Journal of American Indian Education
Volume 35 Number 2
AMERICAN INDIAN CULTURES AND THE CLASSROOM
Linda Van Hamme
Educators of American Indian children must assist in the maintenance of bonds to traditional and contemporary American Indian cultures while also providing preparation for successful participation in a culturally diverse, modern technological society. The issues that must be addressed by schools in order to meet these challenges include an understanding of the historical relationship between the various American Indian cultures and the American educational system; the issues, meanings, and perceptions revolving around the idea of multicultural education; the nature of culture itself as dynamic and continuously evolving; and, identification of the educational strategies that will be most effective in building on Indian children's cultural strengths.
The challenging task facing educators of American Indian children is to assist in the maintenance of bonds to traditional and contemporary American Indian cultures while also providing preparation for successful participation in a culturally diverse, modern technological society. Research on the education of American Indian and other minority group students has shown that schools that respect and support a child's culture demonstrate significantly better outcomes in educating those students (Estrada & Vasquez, 1981; U.S. Department of Education, 1991). Classroom approaches that are responsive to the children's cultures promote academic achievement by providing cultural relevance and a rationale for accepting school (Au & Kawakami, 1991; Banks, 1981). But academic and future success also depend on the student developing an accurate understanding of relationships with the larger society (Banks, 1992; French, 1987; Henze & Vanett, 1993). Educational processes must provide Indian students with this knowledge of how their tribal cultures interact with the complex, multicultural American society in order to increase the future options of these students (French, 1987). They may then participate successfully in the larger society, if they choose to do so, while also maintaining their own cultural identities.
The issues that must be understood and addressed by schools in order to meet these challenges are multiple and complex. An understanding of the historical relationship between American Indian cultures and the American educational system is essential for contemporary educators of American Indian children. Also of concern are the various issues, meanings, and perceptions revolving around the idea of multicultural or bicultural education. Other questions concern the nature of culture itself. Indian cultures, like all other cultures, are dynamic and continuously evolving. Cultural beliefs and practices are continuously being reshaped through changing environmental circumstances and interactions with other cultures (Butterfield, 1983; Swick, 1986). Schools must validate both the traditional and contemporary cultures of their students (Henze & Vanett, 1993) and recognize the contributions that American Indians have made in shaping the larger multicultural society. Finally, educators must identify the strategies that will be most effective in building on children's cultural strengths to enable them to successfully participate in a complex, multicultural world.
Prior to the European invasion, each Indian group had its own traditional forms of education (Hampton, 1993). Some of these educational processes were quite structured such as vision quests and other ceremonies, ritualized stories, oral histories, and formal instruction. Others were more informal processes characterized by observation and imitation of daily activities geared toward teaching children the knowledge, skills, and values necessary for survival in a subsistence economy organized around kinship relations (Hampton, 1993; Reyhner, 1994). The arrival of Europeans in North America brought tremendous and devastating changes to Indian life, including the manner in which their children would be educated. Early efforts by Europeans to educate American Indians involved blatant attempts at enforced assimilation and destruction of Indian cultures. Much of the history of American Indian education to this day has been characterized, in increasingly subtle ways, by the same purpose.
From the initial contact with white settlers, Indians were pressured to conform to white ways of behavior, dress, and religion (Reyhner, 1992). Many treaties contained provisions for the education of Indian children, and initially the U.S. government used these funds to pay church groups to establish or continue to operate previously established mission schools. In 1879, the federal government also began its own system of off-reservation boarding schools (Reyhner, 1994). Much of this system involved the forced removal of Indian children from their parents to boarding schools far from the reservation where children were often harshly punished for any use of cultural practices or Indian languages. The philosophy underlying this type of education, continuing into the 1930s, was that these Indian children would be more rapidly assimilated into the dominant culture if they were separated from the influence of their own cultures at an early age.
The boarding school system was not successful in its attempts at forced assimilation because most (95%) of the Indian children placed in these institutions eventually returned to the reservation (Reyhner, 1992). Unfortunately, however, many of these former boarding school students became marginalized in both cultures because they lost familiarity with the practices, traditions, and languages of their own cultures (Whiteman, 1986). Older tribal members not involved in the boarding school system, however, worked vigorously to preserve their cultural heritage (Reyhner, 1992).
Because of the failure of the boarding school system to eliminate American
Indians as recognizable and distinct cultures, the federal government
began to support the placement of Indian children in public schools.
The Johnson O'Malley Act of 1934 authorized payments to states or territories
for the education of Indians in public institutions. This trend was
accelerated during the "Termination" period of 1945-1968 in
which the federal government attempted to terminate the reservation
system, relocate Indians to urban areas, and turn responsibility for
the education of Indian children over to the individual states (Reyhner,
1992). Today, 87% of American Indian children attend public schools
(U.S. Department of Education, 1991). The educational and relocation
practices of the termination period were the twentieth century version
of the assimilation strategies of the nineteenth century (Olson &
The opposition of increasingly sophisticated tribal leaders to termination policies and the militant civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, resulted in the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act in 1975. In some cases, this legislation has resulted in increased control by American Indians over the education of their children through tribally controlled reservation schools and the requirement that Indian parents participate as advisors to public schools receiving federal money for the education of Indian children.
The Rough Rock Demonstration School on the Navajo reservation was the first instance of a school being overseen by a local Indian governing board providing leadership in the education of their children. This school was initially very successful in incorporating Navajo culture and language into the curriculum and assisting in the development of the economically impoverished local community (Collier, 1988; McCarty, 1989). Rough Rock became a model for other Indian controlled schools, and many tribes on reservations throughout the country have since contracted with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (BIA) to run their own schools. Indian-run schools have also been developed in urban areas. The "survival schools," first established in the 1970s, have helped Indian young people adjust to mainstream urban society without relinquishing their own cultural heritages (Reyhner, 1994). Other types of Indian-controlled schools, with increasing emphasis on Indian cultures and the rejection of materialistic American values, are exemplified by schools such as the Yellow Thunder Camp in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Akwesasne Freedom School in upstate New York (Reyhner, 1994).
These efforts toward Indian self-determination of the manner in which their children will be educated are extremely promising for the future of Indian education. But, unfortunately, in many other instances, the process has been hampered by reservation poverty, inconsistencies in federal financial support, and interference by the BIA (McCarty, 1989; Senese, 1986). The Indian Nations At Risk Task Force reported in 1991 that most education for American Indian children is still characterized by a curriculum presented from a purely Western (European) perspective that ignores the cultures and values of American Indians, a situation resulting in academic failure and extremely high dropout rates.
The curriculum content and teaching methods in American schools have served to perpetuate the cultural and social values of the dominant society at the expense of those whose cultural values, traditions, and ways of experiencing and learning about the world conflict with this worldview. Culturally-biased curriculum, low teacher expectations, and practices such as standardized testing, tracking, and ability grouping, which assign a disproportionate number of Indian and other minority group students to low-ability groups, tend to perpetuate the social and economic status quo while rejecting the cultural worth of minority groups (Darder, 1991; Estrada & Vasquez, 1981; Lomotey, 1992).
A significant factor in the academic underachievement of American Indian students is the sense of alienation produced by the incompatibility of their cultural values with their experiences in mainstream classrooms (Luffig, 1983). The values of many American Indians include the importance of group needs, present time orientation, nonverbal communication and reticence, and spiritual beliefs about nature which conflict with the mainstream values of individual competitiveness, future time orientation, the prizing of verbal skills, and beliefs about understanding and mastering nature evident in most classrooms (Little Soldier, 1985; Nei, 1993; Tippeconnic, 1983).
It is essential that the education of American Indian students be built around the rich cultural heritage they bring with them to the classroom in order to develop the sense of pride that is critical to personal and cultural identity and academic success. But a multicultural education must prepare American Indian students to walk in the world of the larger, pluralistic society as well as in the world of their tribal culture.
American Indian Cultures
We must also have a useful conception of the meaning of culture itself before we can consider the issues involved in multicultural education for American Indians. Culture has been defined as the beliefs, characteristics, activities, fundamental values and outlooks, preferred ways of living, and aspects of personal identity that are shared by a group (Bull, Fruehling, & Chattergy, 1992). None of these aspects of culture are static. Cultural patterns are continuously changing and evolving over long periods of time (Amiotte, 1987; Little Soldier, 1985; Wax, 1993). Much of this cultural evolution and much of human growth and creativity have come through the intermingling and mutual influence between diverse cultures (Wax, 1993).
When Indian and Western cultures met, both had already undergone complex evolutions through the interactions and contributions of diverse tribes and peoples. Although there was much diversity within each culture, in many ways most American Indian tribes employed a common perspective and set of values that was very different and often incompatible with the assumptions and values of the Western European view (Olson & Wilson, 1986). Nevertheless, there have been many mutual influences and contributions resulting in a bewildering array of choices for contemporary American Indians, as well as other minority groups, in how they will relate to their own as well as to the dominant culture (Ferdman, 1990).
In recent years, many American Indians have been actively seeking ways to preserve and revitalize their cultural heritages and establish their distinctness from the dominant American cultural orientation (Lake, 1991; Morris & Wander, 1990). Much of this effort has been focused on the spiritual, ritual, and linguistic aspects of Indian cultures (Boyer, 1994; Hearing, 1994; Whirlwind Soldier, 1994). Other aspects, such as the familial and economic, are too intertwined with and dependent upon aspects of the mainstream culture to serve as distinguishing marks separating American Indians from the dominant society (Powers, 1975; Risling, 1994). Among the Sioux, the most important traditions revolve around the Sacred Pipe which has become the center of seven ceremonies: (1) Sweat Lodge, (2) Vision Quest, (3) Sun Dance, (4) Making of Relatives, (5) Keeping of the Soul, (6) Female Puberty Rite, and (7) Throwing of the Ball. The Sacred Pipe is used in praying to the Four Directions, to Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), to Mother Earth, and is believed to have healing powers (Steinmetz, 1990).
Although these spiritual aspects have been used to emphasize the distinctiveness of the Sioux as well as other American Indian cultures, spirituality is not an attribute that can really be separated from the entirety of Indian value systems. Spiritual beliefs and values are embedded in all aspects of Indian life (Benally, 1992). Participation to some degree in a technological society that has permeated nearly all areas of life does not mean that American Indians have accepted the values underlying the way that technology is being used (Mander, 1991; Powers, 1975). The Indian values of reverence and harmony with nature and the deep concern for the needs of the tribe and extended family are in sharp discord with the exploitation of nature and competitive individualism characterizing much of the modern technological society. These cultural values also serve to separate Indian and Euro-American cultures.
All of this complexity must be considered in the determination of what multicultural education means to American Indians. If the school system is to support and respect a child's culture, it is necessary that there be an understanding of the world in which the child actually lives. In many cases, that world is probably a complex mixture and interaction between two cultures, neither of which is internally uniform (Henze & Vanett, 1993). Including Indian cultures in the curriculum as though they were only history and religious rituals (both of which are very important but not the whole story), implies that Indian values and practices have nothing to contribute to the modern world (Butterfield, 1983; Hampton, 1993). Effective multicultural education will respect both the historical and contemporary aspects of a child's culture, validate the realities of the world in which the child lives by recognizing its existence, and using educational methods that build on cultural strengths and demonstrate how those strengths can be used to benefit both American Indians and the larger society.
In many traditional American Indian cultures, visual learning and the use of imagery are important parts of learning (More, 1987; Tafoya, 1982). Many Indian students have learned to do things through observation, imitation, and direct experience of real-world activities. A style of teaching stressing abstract verbal instruction and performance is often alien to American Indian students who approach their world and attempt to understand it visually. Indian children often excel at visual-spatial learning tasks and learn much more readily when instruction is multisensory, concrete, active, and relevant to their direct experience (Gilliland, 1988).
Studies have also shown that American Indian learning styles tend to be global, intuitive, and holistic, looking first at the larger idea before attending to the details that relate to it (Gilliland, 1988; Rhodes, 1988). The ability of many American Indians to see unity and wholeness without building from detail is not well served by the frequent classroom practice of introducing material in an analytic, sequential manner with the global view presented only at the end of the sequence of details. It has been suggested that the extensive reading difficulties experienced by some American Indian students may be due, in part, to the emphasis in many beginning reading programs on a sequential phonetic approach (More, 1987). American Indian students are often "whole concept learners" who prefer to start with the whole and then integrate the details (Davidson, 1992).
Another example of differences in learning style preferences between American Indian and white students is in the predisposition of many American Indians to be cooperative, rather than competitive, and these differences are also manifested in ways of acquiring and demonstrating knowledge (Gilliland, 1988; Herring, 1989; Reyhner, 1992; Sanders, 1987; Smith, 1992; Swisher & Deyhle, 1989). Most traditional Indian cultures place more value on cooperation, sharing, and contributions to the group than on individual achievements. The demonstration of individual superiority is avoided because it is seen as also demonstrating the inferiority of others (Reyhner, 1992). A competitive classroom atmosphere, therefore, produces conflict in Indian children who are disposed learn cooperatively in groups rather than competitively as individuals.
American Indian learning styles have sometimes also been described as reflective, rather than impulsive (More, 1987). In many traditional American Indian cultures, participation in an activity is only expected after lengthy observation and reflection have developed a certainty of the ability to perform (Sanders, 1987). This is in contrast to the trial-and-effort method of learning-in which skills are practiced (often publicly) until they are mastered-which has a long tradition in the Anglo-American culture and school system. The frequent reluctance of Indian students to respond verbally to classroom questions is thought to be due to an often too short wait-time (the length of time a teacher pauses after a question) that does not allow the time for reflection and certainty needed by these students (Boseker & Gordon, 1983).
The desire for adequate time to observe and reflect prior to participation and communication is related to another value of many American Indian cultures, the tolerance for silence and respect for reticence. In Western cultures, silence is often perceived negatively and generates anxiety and a need to fill the void with continuous conversation. In contrast, in American Indian cultures, silence communicates mutual respect and a sense of unity. Reticence and nonverbal forms of communication are greatly valued (Boseker & Gordon, 1983; Hoeveler, 1988; Mitchum, 1989; Sanders, 1987). In the American school system, unfortunately, this communicative reticence often results in American Indian children being viewed as either very shy and withdrawn or as passive, unmotivated, and uninvolved in the learning process (Reyhner, 1992; Yates, 1987).
Other values of some American Indian cultures, which often conflict with those stressed in the dominant Anglo-American educational system, are a present time orientation and lack of time consciousness, a focus on generosity and sharing rather than materialistic acquisition, reverence for the earth and harmony with nature as opposed to mastery and exploitation of the natural world, and the conceptualization of life maintenance tasks as completely interconnected with the social, family and religious aspects of life, rather than separately compartmentalized as jobs (Bayne, 1974; Dupuis & Walker, 1988; Kasten, 1992; Marashio, 1982). American Indian students are sometimes unprepared for or reject the precise schedules, future orientation, and focus on preparation for a competitive and compartmentalized working world characterizing the American educational system (Bowker, 1992; Swisher & Hoisch, 1992).
Although cultural values and practices are not the only factors, they
are important components contributing to the development of individual
learning styles. For many American Indian children, an effective teaching
strategy would be the presentation of material in a visual-spatial mode
that facilitates the use of imagery for information processing. Demonstration
and modeling of a task, rather than verbal instruction, will allow students
to learn through observation and visual discrimination. School tasks
can also be adapted to the global-holistic learning style of many American
Indian students through the use of "advance organizers," which
present the overall structure of the task before describing it analytically.
This type of advance global structuring of a task is particularly effective
when the student has little direct cultural experience of the activity
The restructuring of classrooms to promote small group cooperative learning activities, peer tutoring, and the recognition of group, rather than individual achievement, will allow the gradual development of individual competence as part of a group while emphasizing traditional values of sharing, helping others and cooperation in group efforts. Research on the effects of cooperative task and reward structures on learning has shown this to be a very effective approach for all students, regardless of their cultural background (Joyce, Showers, & Rolheiser-Bennett, 1987). In addition to improving academic achievement, cooperative learning environments increase feelings of empathy for others, including students from other ethnic groups (Slavin & Madden, 1989).
The most important implication of the research on learning styles and their interaction with teaching styles and the educational process is that each child must be taught in a way that maximizes his or her potential by identifying and building on individual cognitive strengths. School tasks must be structured to respond and adapt to the preferred ways of learning demonstrated by individual students if every student is to be provided with an equal opportunity for academic success.
This emphasis on individuals is crucial to the application of specific teaching methods to particular learning styles. Although people within a particular culture often do exhibit a characteristic pattern of learning style preferences, it would be a serious mistake to assume that all members of the group necessarily share these traits (Guild, 1994). It would also be a serious error to assume that there is a single set of values, practices, and learning style tendencies that characterize all Indian tribes. It is often stated, for example, that present-time orientation is an American Indian cultural value, but this characterization would be inaccurate for the Navajo, for whom planning for future social well-being is an important value (Begay & Becktell, 1990). Care must be taken to ensure that learning styles are evaluated in an objective way for each individual in order to avoid having "learning style" become just another way of stereotyping students (Guild, 1994).
Integration of Cultural Concepts
An example of this kind of classroom integration of traditional culture and modern technology is the Computers and Culture Project (Wilson, 1992), in which secondary school students in British Columbia used computer and video technology to learn about and preserve the culture, language, and history of the Native Carrier people (of Athapascan tribal origin). Cultural information was gathered through student interviews with parents and tribal elders, guest speakers, and observation of cultural events. The thus became more familiar with their traditional culture while learning computer skills and gaining experience in analyzing and organizing large amounts of information.
Another way in which cultural elements can be introduced into the classroom
is through the use of oral history, stories, and songs which are traditional
American Indian instructional techniques (Marashio, 1982). Some of the
functions of stories and songs were to provide answers to important
life questions and communicate society's expectations and models of
behavior to listeners. These lessons are also relevant to contemporary
issues. The story "Coyote's Eyes," for example, in which the
coyote sees through the eyes of different animals, has been used as
an illustration of the usefulness of being flexible enough to focus
on the worldview appropriate to differing situations and the ability
to accommodate elements of the modern technological world in American
Indian value systems (Archibald, 1990; Tafoya, 1990).
Several authors have suggested that an integration of traditional American Indian cultural values with education for the contemporary world can be achieved by using the Sacred Directions as an organizing principle (Begay & Becktell, 1990; Benally, 1992; Hampton, 1993). The Navajo Community College has formally reorganized the various disciplines of their curriculum to reflect this principle (Begay & Becktell, 1990). The four cardinal directions traditionally represent the fundamental areas of Navajo life with which Navajo learning should be concerned: East-values with which people live (the humanities); South-knowledge for making a living (vocational and professional education); West-planning for social well being ( the social sciences); and North-reverence for all life (the natural sciences). This curriculum plan attempts to relate the traditional values and philosophy of the Navajo with both Navajo and Western educational goals.
Two-thirds of all the vegetables now consumed in the world were being cultivated by American Indians prior to the arrival of Columbus (Jaimes, 1991). American Indians had also refined from plants a large set of drugs that have become the basis of modern pharmacology, at a time when European medicine was at the level of alchemy and the application of leeches was a favored remedy for most ailments (Butterfield, 1983; Weatherford, 1988). Pre-European contact American Indians also originated the mathematical concept of the zero, developed a calendar extending with great accuracy 500 years into the future, and possessed a body of astronomical knowledge far superior to that in use at the time in Europe, where debates about the probable flatness of the earth were still ongoing (Jaimes, 1991). In addition, precontact peoples had demonstrated architectural and engineering expertise through the construction of paved road systems, irrigation canals, and apartment cities (Jaimes, 1991; Weatherford, 1988).
Possibly the most important and least widely recognized contribution of American Indians is to the system of government existing in this country. The first real model of a functioning democracy was developed by an Iroquois philosopher and was in practice by the Iroquois Confederacy three centuries before Columbus. That the United States form of government was, to a large extent, inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy was acknowledged in the personal papers of the founders of this country (Butterfield, 1983; Jaimes, 1991; Weatherford, 1988).
The contributions of American Indians to the structure and functions
of the larger society have been wide ranging and highly significant.
Students from all cultural backgrounds need to be aware that acculturation
has not been a one-way street.
The values of harmony and respect for nature and cooperative efforts for the common welfare of all people which spring from this worldview may be the most important things that American Indians have to offer the larger society. Such values are not inherently in conflict with a technological society, but they do conflict with a society that defines nature as a resource for human use without restraint, and values profit and corporate growth over the quality of human life. A society guided by American Indian values could result in a much more humanistic application of technology and a protective and responsible use of the earth's resources.
Some American Indian tribes are beginning the development of such societies through economic development plans for reservations in which spiritual and cultural values are a basis for decision making (Ambler, 1992; Baker, Lynch, & Charleston, 1994; Houser, 1992). A study by Baker, Lynch, and Charleston (1994) showed that a tribe's ability to support this kind of economic development was related to its political sophistication and to its respect for education as a significant force for tribal improvement. Tribes which are able to develop economies that improve living conditions for tribal members without sacrificing control to outside forces know how to use white education and balance it with tribal values and culture.
The Pine Ridge and Rosebud Sioux reservations in South Dakota would be considered undeveloped economically by the Baker et al. (or anyone's) classification system. Shannon County on the Pine Ridge Reservation is the poorest county in the nation and Todd County on the Rosebud Reservation is the eighteenth poorest (Biolsi, 1993; Farrokhi, 1993). Unemployment has been estimated at between 80% and 90% and these reservations have been described as an artificial economy of poverty underwritten by federal government funding (Biolsi, 1993). But even here there are scattered signs that the desire for political and economic self-determination is beginning to foster improvements in this situation.
For the last five years the Sicangu Enterprise Center on the Rosebud Reservation has helped tribal members get started in their own businesses (Haase, 1992). The program was organized by Sinte Gleska University to train participants in business management and then provide loans to help them get started. The rural banking model builds on and reinforces tribal values of cooperation and group sharing by requiring each participant to join a group of peers to apply for a loan. This system thus ensures that each group member has a stake in all of the resulting businesses planned by individual members.
Tribal colleges such as Sinte Gleska University at Rosebud and Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation are among twenty-some tribally operated colleges and universities established on reservations across the country during the last two decades. These institutions represent an important opportunity for American Indians to develop the education and skills necessary for self-determination. The colleges use traditional values to provide an orientation toward future empowerment of Indians in the tribal and larger cultures (Houser, 1991) and are in the forefront of efforts to improve the quality of life on American Indian reservations.
It is very important that Indian children be aware of these and other issues affecting the current experience of American Indians. Validation of a child's culture in the classroom must include the recognition of contemporary struggles, opportunities, and contributions of American Indian people.
Dr. Linda Van Hamme is the Director of Research at St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota where she is involved in curriculum planning and program evaluation.
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