Over the past several decades, American Indian and First Nation communities have increasingly gained control over the education of their children. Most traditional boarding schools are not in operation or have been turned over to tribal communities. Many American Indian children attend reservation day or public schools. There are at least 34 tribally controlled community colleges in the United States and Canada, and more than 125 college-level Indian studies programs and departments. Nevertheless, due to various contributing factors, Indian students as a group continue to produce poor attendance records and low achievement scores, and are less prepared for college than their non-Native peers. Fewer graduate from college and professional degree programs than other major groups. American Indian students graduate from high school at the same rate as the national average, but too few are prepared for college despite support from their families and communities.
These factors are critical because the future of tribal communities depends on the abilities of the younger generations to lead communities and defend tribal interests and cultures. Young people will need knowledge about global markets and technology, politics and law to effectively protect tribal communities and cultures, indigenous and human rights. The present-day public school systems do not serve the future needs of tribal communities or, in the long run, those of the United States or Canada.
High academic achievement and access levels are challenging for indigenous students for many reasons. Many reservation-based children who live in impoverished rural areas experience personal and cultural discriminatory exclusion. Reservations or reserve communities with few resources, considerable external bureaucratic control and disrupted cultures may not be the best environments in which to motivate students to excel in education.
Throughout the world, indigenous students generally have not performed well in formal school systems. Boarding and residential schools separated children from parents and communities, discouraged language and culture, and tried to transform identity and ways of life. Education was a way to steal children, and it often alienated them from their cultures, communities and families.
The movement over the past 30 years toward reservation day schools has alleviated some of the harsher effects of boarding and residential schools. Day and public schools are closer to family, but few children, American Indian or otherwise, can expect to excel in these traditionally structured schools. Although the tide is turning, children in public schools face racial and economic discrimination, lack of cultural understanding among instructors, receive little if any cultural content in school subject matter, do not have enough parental involvement and often encounter systemic devaluation of their communities and identities. BIA reservation schools continue to present a curriculum that is geared toward working in the mainstream society, though often students end up with few marketable skills.
Mainstream education is not a bad endeavor. But learning only the mainstream culture may be harmful and nonproductive for most indigenous
children. Just as indigenous languages were banned in boarding and residential schools, American Indian culture is largely ignored in most reservation and public schools that serve Native students. Rather than prohibit indigenous languages, students should be taught English as a second language. Indian children need a more seamless approach to cultural and mainstream education, learning their own languages and history as well as tribal and federal government policies, laws and political processes.
Administrative control over schools is not enough if the students are not taught in ways that serve their community's long-term interests and provide individuals and communities choices about their future. In order to fully understand contemporary indigenous communities, students need to know their basic human rights, as well as the history and present state of indigenous rights at the international, national and local levels.
There are some interesting alternative and grass-roots schools in numerous Indian communities, and some with good success in reclaiming culture, language and identity for students. Many of the alternative school graduates, however, are not well prepared to work and excel in the mainstream society, and do not have skills to help uphold tribal community interests within the mainstream market or political and cultural institutions. Students need a strong cultural foundation, but they also need to be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century. These aspects of education should no longer be considered mutually exclusive.
Indigenous education should foster tribal citizens first and foremost. The education systems of nation-states are designed to create citizens and indigenous education should do the same for indigenous communities. Furthermore, indigenous education needs to provide students with skills and understanding so they can succeed in the outside world. Students with strong identities are better prepared to master English, complete high school and attend college or professional schools in ways that will contribute to preserving, protecting and enhancing their tribal communities. Students require an education that will result in employment in the mainstream and provide relevant skills for working in reservation economies or training to creatively build sustainable reservation economies according to community interests and values. Such education should start at the preschool level, when children easily acquire language and culture, and thereafter form a part of education at every level.
Students with multilingual and multicultural skills, who can move between indigenous and non-indigenous economies and institutional contexts, will have more individual choices and will provide their tribal communities with more collective choices to meet the future challenges. Such a school system can only be provided by the nation-state and will require considerable retooling of teacher training; more indigenous teachers; the inclusion of elders, tribal leaders and community within curricula; and the recognition of common goals among formal school administrators and reservation leaders and parents. The generation of well-educated indigenous students with secure cultural identities that enable them to engage in culture, politics and economy at local, national and international levels is in everyone's interest.