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A changing approach to Native American education

By Mark HayOctober 19, 2015

Concho School, Arizona
Circa 1950: Pupils reading the bulletin board at Concho School, Arizona which educates exclusively Navajo native Americans. Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

The history of Native American education is a shameful blight on America’s legacy. For over a century, our nation tried to “civilize” hundreds of cultures by brutally eviscerating traditions and replacing them with Western models in often quasi-military, deracinating facilities. Even after blatantly oppressive educational programs slowly drew to a close (at least officially), their legacies continue to plague many indigenous communities, fueling further cultural denigration, sometimes subtle and sometimes explicit, and a legacy of unique educational challenges.

People have proposed all sorts of solutions to the educational challenges facing Native American communities. But many are coming to believe that restoring indigenous cultural practices and respecting their place in the classroom might be one of the most powerful tools we have to further achievement. Donna Eder, a professor who’s studied the anthropology of education, has looked into these approaches, and believes that respecting traditions and giving educators the freedom to utilize them could help not just Native students, but all students.

Below, she shares her views on the value of indigenous culture and bi-cultural practices in learning.


I was teaching a course using [Tewa scholar of Native American traditions and their connection to Western science and education] Gregory Cajete’s book, Look to the Mountain. He wrote about storytelling and how important it was to the Tewa community. He went on to say that all Native Americans – and all children– could benefit [from using indigenous storytelling traditions in education]. Sometimes you read something and there’s so much truth in that sentence. I said to myself: I wonder if he’s right. That would be interesting to study. So I talked to my Navajo colleague at the time, Regina Holyan [currently a lawyer in the Navajo Nation], and it was her suggestion to go to the Navajo Nation and talk to people there.


Kids don’t achieve that well if they’re told there’s something wrong with their culture, and that’s why they can’t learn it.

[Educators there] said that people struggled so much in traditional school that they thought the best thing would be to learn more English. But their feeling is that the pendulum has swung too far. By losing their culture, there’s a loss of identity—a loss of things they value. So from a push to help kids assimilate, it’s gone to: Let’s keep our culture alive.

Kids don’t achieve that well if they’re told there’s something wrong with their culture, and that’s why they can’t learn it. So they really push bi-cultural education. [They stress that] you shouldn’t feel that knowing Navajo language, knowing Navajo practices is going to hurt your overall academic achievement. It actually helps because it strengthens your overall identity. Your culture is stronger. Those are things that are so important in overall education.

Storytelling is only one of the practices. Other Native American scholars talk about a whole different set of belief systems that on the surface can seem oppositional to Western ways of thinking. But there’s a lot of overlap too...It’s more complementary than oppositional.

Students who have a foot in both worlds perform the best, not just for Navajos – the same thing applies for black and Latino students. If you have a strong culture and your schooling promotes that along with maybe a more Western approach, they do better.  

I’m a proponent of the idea that oral practices should be a part of our schools – not just the content of the cultures, but the practices themselves. It’s a way that engages students that I think literacy processes might fall short [of].  


I feel like the Western culture is going to be a stronger culture if it takes in practices from other cultures, including our indigenous nations.

I think our Western culture has gone too far on the pendulum to literacy. There’s much to be gained from having oral culture as part of your teaching regardless of your ethnicity. Not that I’m opposed to literacy, but we’ve kind of been opposing oral culture and practices.  

You can combine the two. It’s not mutually exclusive to hear a story and then write about it, or to write a story and then read it out loud. But the oral processes are very important for learning. And I feel like the Western culture is going to be a stronger culture if it takes in practices from other cultures, including our indigenous nations. They’ve had ways of teaching that have worked for centuries. And the idea that a Western model is the only model is part of the problem.  

[The Navajo Nation] is a large place. Some programs are now highly indigenous-based and successful. Some [are] pretty much still the boarding school approach. I’m sure there isn’t [one model]. Things are so complex. Schools are focusing on what they can measure these days. That’s probably the main hurdle, and this is just my opinion, for teachers [who want to] focus on [bi-cultural] programs. I think if people were willing to try, they’d find achievement gains they could measure. But I think schools are pretty reluctant to change. It’s just innovative teachers that make things happen.