contemporary schools created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by state-county school districts.

What of the movement to subcontract Indian education through self-determination? Unfortunately, it continues to rely upon strong external nontribal standards and values within the education processes.

As for bureau-contracted schools and Indian charter schools, they are certainly steps in the right direction because they increase tribal community control over education. However, contemporary K-12 education creates neither solid tribal citizens nor students who are ready for college.

Tribal communities won’t gain sufficient control over the processes of education unless they build and manage their own school systems. Some gaming communities have already done so. The tribal community college movement has also produced significant and extraordinary tribally controlled education institutions. But there are still far too few K-12 tribally controlled schools.

The obvious answer is more tribally controlled schools. Only these institutions can best deploy tribal languages, culture, elders, and all manner of indigenous means to develop strong identities in tribal students, and create strong tribal citizens. They are essential in regaining and sustaining tribal cultural, political and economic autonomy.