Native American Students Face Ongoing Crises in Education

iStock. Native American students face cultural insensitivity, incompetence and even the “school-to-prison-pipeline” on their path to an education.

Lisa J. Ellwood

Racially and culturally insensitive and incompetent educators continue to be a problem for Native American students

American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) graduation rates have been on a downward trend since 2008 and analysis of the socio-economic reasons driving it is ongoing. As The Nation recently found, “Punitive discipline, inadequate curriculum, and declining federal funding created an education crisis.”

Native-specific education media profiles mostly focus on a handful of the states with the largest Native populations (namely California, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Minnesota), Federally Recognized Tribes, and/or well-known reservations like Pine Ridge. In the Fall of 2013, Education Week sent a team to reservations in South Dakota and California, Pine Ridge included, for its multimedia Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunity project. While this focus is important, the reality remains that 78 percent of Native Americans live outside of reservations with 70 percent living in urban areas (US Census 2010)—many of the challenges facing and solutions for “Urban Natives” will be different.

In her commentary The Miseducation of Native American Students for Education Week in November 2016, award-winning An Indigenous People’s History of the United States author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examined the dehumanizing myths and misconceptions that hurt Native American students. “Autumn, the beginning of the school year, is the cruelest season for Native American students in the United States. Between sports games where entire crowds chant about ‘redskins’ and other school mascots and the federal holiday of the Indian-killing mercenary Christopher Columbus, there is the misguided national celebration of ‘Thanksgiving’ to mark the arrival of the religious Europeans, who set the stage for Native American genocide,” she wrote.

“These rituals dominate the first months of school, putting Native children in their place, holding up the traditions of white children, and championing the ideals of white supremacy and imperialism. As November’s recognition of Native American Heritage Month ends, educators should… instead discuss the reality of life, historical and current, for the more than 600,000 Native American students in our nation’s K-12 public schools. Internalizing harmful images most acutely damages Native children, but absorbing racist and dehumanizing ideas about fellow classmates also diminishes the understanding and compassion of non-Native children, warping their conception of a history that often erases Native Americans altogether.

“Sadly, the education system lies at the heart of maintaining the erasure of Native Americans. Native children have been miseducated for generations under deliberately repressive federal policy, and all children in public schools are miseducated in U.S. and Native history,” Dunbar-Ortiz explained. This is especially painful for urban Native students unable to benefit from strong cultural ties to their extended family and culture. This can include not being tribally enrolled and/or wholly disconnected from their culture.

Culturally insensitive and incompetent educators continue to be a problem. “Recent statistics from the Bureau of Indian Affairs have noted that between 29 percent and 36 percent of all Native American students drop out of high school. They mostly drop out between the 7th and 12th grades. These numbers are even higher in areas where parents of Native American children complain of a major lack in understanding of native culture,” an editorial in Native Youth Magazine states.

“Many tribal leaders and education experts say these dismal statistics reflect, at worst, overt discrimination—and, at best, the alienation that Native students feel in a school system that has few Native teachers overall as well as limited lessons on Native American history and culture,” Rebecca Clarren wrote in The Nation.

This is even more complicated when disabilities are involved. Some of the most troubling issues for misunderstood Native American students involve “Childhood and Developmental Disorders” including learning disabilities, Autism, and ADHD whether formally diagnosed or presumed on the part of educators due to entrenched ableist beliefs rooted in racist stereotypes about Native American students being “unintelligent.” The same institutional racism that sees disabilities in Natives underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed, drives Special Education being disproportionately used as a form of discipline against students of color, whether they are actually disabled or not, for “behavioral issues.”

The Native mother* of a 9-year-old son diagnosed with ADHD detailed her anguish to me via email over her child being the target of racism and ableism by white teachers and administration at his new, predominately white middle-class school. Not only was her son not afforded accommodations and protections he was entitled to under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), once a “problem” was identified (relating to his disability) others were quickly found even after he was re-assigned to a new classroom as his mother demanded. The straight-As Native American student who loved school grew to hate it and began failing after being repeatedly humiliated as the “brown kid with behavioral problems.”

“There were days that I would keep him home for ‘mental health days.’ Andy* got up on Monday morning the last week of school and was so upset by the prospect of another week of school that we finally withdrew him. The following year we enrolled him at another elementary school in the same school district. He continued having problems at the new school, however, the new school took a real interest in making school a positive experience for Andy. He is [still] attending the same school and is doing extremely well. Later on, we learned that the old school had been rejecting open-enrollment students with learning or emotional disabilities but accepting their non-disabled siblings.”

In February 2016, the National Council on Disability welcomed “the Equity in IDEA rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, which seeks to address widespread disparities in the treatment of students of color with disabilities who too often enter the ‘school-to-prison pipeline,’ which refers to all policies and practices that have the effect of pushing students—especially those most at risk—out of classrooms and into juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Despite this, Native American students are still disproportionately disciplined more than most other racial groups with a dropout rate twice the national average. They represent less than 1 percent of the student population, but 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions.

“Many education analysts have noted that when educators don’t acknowledge Native American culture with their Native student body, the students begin to feel disenfranchised, said Native Youth Magazine. “There have been a number of schools that have successfully implemented programs that teach educators and staff about Native culture, giving them a better perspective on how to interact with Native students. The schools that have these ‘cultural sensitivity’ classes have seen a noted decline in the amount of disciplinary actions they take against Native American students. Some credit the sensitivity training itself, but only time will tell which programs were the most effective.”

For information on Native-based solutions including those organized and run by youth, check out NERDS, Pathkeepers for Indigenous Knowledge, and Education Week.

\Identifying details have been changed or omitted to protect the child and his family.*

Follow ICMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter.

Comments (6)
No. 1-6
Rpbin Aro Kuznik
Rpbin Aro Kuznik

At some point in time, I hope to observe schools that have successfully implemented
programs that recognize the impact of Native culture and teach staff to appropriately interact with Native students. Minnesota, where I reside, is one of the states with a considerable Native population.

Rpbin Aro Kuznik
Rpbin Aro Kuznik

I recognize that Native students do feel invisible in our schools. This is because of punitive discipline, inadequate curriculum, and declining federal funding. We need to be cognizant of the effect of our school culture and Native students. Although some cope fairly well in our schools, others are negatively impacted by the school culture. And these students feel invisible.


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