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Broader education for informed citizens

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Few Native students have opportunities to learn about indigenous rights in their classrooms. Tribal histories, cultures, political or territorial claims are rarely part of school curricula. Few contemporary schools, even those managed by tribal communities, provide students with courses on the history and operation of tribal governments, or the policy and legal history of Indians in the United States, let alone the rights of indigenous peoples of the world. Tribal communities and governments are not creating motivated and informed citizens who will be required to navigate through the complexities of a global society.

Most Indian students in the United States attend public schools, few of which address the legal, political and policy relations between Indian peoples and the United States. Native students are taught U.S. history and government, but learn virtually nothing about tribal history, treaty relations or tribal government. Because of this lack of formal education on Indian issues, most do not fully understand their governments, their land and political rights, or tribal histories, and therefore often do not understand their rights and responsibilities as tribal citizens. Tribal governments should take the initiative and offer courses to their members, since understanding tribal history, culture and government is a necessary step toward creating active, informed and creative citizens.

Should public schools, BIA schools, and tribal schools and colleges bear the responsibility for teaching indigenous students tribal political and legal rights and histories? Emphatically, yes. Education must be about creating well-informed, socially responsible and economically capable citizens.

In the past, nation-states (like the U.S.) educated citizens to share mainstream economic and cultural values and uphold the government of the nation. Native children were sent to boarding schools to learn American culture and life, and were encouraged to move away from traditional Indian cultures, which were seen as incompatible with American culture and political institutions. After nearly a century of continued discussion and insistence by indigenous peoples, many school curricula have become more multicultural. Still, assimilation policy remains deeply embedded in education standards.

Multiculturalism means that people are encouraged to retain distinct cultural identities, but generally agree on the institutions and processes of government and economy. Indigenous peoples, however, do not often agree that the American political system and economic values are exclusively suitable or make the best fit for their goals and aspirations. There is less shared cultural and political ground that enables multicultural education and identities for indigenous peoples. Hence, there are greater and deeper difficulties for coming together on education policy for indigenous peoples.

Many American Indians participate as dual citizens of their nation and of the United States, but want to preserve their distinct cultures, lands and governments. Since American Indians are dual citizens, they need to understand the history, government, culture and political processes of both tribal and federal government.

Some might argue that such dual loyalties and commitments are not possible or logical. Nevertheless, many American Indians are veterans of U.S. wars and many have given their lives for this country. While the common non-Native view is that Indians were conquered by the United States, many Indian nations have treaties or other agreements that make Indians political, military and commercial allies with the United States, and establish the government-to-government relation on peaceful grounds.

Recent international events, such as the United Nations' adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, have established indigenous peoples as active players in the international arena. For 30 years, indigenous peoples negotiated to get their views expressed and understood. The international indigenous peoples' movement is a model of patience and negotiated consensual politics. The declaration is a marker for acceptance and inclusion of indigenous rights and points of view in international and national relations.

Indigenous students and peoples need to be not only tribal - and national - citizens, but need to understand and participate in international rights issues. Contemporary and future indigenous peoples will be engaged in tribal, national and international rights and obligations. Our students, citizens and leaders will need to be informed about tribal, national and international political processes, institutions, history and policies. Our school curricula and tribal philosophies should reflect the ways in which indigenous peoples have forged to participate in tribal, national and international political processes and governments.