Skip to main content

Indian Education: What Are the Options?

Indian communities are searching for education that suits the needs of their children and futures. They may not know precisely what they require. But they know what they don’t want: a strong assimilation program that emphasizes U.S. history and culture.

The seeds of the present situation were sown during the 1960s and 1970s. Back then, many tribal communities took advantage of the emerging self-determination policy and subcontracted schools. It was during this period that most of the remaining old boarding schools began to disappear. Those schools that survived were transitioned into community colleges or reorganized their programs to focus on high school graduation. More recently, old boarding schools like the Sherman Indian High School in California have been preparing more students to attend college.

But this hasn’t always worked. Schools that have been subcontracted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) have not produced many college-bound students. During the 1960s and 1970s, many tribal communities in California lobbied for their children to get into public schools, hoping they would provide an education on par with that of non-Indian students.

Nationally, however, the education of Indian students both in BIA and public schools has produced dismal results. In the last two decades, only about 13 percent of Indian high school graduates have been prepared for college.

Most Indian communities and parents don’t want their children in American schools to become socially and culturally American. They prefer that their children be grounded in their own background. But most schools that Indian students attend don’t provide strong cultural and historical information. So they don’t develop strong tribal citizens. Not surprisingly, many students and parents are reluctant to support their children in schools that don’t acknowledge or strengthen their tribal self-understanding and identity.

Obviously, that’s a problem. Most school systems focus on assimilating students into mainstream society and preparing them to assume their share of “the American Dream.” American Indian nations and individuals favor education, but not at the price of giving up their tribal identities and communities.

As a result, tribal leaders fret about providing an education that strengthens and reaffirms tribal culture and community, while preparing students with useful economic and professional skills. Contemporary BIA and public schools, however, have accomplished neither of these tasks. So what is to be done?

In the past, various tribal and urban communities were creating independent “red school houses.” These constructs were successful as long as they were well funded. But funds often weren’t at hand.

Some Indian communities moved with more success toward tribally controlled community colleges and Indian magnet schools. Some have created their own tribally controlled K-12 schools. These schools allow the community considerable leadership and responsibility. In many ways, tribally controlled schools are like private schools, where well-off parents pay for better care and attention to their children. In tribally controlled schools, students get not only that attention, but a culturally agreeable environment and a place to learn about their own history and culture, while developing the skills needed to engage in an increasingly competitive market.

Whatever the precise form this education takes, the goal should always be the same: a nurturing, culturally supportive environment that affords greater scholastic achievement for Indian students. Strong tribal and educational leadership and guidance, combined with supportive cultural foundations and student identities, can’t help but produce literate, scholarly, culturally well-grounded students who are able to attend college and develop professional careers. In turn, these students are more likely to give back to their communities and support tribal government and cultural continuity.

Every Indian student deserves and needs a culturally nurturing educational experience. For these present students are, after all, our future leaders.