ERIC Identifier: ED314228
Publication Date: 1989-04-00
Author: Reyhner, Jon
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Changes in American Indian Education: A Historical
Retrospective for Educators in the United States. ERIC Digest.
THE BRIEF RETROSPECTIVE in this Digest should interest all American educators
concerned with such enduring issues as equity and equality of educational
opportunity, local autonomy, community involvement, curriculum development, and
the relationship of cultural values to the way schooling is conducted in
general. American Indian educators face challenges and are devising solutions to
unique cultural and pedagogical problems. The discussion that follows aims to
help all educators become more knowledgeable about the contributions of and
circumstances surrounding the education of American Indians.
Schooling as a formal institution for
Indians started with missionaries, and teachers in missionary schools were at
least as interested in salvation as in education. According to many observers,
the regimen of the schools usually included getting Indians to dress, speak, and
act like white people (see for example, Whiteman, 1986).
Church-operated schools, of course, were also common for white people during
the early years of the United States. Whereas many of these church schools were
replaced in the nineteenth century by locally-funded and locally-controlled
public schools, mission schools for American Indian students were largely
replaced by schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). These
schools were administered directly from the nation's capital. At that time
Indians were not U.S. citizens, and they lacked the right to control their own
lives and the education of their children (Eder & Reyhner, 1988; Whiteman,
Indian Commissioner Thomas J. Morgan wrote in 1889 that "the Indians must
conform 'to the white man's ways,' peaceably if they will, forcibly if they
must." Many Indians began their education at this time in boarding schools,
often far from home, where they had their hair cut, where their native clothes
were replaced, and where they were often punished for speaking their own
languages (Whiteman, 1986).
Official government policy encouraged detribalizing Indians partly through
education and partly through allotting Indian communal lands (Eder &
Reyhner, 1988; Whiteman, 1986). Moreover, many citizens regarded Indians as
"Vanishing Americans," and it was commonplace for newspapers to advocate the
virtual extermination of American Indians (Murphy & Murphy, 1989).
Such policies and attitudes did not reflect the needs of Indian people, as
more and more non-Indians began to realize in the early twentieth century (for
example, Meriam, 1928).
After the First World War Indians received citizenship, and during the New
Deal tribes assumed greater responsibility for their own governance, more Indian
heritage was taught in BIA schools, and some boarding schools were replaced by
local day schools.
From a population low of about 237,000 in 1900, the American Indian
population grew to 1.5 million in 1980, and increasing numbers of Indian
children began to attend public schools. Today two-thirds of all Indian children
who live on reservations attend public schools (Eder & Reyhner, 1988).
CIVIL RIGHTS AND SELF-DETERMINATION
After the Second World
War, along with Blacks and other minorities, American Indians began actively to
promote self-determination and their own civil rights generally. This
development has affected Indian education profoundly. The 1972 Indian Education
Act funded supplementary programs to help American Indian students both on and
off reservations. In so doing, it recognized that 50% of all Indians lived in
urban areas and 75% lived off reservations.
President Nixon in his 1970 message to Congress declared a new era of Indian
self-determination, and in 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination
and Education Assistance Act.
Today, 56 community-controlled schools operate under contract from the BIA.
In addition, 20 tribally-controlled community colleges have been started. The
103 elementary and secondary schools still operated directly by the BIA now have
local Indian school boards with a voice in the operation of the school,
including the selection of staff.
Locally controlled, BIA-operated, and
public schools have all sought to hire more Indian teachers and administrators
and to engage in local curriculum development. A few schools now provide initial
reading instruction in tribal languages. Many teach English as a second
language, and most schools that serve Indian children teach some tribal history
and culture. Like other schools, these schools also teach English and basic
The Indian Education Act of 1972, together with federal bilingual programs,
which became available to Indian schools in 1978, have helped this process,
though some observers believe their supplementary nature sometimes makes it
difficult to integrate Indian language and culture into the regular school
Educators are also searching for ways to improve the poor student achievement
that has been documented in all the major studies of Indian education (for
example, Fuchs & Havighurst, 1972/1983; Meriam, 1928). Gilliland (1986)
lists eight sociocultural factors as potentially responsible for the poor
academic achievement of Indian students:
differences between native culture and school culture,
ignorance of native culture among school staff,
differences between students' and teachers' values,
differences in native students' learning styles,
poor motivation of Indian students,
language differences of students and teachers,
students' home and community problems, and
inappropriate use of tests with Indian students.
School improvement efforts in Indian schools entail two approaches.
One approach applies school effectiveness findings, based largely on urban
and suburban studies carried out in schools serving the dominant culture.
Another approach focuses on getting students to read more "real literature" and
getting them to write more. Most of the experimentation in Indian schools
applies the second approach, known loosely as the "whole language approach."
This approach has a varied ancestry, with roots in progressive education, the
open classroom movement, and in language experience techniques.
For the primary grades, the ERIC/CRESS publication "Just Beyond Your
Fingertips: American Indian Children Participating in Language Development"
(Boloz, Hickman, & Loughrin, 1987) is a good example of a whole language
approach based on English texts and activities.
The amount of American Indian literature that can be integrated into language
arts, social studies, and other subjects continues to grow steadily (Stensland,
1979). Nonetheless, some observers view the typical use of commercial textbooks
in American schools as an impediment to the integration of American Indian
studies in the curriculum of Indian schools. Coordinated nationwide effort to
produce curriculum for Indian students does not exist.
Fuchs and Havighurst (1972/1983) found
that teachers of Indian children needed systematic training to help them take
account of the sociocultural processes operating in Indian communities and
classrooms. Current research on cultural learning styles (for example, Rhodes,
1989; Swisher & Deyle, 1987) confirms the importance of this suggestion.
This research demonstrates, for example, that American Indians respond well to
cooperative learning and peer tutoring. Indian community leaders also favor
teaching students about their tribal culture (Fuchs & Havighurst,
1972/1983). Hence, teachers should learn about American Indians in general and
particularly about the tribe within which they will teach.
Such recommendations highlight the importance of recruiting teachers from
among members of the Indian community. It is usually easier to teach a tribal
member the standard teacher training than it is to teach an outsider the tribal
language and culture (Eder & Reyhner, 1988). Standardized tests recently
required for entrance to and exit from teacher training programs, however, make
it increasingly difficult for American Indians and other minorities to obtain
In the past few years tribal councils
pursuing self-determination have been expanding their roles and adopting
educational policies. These policies have tended to express a strong commitment
to educational excellence and tribal languages and cultures. For example, the
Navajo tribal educational policies of 1985 declared that the Navajo language was
an essential element of the life, culture, and identity of the tribe and
mandated school instruction in both Navajo and English.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
The challenge to develop appropriate
instructional methods and materials for American Indian students will doubtless
continue to occupy educators' attention in the coming years. Schools with
American Indian children need more teachers and administrators who understand
Indian communities, especially their cultural and linguistic background. Fewer
than twenty years, however, have passed since President Nixon endorsed a federal
policy of self-determination for American Indians, and much remains to be done.
Boloz, S., Hickman, D., & Loughrin, P.
(1987). Just Beyond Your Fingertips: American Indian Children Participating in
Language Development. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and
Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 281 698)
Eder, J., & Reyhner, J. (1988). The historical background of Indian
education. In J. Reyhner (Ed.), Teaching the Indian Child: A
Bilingual/Multicultural Approach (2nd ed.), (pp. 29-54). Billings, MT: Eastern
Montana College. (ERIC/CRESS Accession No. RC 016 797)
Fuchs, E., & Havighurst, R. (1983). To Live on This Earth: American
Indian Education. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. (Original
work published 1972; see ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 093 508 for
an abstract; copy of book available only from publisher)
Gilliland, H. (1986). The need for an adapted curriculum. In J. Reyhner
(Ed.), Teaching the Indian Child (1st ed), (pp. 1-11). Billings, MT: Eastern
Montana College. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 283 628)
Meriam, L. (Ed.). (1928). The Problem of Indian Administration. Baltimore,
MD: Johns Hopkins Press. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 087 573)
Murphy, J., & Murphy, S. (1981). Let My People Know. Norman, OK:
University of Oklahoma Press. (See ERIC/CRESS Accession No. RC 017 055 for an
abstract; book not available from EDRS)
Rhodes, R. (1989). Native American learning styles: Implications for teaching
and testing. In Proceedings of the Eighth Annual International Native American
Language Issues Institute. Choctaw, OK: Native American Language Issues
Stensland, A. (1979). Literature By and About the American Indian: An
Annotated Bibliography. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
(ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 176 308)
Swisher, K., & Deyle, D. (1987). Styles of learning and learning of
styles: Education conflicts for American Indian/Alaskan Native youth. Journal of
Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 8(4), 345-360.
Whiteman, H. (1986, October). Historical Review of Indian Education: Cultural
Policies, United States Position. Paper presented at the ninth Inter-American
Indian Congress, Santa Fe, NM. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 277