Very little contemporary American Indian education is tribally focused. Instead, we are presented with reams of policy and research about Indian students that concentrates on explaining dropouts, low graduation rates and other problems.
Important though these issues are, they tend to assume that Indian students are foreigners in American culture and education. And in a sense, they are. Many American Indian students with strong community and culture ties to their nations reject the individualistic values and emphasis on gain that the American education system assumes. Indians, after all, tend toward collective or community participation and working toward community achievements. For Indian communities, collective learning, decision-making, and collective sharing of profits, as is done in tribal gaming, is the norm.
Unfortunately, most of the history of Indian policy has been the story of assimilating Indian people into the values and culture of the mainstream. The boarding schools, for example, were designed to remove students from their communities and immerse them in schools that intended to show them the way to enter American economy and society.
Today, Indian communities are working to regain control over the education of their children. Since the 1970s, most tribes have increasingly moved to assume the administration of schools that have been created, funded and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), through the use of subcontractors.
But most tribal day schools must still conform to various educational regulations and accreditation requirements. Consequently, BIA rules tend to prevail. The result is that tribes have limited cultural and organizational influence on teaching methods, curriculum content and cultural content.
Given this background, there is a lack of tribal values, history, and culture in the classroom. Both BIA schools and public schools don’t do nearly a good enough job of preparing Indian students for college or teaching them their own histories and cultures.
Contemporary tribal communities are faced with providing education that emphasizes Indian culture, self-government, community, rights and policy, while at the same time preparing students to successfully participate in American economic and political institutions. They face an uphill battle. Many culturally oriented students reject the values, organization, administration and often subordinate status that is created in the BIA and public school systems that serve the large majority of Indian K-12 students.
And the more traditional students are the harshest critics of teaching and administrative methods at tribally controlled schools. Almost certainly the majority of Indian students find present-day school options unsatisfactory, an attitude reflected in Indian student dropout rates and rejection of the school system.
Clearly, American Indian education needs to start offering more instruction in the political and economic conditions of American Indian communities. Indian self-governance will only be achieved if the community members are taught to commit to tribal cultural, and collective economic and political goals.
This task is by no means impossible. In some ways, the tribally controlled community colleges have filled a gap by providing more local, culturally relevant course materials and training. A few gaming communities have also funded their own school systems and seek to train more culturally supported students. In general, however, independent Indian schools have been difficult to maintain financially.
Some schools, like the Rough Rock Community School on the Navajo Reservation and the St. Regis Mohawk School at Akwesasne, focus on tribal culture. But there are disadvantages here too, as most of these schools do not send a high number of students to college.
Research shows that some Indian students with strong cultural commitments are very good achievers in college and in professional careers. This augurs well for their lifelong commitments to tribal issues and tribal futures, as well as for professional commitments. So education need not be a form of assimilation, but instead can amount to access to knowledge and training that will support tribal goals and interests.
A tribally focused education approach would both provide and guide Indian students with understanding of tribal knowledge and equip them to achieve on the university level. And that combination will enable tribal communities to meet future challenges all around.