Christina Rose
A high school student demonstrates using and writing the Lakota language for visitors at the 125th Anniversary of the Red Cloud Indian School.

New Questions for an Old Problem in Indian Education

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina

In education, blame follows close on the heels of trouble. When people find out we are Indian educators, we are routinely asked to list how public schools are failing our students. We encourage the curious to look up the 1928 Meriam Report, the 1969 Kennedy Report, Alonzo Spang’s “Eight Problems In Indian Education,” and their individual district’s report card on Native American student achievement and graduation rates. Lay them out on the dinner table and soak in the realization that we have the same hundred year old problems. Our challenges are old—instead let’s start asking why they persist.

For better or worse, the United States government is consistent in its dealings with Indian Country. While the European-style education continues, some important accommodations have been made by the federal government, like Title VII and the Johnson-O’Malley Act. What has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, however, is tribal governance and economic development. Isn’t it time we ask, “How responsible are we?” Why, given all of our advancements, do we still have the largest achievement gap of any minority? Why haven’t we as a people done better by our children?

What if the greatest educational challenge facing our students is our own apathy, anxiety, victimhood, and historical trauma? Teaching our students effectively should be one of the easiest things for us to accomplish. We have been teaching our children as communities for thousands of years and with that educational style we have built some of the most complex societies in the world. Unfortunately, educational trauma seems generational in Indian Country. If a parent was over-looked, under-educated, and pushed out of school he or she will pass those negative values on to his or her children. How many of us know someone who has told a child, “I have an 8th grade education and I’m fine?”


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
I currently work in the public schools in my home town and it's been my experience that there are a variety of problems. The first on the list is the apathy of parents. When a student exhibits social problems in school (truancy, fights, arguments, etc.) we often find that his/her parents are often just as abrasive. When a student exhibits scholastic problems in school, we typically find that education is undervalued by the parents. This is a double-edged sword. While education is always important no matter who you are and where you live, it's a sad fact that there aren't enough quality jobs for citizens already. Most people can't imagine how difficult it is to urge our young to get a quality education when they can see all around them that education is a "waste of time." I blame reality TV. Why should a young person put in the thousands of hours of studying, reading and writing that a college education requires when he can become famous and well-paid raising ducks, or towing cars? TV programs like Duck Dynasty and Lizard Lick Towing are making ignorance profitable. Of course, you'd have to be willing to have the rest of the country laugh at you for your lack of sophistication, but I'm off track here. The real problem is an old problem; money. When your schools don't have the latest technology the students suffer. You can't teach someone to drive without a vehicle, and you can't teach young people about the world with just an Atlas. The one thing I wish all students (but especially Native students) would exhibit is INTELLECTUAL CURIOUSITY. Sadly, most parents have forgotten how to teach this because they no longer have any of their own.

chahta ohoyo's picture
chahta ohoyo
Submitted by chahta ohoyo on
all I know is that you cant get anywhere in this world without education...yes, apathy, lack of parental support, lack of money, peer pressure, 'dumb duck dynasty' and such examples of redneck trash exist, however a person of any race or gender has to take hold of his/her own life/destiny, quit making excuses about the behaviors of others influences them, empower themselves and make their own lives better...and, no, it aint easy...I worked almost 12 years as a substitute teacher in Wyoming and texas public schools, and still never cease to wonder at the influence a negative home life has on children...of any race...

Submitted by Wolftrotter on
in the mid 80's i was on a plane going on a business trip and struck up a conversation with a gentleman who managed four tv and two radio stations in Texas. i asked him why there are hardly any native americans on television. he said he would like to hire some and if i sent him four that had the education he would hire them. he did not mean any disrespect but said other races have more ambition and drive then most native americans do. look how far the black race has advanced and they are still not satisfied with their progress.

metis22's picture
Submitted by metis22 on
Education has become someone else telling you what is necessary to be educated. One of the biggest problems is that the schools are still seen as the "invader" philosophy of how to make 1st Peoples over in the white image. When Wolftrotter says, "look how far the Black race has advanced and they're still not satisfied with their progress" - hold it, you mean "look how far the Black race has melted into the melting pot of European white image." Let us come together to find a way to hold onto the core tribal affiliations (while realizing "Indian" or "Native American" is the European perspective of we are all the same, and get the entire community involved. It is just as easy to teach math by counting stitches or beads while beading, or trig by how big the shadow from the top of the ceremonial tee pee is, or reading by writing down the oral stories (as was The Iliad an original oral story,) etc. Have someone come tell a story about the old stories they heard, then let the students write what they heard or put together a play about it. Involvement is the key. Give them "dads and kids lunches," "Moms at recess," etc. Quit telling them, "come be like us." Show them education can give them the tools to write THEIR OWN history books, calculate the resources of their lands and how much they SHOULD be getting, become lawyers and change the government. Show them the empowerment of education.

Cheryl Poitra
Cheryl Poitra
Submitted by Cheryl Poitra on
How to bridge the gap between two worlds? We act as if becoming a doctor or lawyer is found only in Western civilization, yet we've had medicine men/women for many years and some of the most eloquent speaking people in the nation. It is NOT about pouring more money into our educational systems, it is about having the most effective staff working with our children on a daily basis. We need to be engaging students on every level intellectually and culturally and to allow students the opportunity to explore topics on every level. We need to be expecting more from our students and from ourselves when it comes to what we are teaching and expecting and what they are learning. You are NOT teaching if a student is NOT learning and there are MANY ways to teach one concept. We need partnerships with parents/grandparents/guardians and communities and we need to meet them where they are. We cannot expect parents to hold education sacred when they have been allowed to graduate and are still reading at a 4/5th grade reading level. We need to build a new nation of believers in what we are trying to accomplish and ensure that they understand their role in the process. Allow your students/children to verbalize what it is they want to be when they grow up and support them every step along the way. Do not lose sight of their dream, even when it appears as though they have. Teach each child as if they were your very own 