Skip to main content

Half the lesson about Indian education

Several issues back in Indian Country Today we lauded the advances Native America has made in the field of education. It took decades of lobbying for congressional monetary support, of innovative administration and decision-making and of institution building to make these gains. There have been hundreds of Native students who have excelled in their college careers and moved on to on-rez and off-rez professions. In these things we can take heart. This is "Indian education" as we envisioned it.

The lesson is only half learned, however.

In these past decades our parents and elders encouraged us to accomplish high school and college degrees and beyond. This value, though, is a double-edged carry-over from the boarding school era: getting along in a non-Indian world connotes a selling-out - an abandonment of allegiance to Native ways. But our elders could have meant that our traditional ways and the star of sovereign independence could find protection only behind our efforts to attain the shield of a "critical" education.

That's the missing word: critical. It's a relatively misunderstood word. Most people associate the word with criticism. But as applied to education, it means exercising careful and thoughtful judgment in the evaluation of those things that are being taught, how they're being taught and to whom they are being taught. In our rush to acquire education, all too often, we have not developed the shield of a critical education. Degrees, mere pieces of paper, have acquired a misplaced concreteness.

There are two prongs to a critical Indian education. The first prong consists of the education we gain for ourselves - "internal" Indian education. The second prong (and the one completely neglected) consists of the education about Native America to all Americans - "external" Indian education.

It would be na?ve to believe that what is being taught to us and to the American public is generally value free. For instance, when American history is being taught to young students it often begins in mid-October of 1492. Is this to say that the history of the United States only begins to take on meaning at that time? And how should our children construe the importance of the Native civilizations that proceed that date? Or worse, give meaning to their demise? American history customarily omits any reference to the fact that one of the first acts of Congress granted citizenship only to white people. It fails, as well, to point out that Thomas Jefferson regularly dug up Indian graves. American history, as it is taught to our children, bears the residual purpose of sedating our peoples' resentment and resistance.

In college, as our young Native men and women learn about commerce and economic development, they are rarely taught that a deeper involvement of their tribes in a cash economy carries with it the implication of the abandonment of past communal practices. Ownership and individualism, after all, fuel the cash economy. They are never led to realize that commerce constitutes the importation and exportation of culture, and, in the context of Native America, this means primarily the importation of American commodity fetishism. Aspirations to wealth, moreover, are aspirations to status and a class-based society.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

In law school, where most of America's politicians are trained, when classes are offered in Constitutional law, law students learn about federal and state governments. Only a rare word is spoken about the Indian tribes mentioned in that same document. An occasional state now asks questions about federal Indian law on their bar exams. This should be a national standard.

For our own good it is not enough to have our own colleges and college graduates. We must develop a body of teaching that does not succumb to a colonial mentality. The missing pages of world history must be restored.

But we must also cast our educational aspirations beyond our immediate needs. Certainly, it is bad when we do not take a critical look at how the educational process deludes us in our efforts to establish cultural permanency and political independence. But, more importantly, we will always face formidable social barriers so long as we ignore the education that is offered to the remainder of America outside of Indian country.

America's vision of itself denies that Native America has ever had to yield anything in the building of this country. It still sees the acquisition of the American continent as an entitlement, made ever justified by the Native failure to put the land to good use. And even if it was not justified, the taking of Indian lands has been rectified through the Indian Claims Commission process. In their eyes we have made few, if any, contributions to the character of the Nation. America still views our stagnant tribal economies as a consequence of our failings, not theirs. Our captors will always minimize our place in America as long as their education buries us in anonymity.

The sheer absence of Native peoples from the standard American history, from the American vision of itself, allows the American public to stew in its ignorant bliss, unaware that it owes moral and legal duties to the Native peoples it has injured. Worse, every politician in the Nation comes from that same ignorant mass knowing little to nothing about Native peoples. Although legislation could cure many of the problems faced by Indian people by including the type of educational reform that I describe here, the politicians do not understand our needs enough to propose such legislation, and, the public cannot muster the political will to support such legislation. We are trapped in our circumstances by a widespread failure in the educational system.

We must aspire to a critical Indian education mindful that, if we are strong enough to persevere, will ultimately include an internal education of preparedness for political independence, and an external education that will teach America about acceptance of, respect for, and peaceful co-existence with American Indian nations.

Judge Carey N. Vicenti, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation of northwest New Mexico, currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He sits as a judicial official for several American Indian nations and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.