Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 31 Number 1
October 1991


Rosemary Ackley Christensen


Interest in gifted and talented education has increased in the past decade. In the field of Indian education, it has risen to the point where there is an overwhelming demand for specialized centers that will serve the needs of Indian Tribes. This paper offers a perspective regarding the definition of gifted and talented education for Indians, and is based on experience derived from personal learnings in planning and directing a gifted and talented program, The North Wind Warriors, in the early 1980s.

Definition Parameters

Definitions of gifted and talented within Indian education must have a cultural stance. As a label to sort out Tribal children, the term "giftedness," when used within the parameters of Indian education, must coincide with Tribal definitions. The existing interpretation, however, does not agree with Tribal definitions. It is totally congruent with the white world's definition. In this interpretation then, the term gifted and talented is inaccurate. We must struggle, therefore, for an applicable definition that recognizes the gifted and talented students of Indian heritage.

An important point pertinent in any discussion on the definition of gifted and talented is how Indian students are actually defined in the educational system. If we limit our discussion to the public sector, we will admit that the counting and defining of Indian students is considerably less than accurate. In my public school experience, three distinctly different methods were used. One method was called "sight count." Indian children were simply sighted and counted. The principal (or his/her designee) decided who is Indian and submitted this figure to the central administration. The second method of counting is slightly more accurate. This is the Title V definition (Title V of Indian Education Act). An eligibility form is required which states that the student, parent, or guardian is Indian from a state or federally recognized tribe. The third and most accurate method is used by the Johnson-O'Malley (J-OM) program. Parents must sign and prove by enrollment number the student's Indian ancestry. To be counted for J-OM participation, a person must be one-quarter Indian blood from a federally recognized tribe.

Indian people in certain states are challenging the currently employed processes of counting. They demand that desegregation and other categorical dollars generated by Indian children be used as it is meant: for the education of Indian children. A simple analysis of facts will conclude that programs designed to meet "the needs of the Indian student" also serve children who are not descendents of the Tribal people of North America. We know that Indian children bring many dollars into the public sector, but most of that money is often used to make the educational process even more psychologically, spiritually, economically, and comfortably appropriate for the white majority. More white teachers are hired; their seniority is made stronger; and the administrative strata that controls public education is protected even further.

I would advocate and advise circulating meta-definition parameters, taking time for discussion, consensus, and asking our Elders and Spiritual advisors for consultation.

Among Suggested Parameters: Tribal Distinctions

American Indian and Alaska Native students by virtue of their early formative years have organized cognitive maps that differ considerably from other students in the American public schools. Cultural dissimilarities may be evidenced by a different sense of time, space, and world view. These inequalities must be discussed and included in the gifted and talented definitions utilized by the American education system.

All "gifts" or advanced skills possessed by Indian children go unrecognized as something of worth in the American school system. Public educators, including skilled practitioners in testing, sorting, and defining students into groups, have not routinely accepted or studied American Indian children with regard to the cultural differences within their Tribal group. If there is an acceptance of possible differences, it is stated within the world view of the white person.

It will be necessary to seek definitions of gifts and skills, paying special attention to interpretations within the Tribal language and oral tradition (see Note 1). Tribal people noted as shamans, holy men, or medicine people are the only persons actually defined or perceived as gifted by Tribal people. Tribal people create norms of behavior within Tribal society that allow for such gifts to be excercised and recognized, but within certain restraints. The gifted people understand their responsibilities for the abilities given them by the Creator. Thus, the person is humble and is not termed "gifted" or "special" as designated in mainstream gifted and talented programs.

An Example of a "Gifted" Tribal Attribute: Oral Tradition

Across Tribal lines, it is clear that the attribute of persuasion continues to be valued in the daily life of Tribal people. I would cite this characteristic as a gift that ought to be early identified, nurtured, and assisted with special teachers or mentors from Tribal society. Persuasion is most often associated with the long standing tradition of oral communication. Such a gift, if used properly, could not only assist Tribal people, but it could make a real difference in broader society as well. There are examples throughout history which point to the importance of oratory in resolving differences and/or taking stands (see Note 2).

Indian researchers and educators must find ways to augment the usual research format by paying attention to the traditional oral past. Oral tradition as practiced by American Indians and Alaska Natives is given no credential in educational journals. They continually deny that oral history and Tribal remembrances are of any worth. In reading For those who come after: A study of native American autobiography by Arnold Krupat, and American Indian Autobiography by David Brumble, it is interesting to observe the evasiveness by these scholars when they document history according to the oral tradition of Tribal people. Yet, it is clearly evident that non-Indian people have many examples of their own oral tradition that are not only respectfully treated in the schooling structure, it is presented as fact. The dialogues of Socrates, for example, are only found in the works of Plato, and these were "saved" for the western man by the kindness of Averroes!

We must clearly discuss and diligently seek out American Indian and Alaska Native oral ways of defining the education of the gifted and talented Indian child. We must augment the prevalent way of written and documented research. "Augment" meaning to add to the defined scientific inquiry tribal-correct definitions that in a heuristic way will enhance current research.

We American Indian and Alaska Native descendents must begin by looking at those who have gone before us. We have examples of gifted and talented individuals in our past. We must seek tribal definitions as spoken in the Tribal language and in cultural contexts or strongholds. For example, we must give definition to who is a leader, and determine how a leader is defined (see Note 3). We should look closely at the interpretation of gifted in the tribal parlance.

Forms of communication that reflect and positively note Tribal language must be promoted. We need to examine and pursue avenues of gifted and talented as defined through that language. As with any language, however, there are difficulties in translation; much that cannot be stated in another language is lost.

The Unrecognized Gifted

Other than the importance of their physical attendance, Indian children are neglected by public educators who do not accept or appreciate their cultural dissimilarities. To American Indians and Alaska Natives, all gifts and talents are not theirs by earned right. They are distributed by the Creator with care instructions from the Master of Life, and should be practiced properly within the Circle and for purposes of enhancing the life experiences of unborn generations. Therefore, guidelines must be set forth guaranteeing Indian children will be educated to their potential in order to understand their obligations to the next generation. During the years of required education, the gifts and talents given to Indian people must be nurtured and not destroyed. Because of cultural differences which are not understood, an unkind classroom environment often develops and contributes to the high percentage of dropout and "pushout" Indian students beginning as early as fourth grade (see Note 5).

Since cultural differences are not taken into consideration in gifted and talented definitions, the abilities possessed by Indian children go unrecognized. If nurtured appropriately, these gifts and talents would assist family and tribe to pursue various Indian recognized areas of excellence.

Niibin: A Successful Experience

Niibin (the Ojibwe word for summer) was the summer school administered by the Indian Education Department from 1976 to 1991. It provided a strong academic focus within a culturally appropriate environment. It was possible to deal normally, naturally, and effectively with gifted and talented Indian children at Niibin because it featured Indian students only, was based on daily parental involvement with Elders in the classroom, and employed bilingual Indian people who were not licensed as assistant principals, but were very successful in disciplining Indian children. We relied heavily on our Elders to advise us, and, as we progressed in this school, we learned how to better involve Elders in the daily life of the school.

During this past summer, after evaluating the teachers and their classroom practices, we determined that teachers must become proficient in five tribal-specific value-based cultural competencies. These competencies described in a recent presentation (see Note 6) are Independence-personal sovereignty, Connectedness, Indirect communication, Elders Respect, and Tribal language brief.

Our project lead to the finding that parental advice, Elder counsel, and Indian groupings are inherent ingredients in a successful gifted and talented Indian program. This, however, is impossible to maintain in a public school environment unless specific regulations beyond current laws allow program-specific anomalies.

In the Niibin summer school experience, we began to discuss our movement toward young men and women Warrior societies, once a standard in our Tribal societies. Those Elder-mentor led groups assisted our young people's journey through rites of passage in a natural way, one that was designed to define Tribal society's continued strength. We must restore these ways to their rightful place in Indian society.


Eventually we must arrive individually before our Creator and explain what we did with the gifts given us during this cycle. We know every gift belongs to the Creator and is not ours by earned right. We must take on tasks such as defining and caring for gifted and talented children.


1. Assistance can be obtained for putting oral statements of Elder teachers into acceptable research jargon. See for example, Oral History, an interdisciplinary anthology by David K. Dunaway, Will K. Baun, Eds. American Association for state and local history, (in cooperation with the Oral History Association), 172 Second Avenue North, Suite 102, Nashville, Tennessee 37201, 1984.

2. The example of the Canadian Meech Lake Accord of July 1990 and the courageous stance of Elijah Harper show what a difference even one person with the gift of persuasion can make. "Native leader stands in way of Meech Lake Accord uniting Canada,'' News from Indian Country The Journal, vol. IV, #9, July 1990 (Indian Country Communications, Inc., with offices at RT 2 Box 2900-A, Hayward, AT 54843).

3. There are examples of materials on historical and contemporary figures that, if extrapolated at random, can produce characteristic descriptions of gifted and talented Tribal people of the past. An interesting example of this type of analysis was done by E. Friedl in 1950 "An attempt at directed change: leadership among the Chippewa 1640-1948." Xerox university microfilms (2108 19 562824) Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106. Friedl found that 0jibwe leadership characteristics were: Male–spiritually strong, culturally-knowledgeable (meaning knowing the history of the Tribe), and persuasive. These four characteristics interestingly enough show up through an informal analysis or study of Tribal leaders of the past, regardless of tribal affiliation!

4. Term used casually and frequently by Tribal people in the past, see for example, Virginia Irving Armstrong, I have spoken American history through the voices of the Indians, Sage Books, the Swallow Press Inc., 1139 South Wabash Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60605. [Number to this note not indicated in original journal.]

5. John F. Bryde was the first one I know that described the so-called cross-over phenomenon, see Bryde, John F., S.J. The Sioux Indian student: A study of scholastic failure and personality conflict (copyright, Rev. John Francis Bryde, S.J., 1966, Holy Rosary Mission, Pine Ridge, S.D. 57770). This is a copy of Dr. Bryde's doctoral dissertation. Since then he has left the Jesuit order, a copy may not be available from the address in the monograph but may be available through the University of Denver, library, doctoral dissertations.

6. Christensen, R., "Tribal peoples of Turtle Island in their struggle with the education system of the United States: A focus on Tribal people of the midwestern woodlands," paper presented to Congreso Mundia De Arguelogia 2, WACII, Barquisimento, Venezuela, September 4-8, 1990, published in the proceedings of the conference, Education and Archaeology, 17 pages.

Rosemary Ackley Christensen is a Wisconsin Chippewa who received her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1972 and an Ed.M. from Harvard University in 1971. Dr. Christensen directed the Indian Education Department in the Minneapolis public schools from 1978-1991. Currently, she is the Director of Ojibwe Mekana, a center devoted to curriculum development on the 0jibwe language and American Indian curriculum materials.

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