In contemporary nation states education is a key institution for the socialization and creation of citizens. Schools are designed to provide common rules of civic understanding and responsibilities. Students are taught to understand the history, goals, and functioning of government. In many ways, educational institutions are a great equalizer in the sense that students, many as immigrants, can have the opportunity to learn U.S. culture, share citizenship, and gain the skills necessary to participate in the market economy.
Education is a powerful tool for assimilation, integration, and developing a citizenry that shares in the values and culture of the nation. Most Indian communities entered into the American school system through the boarding schools, and in more recent years, reservation day schools, usually funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and federal education programs. Until recent decades, federal education programs for Indians tended to focus on homemaking for girls, and working class occupations for boys.
In the last couple of decades, more emphasis has been given to opening the door to college and professional schools for Indian students. However, the numbers of Indian professional and college school entrances and completions remains far below national averages. In Indian country, it might be said that even at the present, American style education has had mixed success achieving the goals assimilation, integration and producing well prepared students for life in the market economy.
One fundamental issue with contemporary education for Indian students is that the school system introduces Indian students to American culture, life, goals and values. Many immigrant groups came to the United States to flee from political or religious persecution, and were looking for the political and economic freedoms and opportunities the United States could offer. American Indian communities usually prefer to uphold the values, cultures, and governments of their own communities, and are less interested in joining United States society, if they have to abandon tribal attachments.
United States Indians regard themselves as dual citizens. Although there is no official doctrine, Indians are citizens in the United States and also citizens within their tribal nation. Education as a central institution for nation building then must have a dual role of preparing Indian students to live and achieve in U.S. society, but also live and achieve within their tribal society. As is well known, U.S. education gives very little attention to nation building for tribal nations. In some education theory, individuals with strong tribal values may reject U.S. culture and education, and tend to drop out, since U.S. education programs do not satisfy or recognize tribal history, government, and sovereignty.
Education for Indian students needs to support dual citizenship and tribal nations. BIE and public schools do not provide Indian students with the history, culture, law and tribal government materials necessary to make strong tribal cultural attachments and foundations, as well as providing knowledge about contemporary law and government necessary to live as an informed and engaged tribal citizen. Some tribal communities have experimented with creating tribal schools, although educationally successful, tribal community schools often flounder because of the absence of steady means of financial support.
Some gaming tribes, frustrated with the BIE and public schools, have established their own schools. The Morongo Band of Mission Indians has Morongo School, a K-8 program, and will incrementally add a high school over the next several years. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians has The Pechanga School, a K-5 program that teaches classes in the Luiseño language. Both schools are in California and focus on strong academics and strong cultural identity. A byproduct of the tribally controlled school is that students develop strong relations and identity with each other, and develop a sense of community and political identity, not often found in BIE or public schools.
Tribal nations need well-grounded tribal citizens, and ones who are capable of helping the nation address the political, economic, and cultural challenges of the future. Tribal nations composed of dual citizens need highly trained college and professional school graduates who are capable and willing to work within tribal nations.