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New Questions for an Old Problem in Indian Education

What if the greatest educational challenge facing Native American students is our own apathy, anxiety, victimhood, and historical trauma?

In education, blame follows close on the heels of trouble. When people find out we are Indian educators, we are routinely asked to list how public schools are failing our students. We encourage the curious to look up the 1928 Meriam Report, the 1969 Kennedy Report, Alonzo Spang’s “Eight Problems In Indian Education,” and their individual district’s report card on Native American student achievement and graduation rates. Lay them out on the dinner table and soak in the realization that we have the same hundred year old problems. Our challenges are old—instead let’s start asking why they persist.

For better or worse, the United States government is consistent in its dealings with Indian Country. While the European-style education continues, some important accommodations have been made by the federal government, like Title VII and the Johnson-O’Malley Act. What has changed dramatically over the last 100 years, however, is tribal governance and economic development. Isn’t it time we ask, “How responsible are we?” Why, given all of our advancements, do we still have the largest achievement gap of any minority? Why haven’t we as a people done better by our children?

What if the greatest educational challenge facing our students is our own apathy, anxiety, victimhood, and historical trauma? Teaching our students effectively should be one of the easiest things for us to accomplish. We have been teaching our children as communities for thousands of years and with that educational style we have built some of the most complex societies in the world. Unfortunately, educational trauma seems generational in Indian Country. If a parent was over-looked, under-educated, and pushed out of school he or she will pass those negative values on to his or her children. How many of us know someone who has told a child, “I have an 8th grade education and I’m fine?”

Rather than looking ahead seven generations, we look back seven generations when we consider education reform. In our experience, a tribe’s passion for education is indicative of its experience with education. But why, with the increased wealth and sovereignty of our tribes, do we still expect our students to assimilate and succeed in a European-style education when we no longer have to? For 100 years education has been something that has been done to us. It is little wonder so many of us struggle to understand how modern education works and how to apply it. We need to remember education is about empowerment. It’s time we earn our power back.

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More of our tribal leaders must commit to education reform with meaningful action. We must break our old habits of accepting mediocrity in our education programs and apathy and indecision from our tribal leaders. We must stop filling our bellies with that most unpalatable government commodity: European-style education. As opportunities and resources for our tribes have increased, so too has our responsibility for our academic achievement gap.

Everyday throughout Indian Country, Native educators advocate for our children. The stiffest resistance they encounter often are their own governments. They understand that education is not a business investment that can be deferred without consequence. They are passionate because each year we content ourselves with mediocrity is another generation of students we lose to a life of low-paying jobs or unemployment, increased chances of alcohol, drug abuse, and domestic violence creating another generation of parents who will not value education. Whether on the front lines as an educator or a parent, we all grasp the problems in education. It’s time we start asking the most important question in education: “Why?”

Jerad Koepp and Jason Medina are certified teachers in Washington State. Medina is a career and technical education teacher and Koepp is a middle and high school social studies and history teacher. Both have committed their careers to Indian education.