Teaching (Native) America

"How many of you can name one of the Backstreet Boys?" I ask William Cornelius's sixth-grade social studies class at Indian Community School (ICS) in Milwaukee. Dozens of shouts: "Howie" -- most students name at least two -- "Kevin." "Who was the first President of the United States? Who is the President now?" Naturally, they all know. "Who is Oshkosh?" I ask. "A clothing company," blurts one kid. "A city up north," spouts another (Oshkosh was the Menominee chief who testified before Congress in 1848 so his tribe could keep its Wisconsin homeland). I continue, "Hippies? John F. Kennedy? The Beatles?" Again they all know. "Russell Means? Dennis Banks? AIM?" "They make soup," one student offers nonsensically, before asking, "Are you Indian?" When I say no, a girl slumped low in her desk says curtly, "We're not even Indians anymore."

There it is -- the obiter dictum that bespeaks the current state of Native American education, which is still deeply troubled after more than a hundred years of struggle. In many ways, the girl is right. She and her classmates dress and talk in the same pseudo-urban way that characterizes students of all races, from downtown Portland to suburban Baltimore. And these kids are among the few attending an all-Indian school that focuses heavily on integrating culture into the curriculum. Ninety percent of Native American students attend non-Indian schools, public or private, where culturally aware teaching is sorely lacking. Many believe the loss of traditional native knowledge and language is intimately related to the problems of high dropout rates and poor academic achievement. "It's all tied up with identity and cultural dissonance," says Rosemary Christenson, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin and an Ojibwa Indian. "The effects of that cultural dissonance are widespread and continue to grow."

The search now is for a balance between Indian culture and Anglo academics that prepares students for success in both the native and mainstream realms. The particular difficulties of finding this balance are as varied as the educational situations of Native Americans, who may constitute either a small part of a large urban student population, a large part of a small rural student body or the entire student body of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school. Each situation carries its own complex set of qualifiers: the vitality and size of the local Indian community, funding mechanisms, language barriers and more. Additionally, Indian student bodies often comprise members of several, sometime dozens, of tribes-each with a distinct language, customs and history. But in too many schools and districts, the gestures toward cultural curriculum are based on stereotypical notions of monolithic Indianism -- the noble or downtrodden, even simple-minded, Red Man.

Indian educators like ICS executive director Linda Sue Warner, a Comanche, think teaching kids about Indian culture can be complementary to traditional academics. "I don't see that there's anything wrong with reading and writing and calculating and measuring," she says wryly. Her school-whose motto is "Blending books with drums" -- doesn't teach these subjects at the expense of Indian identity (or vice versa) but rather uses the two areas to reinforce each other.

The purging of tribal cultures, traditional knowledge and language, once actively undertaken by the government, is now much more effectively conducted passively, by a combination of television consumerism, socioeconomics and the educational system. The homogenizing influence of popular media continues to take its toll, while Native Americans are increasingly defined by their income bracket and all the problems associated with poverty -- unemployment, violence, substance abuse -- rather than their ethnic identity. With the fragmentation of extended Indian families and tribes, the unwritten knowledge of elders that was once a counterweight to Anglo hegemony is in danger of being lost. In many instances schools have become the primary place where Indian children may learn about their own culture-or may not, which is more often the case.

On the wall of the Gallup-McKinley Schools administration building, in a 14,400-student district with a 76 percent Native American, mostly Navajo, population, a timeline of New Mexico history done by elementary school students depicts only one Native American event-the surrender of Apache chief Geronimo. At Gallup's John F. Kennedy Middle School, there is little evidence of the majority culture in the school's common area-aside from the droves of Indian students bustling through the halls. Norman Roach, a teacher there and Sioux former student of BIA schools, said, "Most of the teachers in the district ignore Indian culture"-a sadly common evaluation by Indians of public education.

It was the school's namesake, JFK, who initiated the study that ultimately appeared as a 1969 Senate report declaring the education of Native Americans "a national tragedy" and calling for more tribal involvement in schools. Until then, the federal government's policy on Indian education had been largely a campaign of culture cleansing, defined by cruel boarding schools and misguided stereotypes. Students were forcibly removed from their families and taken hundreds of miles away to schools where they were stripped of their native dress and often beaten for speaking their own languages. Since the Kennedy report, Indian education has been stumbling slowly toward self-determination. In 1972 the Indian Education Act, also known as Title IV, provided funds for special programs for Native American students in both reservation and public schools. Three years later the law was amended to require the involvement of Indian parent committees in those programs, but the success of these programs varies widely, and models are still being sought.

Today there are 185 schools funded by the BIA. Of those, 116 are tribally controlled through grant or contract agreements, while sixty-nine are still operated by the bureau. The ratio has been reversed from twelve years ago, and the control of the bureau schools is slowly shifting to the hands of tribes. However, the contracting process was authorized thirty years ago, and only in 1995 did the majority leave federal control. The shift has afforded more opportunity for cultural curriculum, but funding and staffing are ever-present problems.

"We know that language and culture can be the centerpiece of a school, and other academics can swirl around that," said Dr. John Tippeconnic, a Comanche/Cherokee Indian and director of the American Indian Leadership Program at Penn State University's College of Education. New Mexico's Santa Fe Indian School is a model for this kind of education; its graduate list comprises an all-star team of Native American leaders. In 1977 the school, then called Albuquerque Indian School, became the first operated by a tribal entity under contract with the federal government. The year before that, the dropout rate was close to 50 percent. Today the dropout rate is 2 percent, and 80 percent of graduates go on to higher education, some at schools like Princeton, Dartmouth and Stanford.

Superintendent Joseph Abeyta, a Santa Clara Pueblo Indian, attributes much of the success to the involvement of the Indian community, which is frequently consulted on the curriculum. At SFIS students work on irrigation engineering projects that incorporate oral history from elders about ancient watersheds. "The kid is realizing that that grandpa knows more than the Princeton engineer," said Abeyta, who warned against token attempts to introduce Indian culture. "Someone will include Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and say, 'I've got a culturally relevant literature class,'" he said. Pictures of graduating classes over the last fifty years line the walls of the SFIS administration building, reflecting the school's transition from federal hegemony to Native American self-determination. The early photos, dating from the days of BIA operation, show boys in suits and stark white shirts, girls in knee-length skirts and saddle shoes-all of them looking strangely absent. Recent pictures show kids in native dress, ribbon shirts and moccasins, smiling broadly.

The students at ICS and SFIS are the exception. Even Gallup's dearth of in-school culture is mitigated by the proximity of the Navajo reservation, where culture and language are very much alive. Countless Indian students don't even get Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. In urban areas, where half of non-reservation Indians live, Title IV school programs have been largely ineffective. In these schools Indians constitute a small percentage of the entire student population, usually the smallest of the minorities-often with members of many tribes among them-and are often shortchanged. In Seattle the 1,361 Indian kids make up 2.9 percent of the student population. Twenty percent drop out of high school, nearly twice the rate of the district at large. In Minneapolis, where the 2,390 Native Americans are about 5 percent of the population, they miss twice as many school days as white kids each year. Of the Indian students attempting to graduate this year, 32 percent have not passed the test Minnesota requires for a diploma.

While many districts and states, including these, do have programs for teaching Native American culture-like Wisconsin's Act 31, which says that all students must hear about Native Americans three times during high school-Professor Christenson believes most are inadequate. "Although there have been efforts in particular places, it's pretty much catch-as-catch-can," she said. "Indian kids have been stuffed into white man's education, and once in a while a pail of water is thrown over them that's supposed to be a cultural bath. It's just an appeasement."

But some urban public schools have managed to strike a balance between culture and academics. At the Native American Indian Center of Stockton Unified School District in California, director Dale Fleming, a Cherokee/Lumbee, and his all-Indian staff of six work closely with Indian parents and the community to instill in the district's population of 1,600 Indian students a strong sense of their heritage. In 1986 the dropout rate for Native Americans in Stockton was approaching 100 percent. Today it is 7 percent. "The culture is the base," said Fleming. "If the kids feel bad about themselves or can't deal with their own history or who they are, then school is real difficult." The students participate in weekend and summer programs with Indian elders, where academic subjects such as engineering, math and biology are taught from a Native perspective. "The kids we've seen that have a handle on both cultures do much better," Fleming said.

In the latest of a long series of efforts to confront the problem of Indian education, the BIA's Office of Indian Education Programs, the US Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services and several nongovernmental agencies are working to establish a research agenda for Indian education. A preliminary conference was held in Albuquerque in April, and the agenda is expected to be ready by February 2001. Also, the Indian Community School has founded an Urban Indian Education Research Center at its campus in Milwaukee and has given $1 million to endow a professorship in Native American education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. The state university system will match the endowment for another professorship.

"It's a survival issue for native people," says Carlotta Bird, the director of instruction at Zuni Public Schools in New Mexico, an Indian-controlled public school district. Hers is a recurring sentiment among Indian educators. For although their numbers are small, Indian students represent the next generation of their tribes. Unlike immigrants, Native Americans have no preserved point of geographic and cultural reference, no "old country." It is only in America that the traditions and languages of Indian tribes live and die.

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