The High Cost Of Endurance

August 02, 1989 15 min read

They are the original “at risk” Americans.

Yet in the school-reform movement, Native Americans have been all but invisible. They are an asterisk to the roster of statistics on the educationally disadvantaged--an anonymous “other” in the phrase “blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities.”

Demography plays a role in this lack of visibility. Indians make up a little over one-half of 1 percent of the U.S. population.

But history--and the stark contours of Native America’s socioeconomic landscape--provide compelling reasons to look beyond the asterisk.

Unlike other minority groups, American Indians have been specifically promised--through treaties and other federal measures--the nation’s help in educating their young. Politically, they are unique--an indigenous “nation within a nation” that forfeited land for the promise of peace.

But despite more than a century of interactions with the federal government over the exact nature of that special status, the needs of Native Americans remain woefully under-examined.

Reports on current youth issues, such as the National Research Council’s study of adolescent sexuality, Risking the Future, make note of a glaring “lack of complete and consistent information” on American Indians.

No ‘True Research’

Not even the precise size and characteristics of the community are available in unequivocal detail. The 1990 U.S. Census will be the first to promise “100 percent counts” for some 200 Indian tribes. Previous censuses have contained only sample information--and have relied on self-identification to establish whether respondents were in fact Indians.

School-related data have been even scarcer. Only in 1968 did the federal government begin providing nationwide enrollment figures for Indians in public schools, even though the majority of Indian students were attending public schools long before then.

“Nobody is doing any true research,” laments Rachel Misra, an administrator with the Navajo Nation’s education division. “They start with a hypothesis and then go about proving it.”

Says the University of Oklahoma’s assistant vice-provost, John Steffens: “There is no nationally relevant data, only project-by-project data, and that’s weak.”

Nevertheless, the collective portrait of Native American children that emerges from the statistics that do exist is one of extreme risk--a risk that in many cases exceeds that for blacks and Hispanics, the two population groups most heavily targeted thus far in school-reform efforts. For example:

Native Americans have the highest dropout rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. The U.S. Education Department’s longitudinal study of 1980 high-school sophomores put the figure at 29 percent. Other studies, which include students from lower grades and those attending federal Indian schools, go as high as 50 percent.

What is more, they show that Native American children begin dropping out of school much earlier than other groups, often in the elementary years.

The teenage suicide rate among Indians is the highest of any group. Clusters of teen suicides are hitting even small reservations, with six youths on the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon (population 2,800) killing themselves during a two-month period last year. Nine young people on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation took their own lives during a five-week period in the fall of 1985, and in the Alaskan village of Alakanuk, whose total population is 550, eight Yikik Eskimo teenagers committed suicide in 1986.

In school, Native Americans stand a greater likelihood than other groups of being labeled handicapped or learning-disabled. According to data from the federal longitudinal study, 11 percent of Indian sophomores in public and private high schools were enrolled in special-education programs; another 36 percent were classified as having some form of handicap, and only 53 percent were termed “not handicapped” in any way. Among blacks and Hispanics, those in special programs represented 9 and 7 percent, respectively, and the proportion classified as not handicapped in any way was 66 percent.

Rates of poverty and unemployment in the Native American community are among the highest in the nation. According to the 1980 census, the median family income for Indians was $13,600--more than $6,000 less than the median income for all families. The poverty rate for individuals--28 percent--was more than double the national rate of 12 percent, and the unemployment rate was also double the national average.

The conditions on reservations, where one-quarter of the Indian population resides, are far worse.

According to a 1986 report by the U.S. Interior Department, male unemployment on the reservations is 58 percent and the poverty rate approaches 50 percent. Some reservations report unemployment rates of 90 percent. And 14 percent of those living on reservations survive on incomes of less than $2,500.

Indian children have a greater than average likelihood of being without the educational advantages of living in a two-parent family, having parents who are themselves educated, or coming from environments in which formal education is highly valued.

Almost one Native American family in four is headed by a woman, according to the 1980 census count. Figures from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs indicate that single-parent families make up almost 40 percent of Indian households. And though the proportion of black children living with only one parent is higher, no other racial or ethnic group has as many children living with neither parent.

In public and private high schools, the proportion of Indian students living in families where the best-educated adult has less than a high-school diploma is slightly more than 1 in 10, according to the Education Department’s study. The 1980 census figures indicate that, among reservation Indians age 25 and older, 27 percent have less than an 8th-grade education.

In addition, a 1988 report by the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicates that many Native American parents do not have “as high expectations as other minorities for the educational achievements of their children,” in part because of their own negative school experiences.

According to the report, only about half of the Indian parents surveyed thought their high-school child should go to college. By contrast, about 70 percent of black parents wanted their children to attend college.

The health conditions of Indian people are among the poorest of any population in the United States. The infant-mortality rate is 11 percent above the national average, the rate for diabetes is five times higher than that of the population at large, and the incidence of tuberculosis is eight times higher.

Adding to these problems--and, some health officials say, to Native American children’s learning difficulties--are widespread nutritional deficiencies in poorer reservation communities.

In addition, Indian leaders and health experts have long identified substance abuse--particularly alcoholism--as a pervasive and entrenched problem on many reservations, affecting, by some estimates, the lives and functioning of more than 60 percent of the children.

Four of every 10 deaths among Indians are alcohol-related. And recent research has found that up to 25 percent of infants in some tribes are born mentally and physically impaired by fetal alcohol syndrome.

‘Not Voluntary Participants’

Taken together, these factors present a picture of the outer extremes of what has come to be known as the “at risk” condition. But added to them are intercultural tensions that American Indians share with other minorities and a unique set of disadvantages they bear as members of a subjugated people.

Like Hispanics and other immigrant pop6ulations, Native Americans often enter school with a language handicap. Though many of the approximately 206 Indian languages are slowly dying out, others, such as Navajo and Cherokee, are often spoken in the home as the primary language.

In addition, notes the American University linguist William Leap, many Native American children speak a hybrid version of English that incorporates the native language--an evolved form of communication he calls an “Indian English” code.

“You find these kids floating between two nonstandard languages,” explains Dick Littlebear, president of the Montana Association for Bilingual Education, “a population growing up without a linguistic home. They haven’t had the basis to develop reasoning skills.”

According to the University of California scholar John Ogbu, the Native American child also carries into the classroom social handicaps stemming from his history that can depress motivation in the same way that language deficiencies hamper skills development.

Along with blacks and Mexican-Americans, Indians fall into a category Mr. Ogbu defines as “nonimmigrant minorities"--those who did not join the mainstream culture by choice and who, because of the constant evidence they see of racial prejudice, may have internally rejected the notion that education can pay social or economic dividends.

For Indians, this condition may be more sharply defined than for other groups. “Unlike all other Americans who trace their origins at some point to immigration,” says a 1988 bia report, “Indians and Alaska Natives, as indigenous Americans, were not, and some are not today, voluntary participants in the American way of life.”

‘Absolute Might of White Society’

In fact, the struggle to maintain their integrity as a separate people has been a mainstay of Indian life since Columbus first set foot on the New World, misnaming the original North American inhabitants, numbering 10 million by some estimates, in the process.

Until the latter half of the 19th century, the struggle was a quite literal one, as the warfare, disease, and dislocation that followed the arrival of white settlers took their toll in lives and land. By 1850, the Indian population in the United States had been reduced to 250,000. And by 1871, when the last treaties with the federal government were signed, Indians had ceded more than a billion acres of often-sacred Indian land in return for peace and certain social benefits.

Among the latter was education. As early as 1774, Indian tribes were asking for--and receiving guarantees of--educational help in return for their land and good will. But what they most often received in return, according to historians, was an inadequate mixture of paternalism and coercion.

“For the past century we have been intellectually overwhelmed by the absolute might of white society,” says the lawyer and author Vine Deloria Jr., a Sioux, in The Schooling of Native America, published in 1978 by the American Association of Colel10lleges for Teacher Education.

Mr. Deloria, founder of the Institute for the Development of Indian Law in Washington and author of the popular study Custer Died For Your Sins, argues in the aacte publication that even the definition of education, as promulgated by white America, should be questioned by Native Americans. It is based, he says, on a belief in “individual salvation” and ignores the strong kinship orientation of Indian peoples.

He writes: “Rather than learning about the benefits of Western capitalism in the educational process, one would do better to learn about the old Indian customs and traditions. Spend time meditating on the means by which such ideas can be transformed into political and economic reality in contemporary America. Recognize again the collective or group nature of social existence.”

The thought is one that has motivated many Indian educators over the last two decades, an era in which, for the first time, federal policy has been characterized by real efforts toward self-determination in Indian education.

In a 1970 message to the Congress that outlined a program aimed at putting more control over Indian affairs into tribal hands, President Nixon said, “The story of the Indian in America is something more than the record of the white man’s frequent aggression, broken agreements, intermittent remorse, and prolonged failure.”

“It is a record also,” he said, “of endurance, of survival, of adaptation and creativity in the face of overwhelming obstacles.”

‘Educate for Survival’

Today, with the Indian population growing at a rate that is twice that of the nation as a whole, that legacy of adaptation and endurance is being put to its severest test. And neither government nor the diverse Native American community seems certain how best to respond.

William Geier, a consultant who toured Indian country in the fall of 1986 as part of an informal field study for the Edwin Gould Foundation for Children, said in his report that “throughout this trip, I had the overwhelming and sinking feeling that I was witnessing a process of complaisant’, almost voluntary, genocide.”

“Native Americans are rapidly killing themselves off as a people,” said Mr. Geier, whose report, intended for internal use only, set off a furor when it was leaked to Indian groups, “and no one on the outside is doing much more than screaming about the injustice of it all, wallowing in guilt, or pointing fingers.”

Though advocacy groups denounced some of Mr. Geier’s characterizations of Indian parents as insensitive, few quarreled with his overall conclusion: “Indians must educate in the broadest sense of the word, educate for survival.”

Determining how that can best be accomplished, however, has been hampered by the political complexities of the Indian’s role in U.S. society--and by the diversity of opinion and of life situations within the Indian community.

“One of the fallacies that white people have of Indians,” notes Mr. Littlebear, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, “is that they think we’re generic.”

In fact, though the Native American population constitutes only a tiny fraction of the U.S. population, it encompasses some 206 languages, more than 500 tribes and native groups, and vast differences in custom, wealth, economic development, geographic isolation, and tribal governance.

This diversity has led to divided opinions on some key issues, such as the speed with which tribes should assume some of the responsibilities now undertaken by the federal government, and the balance that should be struck between short-term and long-term solutions to economic problems.

In 1987-88, the College Board and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society co-sponsored a series of seven “dialogues” in various parts of the country that brought together Indian leaders and others to attempt to reach a consensus on areas of need in Indian education. In a draft report from a dialogue held in Portland, Ore., Susan Ware, the project director, makes clear that a recognition of Indian diversity will be central to planning for change.

“One of the major problems of American Indians at present is the fact that they are seen as ‘one people with one need,”’ Ms. Ware writes. “It must be recognized that this is simply not true.”

“There are measurable differences,” she says, “between urban Indian educational needs and the educational needs of the reservations.” And wide variations within these settings exist in the training and support given teachers, the involvement of parents and tribes in education, and the impact of economic and other social factors.

“All Indian people and all Indian educational needs are not the same,” she asserts, “and cannot be dealt with in the same manner.”

Indian Country’s New ‘Battleground’

There seems little chance, from a logistical standpoint, that today’s 400,000 Indian schoolchildren will ever be dealt with in some uniform way. They attend schools of varying types--including federal, state-funded public, and private. And within each type of setting, the Indian influence over curriculum and governance may vary from little to great.

Today, what is traditionally thought of as “Indian education"--the programs of the 181 schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs--is actually only a small component of the whole. Less than 10 percent of Indian students nationally--about 38,000--attend bia schools. Approximately 11,000 of these students are enrolled in bia boarding schools, which were once a staple of the federal system.

Seventy of the bia schools are operated by tribes under contract with the federal government, so-called contract schools.

About 5 percent of Indian students attend private schools, usually those affiliated with religious groups having a history of involvement in Indian schooling.

More than 85 percent attend public schools, where they may receive special services of varying quality through federal programs that compensate states serving large numbers of Native Americans.

Though 43 percent of the public-school students are enrolled in schools located on or near reservations, equal numbers attend urban and inner-city schools. There, they are likely, educators say, to face the same kinds of pressures and problems faced by black and Hispanic students--with the additional burden of a sometimes fierce battle of cultures.

In Minneapolis, the persistent underachievement of the city’s large population of Indian students led in 1987 to protests that resulted in the formation of a task force to study the idea of creating a separate school district for Native Americans. Said one board member of the controversy: “Public education has just blown it. We have put all kinds of money into programs ... and done a simply miserable job.”

Last year’s report by the bureau, though nodding to recent gains, concluded that, whether they are enrolled in bia facilities or other systems, “far too many Indian children still leave school without having mastered the basic knowledge and skills that formal education is supposed to provide.”

The report calls Indian education a “small battleground in the movement to improve U.S. education” but one that could yield insights into “the problems and the poor results of minority education throughout America.”

All the forces that unite Native Americans--their common respect for heritage, their strong “kinship orientation,” their history of oppression--are being drawn on now, as leaders at all levels of government, including the tribal level, seek the means of winning the battle.

They do so amid much uncertainty. The federal bureaucracy is seemingly poised forel10la rearrangement of the way it fulfills its historic obligations. But fiscal constraints at both the state and national levels militate against the provision of increased services. And the whole of education is struggling to find a balance between the twin objectives of “excellence” and equity.

For Indian country, which is seeking in education solutions to devastating and long-term economic hardships, this may be a historic moment.--M Sandra Reeves

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as The High Cost Of Endurance