Education in Indian Country

“To bring forth what is within.” That is the original meaning of
“education.” And that is exactly what was not given to the American Indians
after colonization. Formal education for the indigenous people had nothing
to do with them, their history, languages, cultures and values. It was an
imposition. The more they were exposed to formal education, the further
they got from themselves.

Formal education was not a way for the Indian people to “think” for
themselves, but a system of indoctrination based on “what to think.” Under
this education, Indians were not in touch with their lives, their cultures
and history, but with the perspective and ideology of their invaders. The
psychological dimension of this process was violence towards the self. It
was trauma.

Not surprisingly, Indians who wanted to get in touch with themselves and
their heritage rid themselves of these artificial concepts that had nothing
to do with their reality. In order to reclaim a certain degree of sanity
and sort out their own emotions and thoughts, they questioned the view that
was imposed on them as universal. The only way they could do this was by
finding their own view and reclaiming their own heritage. Formal education
was set against their own perspective.

Indians then discovered that they were not meant to have survived. Formal
education didn’t even consider them. They were invisible. Their only merit
was that they could become part of the new system. The sooner they could
leave behind the vestiges of the past, the easier it would be for them to
learn the new ways. The purpose of formal education was then to
“de-Indianize the Indians.”

What was the message for the Indian? That the more educated I am, the less
Indian I become. The lesson was that it is not good to be Indian at all.
So, don’t look Indian, don’t speak Indian, and above all, don’t think
Indian.

This historical experience has much to do with the current indifference
professed towards formal education in Indian country. While this is
understandable it is quite unfortunate. Formal education can go both ways.
It can lead us away from ourselves, but it can also lead us towards
ourselves. Education can have a positive dimension. Education can be a
means for liberation.

HOW CAN EDUCATION HAVE A POSITIVE DIMENSION IN INDIAN COUNTRY?

There are at least 10 elements that can contribute to this process:

1. First of all, education has to be rooted in the experience of the Indian
people.

2. Formal education has to be based on the Indian perspective not just the
mainstream perspective.

3. Education has to lead the student towards himself and not away from
himself: It must be a process not only of discovering the world but also of
self-discovery.

4. Education has to be rooted in Indian history.

5. The learning process has to be consistent with the cultural wisdom of
the Indian people.

6. Formal education will put us in touch with our ancestors and their
contributions to us and the world.

7. The form and content of the process of education will be based on Indian
experience.

8. Formal education will be used to preserve Indian heritage.

9. Indian education will be applied to expand the sphere of justice and
cultural affirmation for Indian country.

10. The contextual elements of the learning process must include non-formal
practices of education preserved by the Indian people – such as oral
tradition, application, imitation and community consultation, rather than
the memorization of basic information.

We believe that in nature, as in society, diversity is not the problem:
Diversity is the solution. In the words of one of our ancestors:

“If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me
so in the first place. It is not necessary for eagles to be crows.”

– Sitting Bull, Teton Lakota (Sioux)

Roberto Dansie is a clinical psychologist. In 1997 he received the golden
medallion from the National Indian Health Board for his contributions to
health in Indian country. He lives in northern California.

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Education in Indian Country

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