Rethinking the Education Approach for Indian Children

If you are an educator of Indian children it is important that you understand them, know American Indian values and are familiar with how the children learn.

If you are an educator of Indian children it is important that you know who these children are, what are American Indian values and how Indian children may learn! I have been an educator for 47 years. I have worked in schools on and off the reservation, I have found that there is very little taught, to this day, in most public schools about Indians. Most textbooks are void of anything about Indians. People are filled with stereotypes of what Indians are, be it savage or stoic. Many of these stereotypes come from the movies. Many Indian people have been so thoroughly stripped of their identity by reservation life and the boarding schools, that they, too, have subliminally accepted many of these stereotypes.

American history books begin with a man named Columbus claiming that he had discovered a new world and that it now belonged to the Queen. There is never any mention of what he did to the people of Cuba. At the same time as our World History books teach of the Egyptian Civilization, there is little mention of the North American Mound Builders of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys or the Anasazi of the Southwest. Little is taught about the large cities with apartment complexes and the extensive trade routes of the ancient people.


In the history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Homestead Act and the Louisiana Purchase, what is said about the theft of land from the Cherokee that had assimilated to becoming landowners in South Carolina and Georgia only to have their land seized, because they could not own land? Never is there a disparaging word about a president that forced hundreds of men, women and children to walk to Oklahoma, which we now refer to as the “Trail of Tears.” What source do I read that tells me how Lincoln preserved the union, but sanctioned the largest mass execution of 38 Dakota people in Mankato Minnesota? Or the carnival like atmosphere at the hanging, when the 38 trapdoors were simultaneously sprung.

Where in the history books does it tell about the Massacre at Sand Creek, Fallen Timbers, Wound Knee and the numerous more murders of the people that only we, Indian people, have the history of or know about? Tell me where I find the history of the boarding schools, the number of deaths, the ages of the children or the miles they were taken from their moms and dads. Where do I find the names on the unmarked graves at Pipestone government boarding school in southern Minnesota? Not to mention the theft of the language, religion and culture. What of the sterilizations, rapes and abuse our children suffered in those boarding schools. When does Hollywood tell our story of “The Rabbit Proof Fence?”

As the railroads cut their way across Indian country, we lost our land, our names, our religion, our language, our culture, our identity and our dignity. Who tells the story of the Dann sisters of Nevada, whose relatives were the Western Shoshone. How the Shoshone in 1863 made the peace treaty, the Treaty of Ruby Valley with United States government, allowing U.S. citizen’s safe passage through their territory and permit the mining for gold on their land. What history book tells the heartbreaking story of how the Dann sisters continue to fight for their right to occupy that land of the Western Shoshone?

How many of our young men went off to defend the country in WWI, WWII and the Korean Conflict? Defend a country that did not make them citizens until 1928 or allow them to have an alcoholic drink legally until 1953. Who can tell us why the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, had to be passed August 11, 1978, because until that time we were denied the first amendment right of freedom of religion. Where do we find these truths?

You will not find these truths in the National Museum of the American Indian in the Washington D.C. Smithsonian building. What you will find in the National Museum of the American Indian is glitzy dressed up wax figurines. Each tribe represented is dressed in ceremonial regalia. There is a large collection of Indian artifacts; much of which came into the hands of Euro-Americans by desecrating ancient burial mounds. Of the approximately 1,300 mounds that were in Minnesota alone, only about five still exist and are now protected.

Just down the Mall from the National Museum of the American Indian you will find the Jewish Holocaust Museum. The truth of the extermination and genocide is awesomely awfully done. You leave the museum knowing many of the truths and with a gut wrenching, heart aching realization of the atrocities suffered by the Jews.

When you leave the National Museum of the American Indian you know nothing of the extermination or genocide of the American Indian people. You know nothing of the millions that died, of entire tribes wiped out, of small pock infested blankets handed out, of sweetened coffee laced with alcohol, of children taken from their parents to be put in boarding schools or foster care as farm labor in Nebraska, Iowa or North Dakota. When you leave the National Museum of the American Indian you know little more than you did when you went in and you know little to nothing about Indians.


As an American Indian child I learned about Columbus. I watched John Wayne movies and played cowboys and Indians. I don’t have to tell you who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The only time my grandmother uttered a word in Ojibwa was when ousting the numerous grandchildren from the house or angrily muttering something under her breath.

I went to public school and learned about the European invaders. I learned about how smart and wise and good they were. I learned that George Washington never told a lie. He was asked by his father who cut down the cherry tree and he said “I cannot lie; it was I who cut down the cherry tree.” I did not learn that Washington had a very large plantation in Virginia and that he owned 200 men, women and children, that they were his property like cattle.

I graduated from high school in 1967, which was the height of the Vietnam Conflict. I am lucky it was, because it was a time of revolution and change. The Black Panthers were fighting for the rights and equality of Black People. Women were burning their bras and fighting for the rights and equality of women. Then in 1969 in Minneapolis, Minnesota was the rise of the American Indian Movement (AIM).

That was the beginning of a time of discovery. The American Indian Movement started looking at the injustices to American Indians and all the broken treaties. AIM started challenging some of the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA was originally housed under the Department of War because we were considered sovereign nations, but by 1969 it was housed in the Department of the Interior. Where it is now housed because that is where the Bureau of Land Management is and if you want to steal more Indian Land, what better place to put it? We would jokingly say, "of course they would house it there, because that is where Department of Wildlife is housed and we are considered wildlife.” Either way, we and our lands are being misused and mismanaged.

For the past 40 plus years American Indians have been fighting for their identity. We have said “no more assimilation.” We have gone after the United States government, our trustee, for monies that belong to us for the use of the land. We have gotten back our hunting, fishing and harvesting rights guaranteed by treaty. Land rights, water rights, health rights, educational rights are just a few of the rights for which we continue to fight.

As an educator my concern has always been schools. How should school change so that our children can be educated and not assimilated. This is a challenge because there is so much fear of assimilation. The question is “is there anything good about a white man’s education?” My answer is yes, if we can take from it that what we may need, that what is truth, that what is good and mix it with the Indian teachings, values, spirituality and language it may serve our children well. I met some Indian doctors trained in western medicine that took the good from that and mixed it with the ancient healings and they were the best. I believe we should be doing much more of this.

If we do not learn and teach we will not be able to protect Mother Earth. Our job is to protect the Mother. We have a connection to this earth that the Euro-Americans, African Americans and Asian-Americans do not have. Our languages and spirituality are an important part to that connection. It is our obligation to help teach these people of many colors the values of respect, humility, sharing, truth and honesty. Our duty is clear.

Many schools are struggling to close the gap in test scores of Indian children verse Euro-American children. Many schools would like to better their successful graduation of Indian children. Many schools are asking, “what can we do?”

I believe, as do many, that a child’s identity is important for learning. When our children have been so stripped of their identity, it is important to give that identity back. We as Indian people need to demand that our language, be it Ojibwa or Dinah, be part of the school curriculum. History classes should include the history and contributions of Indian people, as part of the information taught to all the students. When teaching the history of the state, it must include the Indian history of that state and the United States. Science should include Indian contributions to astronomy, medicine and agriculture. Home Economics should teach that 92 percent of the world’s food today came from the pre-Columbus Americas. English class should emphasize the progress in Indian writing in the past 50 years, and included in their required reading material writers such as Joseph Bruchac, Louise Erdrich, Ella Cara Deloria, Mary Crow Dog, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sherman Alexie just to mention a few.


If our children live in economic suppressed communities, there needs to be opportunities for them to see other communities. We need to be looking for ways for them to realize their potential by making available summer culture and language based camps, summer workshops on food production, wild rice and maple syrup harvesting, nationwide trips to other Indian communities (maybe like a student exchange program), nationwide pow wows or ceremonies.

We need to re-teach our values, education being one of them. We need to help our children visit college campuses and help them to build a network at college that will help them be successful. Since I have been taking my students to colleges over the past five years, we have doubled the number of Indian children that are entering college and being successful. We need to encourage our schools to have a search committee to find Indian teachers to fill open positions in the core subjects, math, science, history and English. We need role models in our schools as teachers and administrators. We need to bring in to all school lyceums Indian professionals, artist and writers. We need to bring in community members especially elders, to do talking circles. We need to bring in community people to share their life experience and to share their skills, weaving, basketry, pottery, beading, etc.

We must become the educators. Dispelling the myths and stereotypes that Hollywood has perpetrated will not be an easy job. We need to give our children back their identity so they don’t have to identify with other cultural groups or gangs.

In conclusion "90 percent of what 90 percent of the people know about Indians should come from Indians."

Diana Lee King is Mississippi Band (removal to White Earth reservation with the treaty of 1867) Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Waubun (Ojibwa for sunrise), Minnesota.