‘Indian People Just Want To Be Themselves’

August 02, 1989 20 min read

Throughout U.S. history, Indian students have faced the threat of isolation on the one hand and loss of identity through assimilation on the other.

“Indians are like people split in two,” says Jonathan Buffalo, a teacher on the Mesquaki Indian Settlement in Iowa. “Economically, they have to get along with the outside world. Spiritually and culturally, they have to get along with themselves.”

In 1969, for example, a report by the U.S. Senate’s special subcommittee on Indian education warned that the government’s continued emphasis on forced acculturation had resulted in “the classroom and the school system becoming a sort of battleground, in which the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of the school.”

Because schools failed to “recognize the importance and validity of the Indian community,” the report asserted, “both the community and its children retaliate by treating the school as an alien institution.”

Today, the strain on Native American children of trying to learn mainstream ways while grappling with the meaning of their heritage remains a central problem in education. And it produces what many now view as a self-perpetuating cycle of low self-esteem and academic difficulties.

“Many of our kids are ashamed of themselves,” says Judy Davis, an educational consultant on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. “They don’t know who they are or where they come from. A lot of them are so ashamed they won’t even say their Indian names in public.”

“If we don’t bring Navajo teachings and philosophies into the schools,” she asks, “how are they ever going to feel good about themselves?”

‘Success at the Expense of Culture’

Since 1970, the number of Indian teachers, administrators, and school-board members has risen steadily, as have instructional programs employing native languages, curriculum materials relevant to native cultures, and methods of instruction consistent with traditional Indian modes of learning.

Moreover, there are now schools and school districts managed entirely by Indian communities, including more than 20 tribally controlled community colleges.

But Indian educators continue to encounter serious difficulties in devising an instructional model that has deep community support and meets their pupils’ academic and cultural needs.

“All we have are the previous models,” says Anselm Davis, former superintendent of the Window Rock district on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. “I haven’t seen a new one yet.”

In his own school experience, those models included a bia day school, a public school, and a Roman Catholic high school. “They were different,” he says, “but they were all the same.”

According to Mr. Davis, such schools were based on an enduring notion that Indian education must “take away and supplant.” And their subliminal message--regardless of overt intent--was always “success comes at the expense of culture.”

‘Helps To Know Who You Are’

But the search for a new model that can equip students to survive in a technological society without sacrificing their heritage has been fraught with uncertainties--including deep differences of opinion within Indian communities about what constitutes culturally relevant instruction.

Some tribal groups, such as the Menominee in northeastern Wisconsin, have made cultural education an intricate part of the curriculum. Their leaders claim that the result has been greater levels of learning in all subject areas.

Because of their children’s poor academic performance in the local school district, the Menominee sought and received permission to form their own district in 1976. The tribe requires the study of the Menominee language and stresses traditional concerns about the environment in science courses.

On the 10th anniversary of the tribally controlled school district, John Tomasich, the Menominee superintendent, said “the big advantage has been the improvement in the students’ basic education.”

“It helps to know who you are,” adds Lisa Waukau, a social-studies teacher at Menominee High School. “Ours is a strong oral tradition, and we came close to losing our language.”

But other tribes, such as the San Felipe Pueblos in New Mexico, view the transmission of language and culture as a task that belongs in the home, not the school. For them, formal education remains primarily a bridge to the outside world.

And in many settings, Indian parents resist bringing cultural influences to bear on schools. Years of “coercive assimilation,” their leaders say, have left these Native Americans with the internalized belief that “white is better.”

In fact, some of the “strongest opposition” to infusing native culture into the curriculum “we get from our own people,” says Albert White Hat, chairman of the Lakota-studies department at Sinte Gleska College in South Dakota.

Even when communities agree on the need for cultural education, others note, there are enormous practical problems to overcome, including the availability of adequate educational materials.

Says Bill Berlin of the Cheyenne-Arapaho tribe in Oklahoma: "[Indians] would like to maintain the culture, but often they don’t really know what it is. They would like some curricular aids, but there’s no clear-cut body of material. It’s all very nebulous.”

“What it comes down to,” he adds, “is that they just want to be recognized.”

Too Late To ‘Turn Back’?

Those who oppose bicultural education usually offer one of three arguments.

Some say efforts to introduce culturally relevant materials into the curriculum often result in demeaning and irrelevant exercises, such as bead-stringing.

Others claim that such programs place too great a demand on children to “claim their Indian-ness,” whether they desire to or not.

But the most frequent charge is that bicultural programs detract from the instruction in basic subjects that all students need.

“The school system tends to tear itself apart trying to figure out what Indian education is supposed to be,” says John Lincoln, headmaster of St. Michael’s School, a Roman Catholic institution on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

“You build a society on broad-based skills,” Mr. Lincoln maintains. “If you reject political sophistication in order to protect your traditional lifestyle, there will be no one left to protect that traditional lifestyle. You need lawyers, politicians, educated people to protect that.”

Several years ago, Lorraine Davenport, a former member of the Mesquaki parent committee in Iowa, removed her children from the tribally operated Sac and Fox school and placed them in public schools.

Today, her three children and three grandchildren are all enrolled in the local public schools.

Ms. Davenport said her decision was based in part on the belief that culture and language should be taught in the home--a view held by many Native American parents.

But her principal concern was that the academic achievement of her children--
and their chances for economic success--would suffer in the culturally oriented Sac and Fox school.

“We’re in too much of a white man’s world to turn back now,” she explains. “It’s easier for the kids to get used to that world and its schools if they start at an age when other kids don’t notice the difference in color.”

‘Not From Middle America’

But according to the draft Report on bia Education, released in May 1988, educators must find some way to wed children’s home cultures with the schools’ broader agenda.

The report warns that the economic development of Indian reservations will depend on the “emergence of a class of Indian workers and businessmen able to function well in two cultures.”

And it argues that neither the public schools nor the federal system of Indian schools have provided a curriculum that “makes a connection with the Indian student and the sociocultural experience he brings to the classroom.”

Forging such a linkage, the report suggests, will require the development of a stronger curriculum--particularly in the area of language skills--and one that is better adapted to the needs of Indian students.

And until that learning climate exists, experts warn, it will remain difficult to convince Indian children and their parents that staying in school is worth the effort.

In a recent study, the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association found that 29.2 percent of Indians between the ages of 16 and 24 were neither in school nor high-school graduates.

According to the report, this rate of “undereducation” was second only to that of Hispanics. It was almost twice the national rate of 15.4 percent, and 9 percentage points higher than the rate for blacks.

Many public high schools report that up to 50 percent of their Indian students havedropped out by their senior year. In some cases, educators caution, these dropout figures may be inflated by the extremely high transfer rate among these students, whose families often move to follow seasonal work.

But other studies suggest that these dropout figures may be an underestimate. A 1987 study of Navajo dropouts--one of a handful of Indian-dropout studies nationwide--concluded that up to 32 percent of Navajo children drop out annually, and that 10 percent of them never return. Extrapolating from those figures, the researchers calculated that 90 percent of the Navajos who enter schools as kindergartners will not complete high school.

Moreover, according to Elizabeth A. Brandt, professor of education at Arizona State University, the school-attrition patterns of Native Americans tend to take a particularly disquieting shape.

“There is a fairly high and steady rate of dropouts across the elementary years, beginning in kindergarten,” she writes. “This is something that has not been found for other populations.”

Rachel Misra, who works in the Navajo tribal-education division, says the causes of such high attrition rates stem, in part, from a basic distrust of the purposes and pay-offs of education.

“Many parents fear their children will lose their culture,” she says, and thus keep them at home. “They might say, ‘So and so went to school and now they won’t even talk to their parents’,” she explains. ''There are also huge numbers who feel education has done nothing good for them.”

Many older Indians say, for example, that they recall humiliating and perverse forms of punishment that they received in school, usually for speaking their native language. These ranged from having their mouths washed out with soap to being forced to sew buttons on the knees of their pants and then to kneel for hours.

Evelyn Conley, the home-school liaison for the Sioux City, Iowa, schools, says such painful memories have discouraged many Indian parents from caring whether their children stay in school or not.

Other experts say the grim dropout statistics are an indictment of a school system that fails to motivate youngsters. These children are not dropouts but are “pushed” out of school, they assert.

David Beaulieu, director of Indian education for Minnesota, says many Indian students leave school out of boredom or a sense of hopelessness, brought on by poor academic performance.

“It’s an exception to find an Indian student doing well academically, and only a small percentage of teachers--only the above-average ones--will make an attempt to reach them,” agrees Darva Chino Randolph, a counselor in the Albuquerque schools.

“These kids are not from middle America,” says Boyd Hogner, director of Title IV programs in Gallup-McKinley County, N.M. “The key to teaching them effectively is to recognize that fact.”

‘Caught in a Non-Indian System’

Indeed, many experts now argue that the educational needs of Native American children differ from those of students in general, despite the commonalities they share with other poor and minority populations.

As the only indigenous Americans, Indians have clung more closely than most to their right to maintain an identity as a separate people. Moreover, they are the only group with a unique Constitutional status that protects that right.

But this special status has seldom been recognized by the general public--a political callousness that has profoundly unsettled the Indian psyche, according to some spokesmen.

“It is difficult to communicate what it feels like to be an Indian caught in a non-Indian system,” write Kathryn Harris Tijernia and Paul Philip Biermer of New Mexico State University in an issue of the Educational Record.

“Try to imagine,” they say, “being an American but your history is not in the American history books; your government--while a legal part of the structure of governments--is not recognized by other governments; you can vote, but you are not part of the party system; all the things which you value and which give you identity are belittled or alien to your classmates.”

“In short, you may study America, but in myriad ways you are excluded from it,” they conclude.

Under such circumstances, the authors suggest, choosing to opt out of the system could be considered “a rational act in an irrational situation.”

Others attribute the problem to prejudice, rather than simply cultural insensitivity--particularly in the public schools.

“There is a lot of racism,” argues Ms. Conley of Sioux City. She relates how, on one occasion, the manager of a local roller-skating rink refused to sell her tickets when he found out they were for Indian students.

In Albuquerque schools, says Counselor Annette Johnson, racial prejudice is seldom mentioned, but Indian students do their best to fit in and “don’t claim their Indian-ness.”

Comments one 19-year-old Indian in Arizona, who dropped out of school as a sophomore, “It would have been nice to get through just one day of school without being called a name.”

“But hell, the teachers wouldn’t ever do anything about it,” he recalls. “I guess they figured I wasn’t worth it.”

Differences in World View

Others ascribe the cultural dissonance between schools and their Indian students to the failure of educators to grasp essential differences in the way Native Americans view the world and adapt to learning.

“A growing body of research suggests that child-rearing practices of European-Americans and Indian parents produce notably dissimilar types of learning among their children,” writes Floy C. Pepper, a Creek educational consultant, in Kui Talk, a newsletter of the Native American Science Education Association.

“Sharing, cooperation, group harmony, modesty, placidity, and patience are greatly prized among Indian families,” he notes, “while competition with others and singular notoriety are considered embarrassing and dishonorable instigators of dissonance.”

Most Indian leaders reject the notion that Native Americans are less competitive than other ethnic groups. But the forms such competition takes may vary.

“Indians may compete in a different way,” argue Rosemary Ackley Christensen and William G. Demmert in The Schooling of Native America. “Indians may relish competition between groups, but not between individuals.”

Similarly, a draft report from a meeting held last summer by the College Board and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society suggests that Indian students who are asked to answer a question that a peer has missed might choose to avoid embarrassing the other student.

“Indians have a tradition of decisionmaking by consensus,” the report notes, “and are group-oriented as opposed to [other] Americans, who are individualistic.”

In addition, it points out: “Many American Indians are still taught to respect elders and teachers and to not speak unless spoken to. These children are caught in a dilemma when they are expected to raise their hands and participate in lengthy class discussions.”

Others note that Indian children show their respect for adults by avoiding eye contact with elders and responding to questions only after an appropriate pause. But some Indian parents worry that this behavior is misinterpreted as shyness--and that their children are often ignored in the classroom, where teachers expect them to act like white, middle-class students.

“When Native American students are6called on in class, it usually takes them about five seconds to respond,” says John Wessels, curriculum coordinator for the South Tama County, Iowa, public schools. “In a conventional situation, by then the teacher has already moved on. Our society’s orientation is just more aggressive.”

Indian parents also accuse teachers of failing to excuse absences based on youngsters’ participation in traditional holidays, ceremonies, or other customs. For example, Indian families in some tribes still keep their daughters at home during their first menstrual cycle, leading to extended absences from school.

A Lesson in Plastering

Historically, Indian nations have varied in how they passed on survival skills and social roles to their children. But they share some traits in common.

For the most part, each tribe used a system of family and clan tutelage to prepare the next generation of hunters, gatherers, child rearers, warriors, and leaders. Although individual excellence was recognized, it was most revered in terms of its worth to the larger community. Religious beliefs, traditions, history, and values were transmitted through oral traditions and ceremonies.

Visual learning was also an important part of the culture--and one frequently overlooked in today’s schools.

Joseph Abyeta, superintendent of New Mexico’s Santa Fe Indian School, says this characteristic is a carryover from “traditional Indian education,” which was practiced in the home and within the extended family.

He cites as an example the way his father taught him how to plaster.

“The way he did it was to put me between two men who were plastering a wall,” he recalls. “No one said anything. They just handed me a trowel and we moved along the wall. By the time we got to the end, I was picking it up.”

Because most public schools rely on verbal modes of learning, experts say, they may actually work against the strengths of Indian children, such as keen analytical skills and unusually refined spatial abilities.

To better engage Indian students, Mr. Pepper and others suggest, schools should employ more cooperative learning, group projects, and experiential activities. They should also provide students with more freedom of movement within the classroom and more opportunities for self-expression.

In 1986, for example, a study in Warm Springs, Ore., found that Native Americans responded better in classrooms that were less “teacher-centered.”

Partly in response to such research, some all-Indian schools are de-emphasizing the “teacher talks, student listens” method in favor of approaches that allow for greater student participation. They also are trying to move from the concrete to the abstract, in presenting material, rather than vice-versa.

Linguistic Attack on Alienation

But the factor most commonly cited as a pedagogical barrier for Native American students is language. While the retention of Indian languages varies widely among tribes, on many reservations their use remains widespread.

Ben Barney, past principal of the Rock Point School on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, says most of his students “considerel10lEnglish a second language.”

When some of his former students, now enrolled at Stanford University, were asked to list the foreign languages they knew, he recalls, “they wrote ‘English.”’

Even when Indian children cannot speak their ancestral language, educators say, their English may be limited because of the influence of the Indian tongue: A child may have learned English from a parent or grandparent whose command of the language was poor or mingled with Indian words.

Indian students who have limited proficiency in English--whether they are fluent in their native language or not--are eligible for services under the federal Bilingual Education Act. But the uncertain stature of native languages, coupled with recent pressure from the “English only” movement, has discouraged some school officials from instituting bilingual programs.

Elsewhere, administrators say, a lack of qualified teachers limits their ability to provide native-language instruction. In addition, many Indian languages have no orthography, or functional writing system, so that bilingual classes would require orally fluent teachers.

Nonetheless, a number of schools--especially in the bia system--have begun native-language instruction. Often, they rely on funding other than federal bilingual-education grants.

Hai T. Tran, past president of the National Association for Bilingual Education, is among those who argue that the use of Indian languages is beneficial to students in bolstering both their self-concept and their communications skills.

“Indian education has failed because it has alienated people from their families and cultures,” he says. “Whatever method they use, if the schools let students know they don’t have to be ashamed of their language, it’s bound to help heal the wounds of the past.”

Wayne Holm, bilingual-education director for the Window Rock, Ariz., public schools, has had experiences with both types of native-language programs.

Until 1986, he was principal at Rock Point, where the Navajo language is taught intensively in the early grades, with English gradually incorporated as a second language.

Navajo is used to a lesser degree all the way through high school. Older students publish a Navajo newspaper, which is said to be popular among adults in the region.

In 1980, Mr. Holm wrote a monograph comparing the English and mathematics test scores of Indian students who received initial instruction in Navajo with those who received initial instruction in English, at Rock Point and other schools. He found that children initially taught in Navajo later outperformed their peers in both subjects.

An additional benefit of bilingual instruction, according to Mr. Holm, has been improved student behavior. “They start acting like Navajos instead of street urchins,” he notes, “because they’re coming out of their own culture at a natural pace instead of being forced into the dominant culture.”

At Window Rock, where Mr. Holm is developing a program patterned on that at Rock Point, students speak less Navajo; the emphasis is on improving their self-esteem.

“A lot of the students aren’t good in either English or Navajo,” he says. So strengthening their linguistic foundation in their native tongue, he argues, will facilitate students’ acquisition of English and provide them with a cognitive base from which to learn other subjects.

The response of parents to the bilingual program has been “amazing,’' according to Marie Arviso, an elementary-school principal in Window Rock. Although participation is voluntary, students must be enrolled beginning in kindergarten, she says, noting that last year 60 percent of the kindergarten class participated.

“We even had parents coming in during the school year and asking if their kids could be switched into it,” she recalls.

‘Just Want To Be Themselves’

But in other communities, some of the strongest resistance to bilingual education comes from Native American parents.

On the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, for example, one-third of the students attending a tribally operated bia school were withdrawn by their parents after the school initiated a bilingual-education program.

Joan Timeche, the tribe’s education director, says some parents wanted to keep language instruction in the home, but most feared that the time spent on Hopi would detract from “basic” courses.

“People have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed that English is the road to success,” observes Mr. Holm. “We’ve done a good job of selling that idea. But the problem is, we haven’t delivered on the success.”

Meanwhile, as the debate over how best to teach Indian students continues, many Native American parents remain frustrated with the lack of results.

“The schools are different now,” says Tony Waseskuk, a Mesquaki parent in Iowa. “But it looks to me like the educational system is still homogenizing.”

“There’s this idea that we’re in a modern world and we’ve got to change,” he adds. “Some people don’t want to change. Indian people just want to be themselves.”

--Reported by Dennis McDonald

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as ‘Indian People Just Want To Be Themselves’