AP Photo/Don Ryan
Teaching—but is it really learning?

Misdirected Indian Education

Duane Champagne
June 05, 2013

About two and a half centuries ago, Northeastern Indian leaders chided American colonial educators for wasting their young men’s time in giving them a European education. The young men who attended colonial schools returned with no relevant skills to hunt. They could not run or take care of themselves in the wilderness. They did not fit into tribal communities. They tended to break down into depression and drink. As a result, the Indian leaders refused to send them to such schools any longer. Instead, they suggested that the colonists send some of their young European men to be educated among Indians.

Some 250 years later, that defiant gesture is still relevant.

In general, education as it is promulgated by those who swept over this country from Europe has been, and continues to be, grossly misdirected for Indian nations and individuals. Its emphasis has almost always been on individual achievement, higher personal income, and jobs and economic opportunity within the non-Indian national market. In other words, it’s all about individual assimilation.

That’s tragic, because education has long been a high priority topic for many Indian communities. There is considerable published research about educating Indian students. However, most of that research focuses on personal success, getting a job, moving out of poverty, and entering the middle class. Those goals are not bad in and of themselves. In many ways, in fact, they may even be commendable. But their problem is that they foster intellectual and economic goals that do not center on tribal communities or their economic and political futures.

As is well known by now, public schools simply do not teach Indian students about tribal nations, Indian policy, or the history of tribal peoples in North America. Even Bureau of Indian Affairs schools do not offer curricula or course content about the organization and operations of tribal government or the meaning of tribal sovereignty. Nor do public and bureau schools train students in local history, the meaning of land, the future issues and problems confronting tribal nations and myriad other subjects.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if schools set themselves the task of turning out workers for the American job market by creating national citizens, then they are not doing much in the way of creating tribal citizens. It doesn’t take a genius to realize, either, that a population of thoroughly American citizens and workers will not uphold or sustain tribal goals, culture and self-government.

So where can we look for hope if misdirected Indian education is failing to produce generations of students who are willing and able to serve tribal communities and cultures through a shared appreciation of collective tribal goals and values? We can’t simply rely on elders and tribal knowledge, neither of which are accorded a primary role in the teaching of Indian students. Nor can we afford to wait and cross our fingers that things will get better. With every day that passes, Indian students are not taught sufficiently, and they get one step nearer to graduation with few usable skills to serve them as adults.

There is no alternative. Appropriate education simply must be a key element in Indian nation renewal. Students must be taught to support the values and goals of tribal communities, and at the same time develop the skills that will enable tribal communities and individuals to compete in present-day national and world markets. It is up to American Indian communities to regain control over the education of their children, and schools are obliged to serve the national renewal projects of tribal nations and cultures.

The stakes are too great. Not training students to participate and contribute to tribal nations undercuts tribal efforts for sustained and broad tribal renewal and continuity. A new Indian education system should aim at fostering highly instructed Indian students who are deeply grounded in tribal culture understanding and who are equipped to meet and overcome the challenges that tribal nations will have to reach their goals of cultural, political and economic sustainability.