Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 4 Number 2
January 1965


Bruce Meador

In this discussion, an Indian is one who learned the Indian way at his mother’s knee and who spent much of his youth on a reservation; his speech and his appearance almost always suggest he may be an Indian; he thinks of himself as an Indian and his neighbors consider him to be an Indian. I do not include the individual whose only claim to being an Indian is that one or more of his progenitors were Indian. This is not to imply that other definitions, for other purposes, are not useful.

One of the most important points I want to make is this: The Indians as they are educated in the federal schools have too little to say about their own education. This is unfortunate, because our school system in this country assumes that the parent will have a voice in determining what goes on in the school. As a nation, we have a certain confidence that the schools will not abuse the trust that has been placed in their hands because, if they do, irate parents—rightly or wrongly—will quickly proclaim it from the housetops. The Indian parent has not been encouraged to act as a kind of guardian of the school system nor has he been willing to take on this responsibility.

This is also unfortunate because this has caused the Indian to think of the schools as the white man’s schools. And this creates a barrier of gigantic proportions. For most white children, school is simply an extension of their home environment. What goes on in the school is something like an unfolding of something that is already within the child. I don’t go so far as to say this something which is unfolding was present at birth; but it is present, to a large extent, when the child walks into the classroom.

If a community development-oriented Peace Corpsman were going into a foreign country to encourage non-literate people to become interested in formal education, he would first try to get the people personally involved in the problem. He would try to ascertain what they thought of education, what kind or curriculum they would support. He would hope that the parents and youth would help build the school building, determine the curriculum, finance it, and even staff the school. He would do this because it is good psychology. Also, he would do it for a more important reason: These non-literate people should determine their own destiny; they are not his to manipulate.

From our point of view, the first educators among the Indians were missionaries and the first schools were mission schools. The first Indian school was established in 1568 by the Jesuits. Later, in the new colonies, Protestant missions attempted to educate the Indians. Some of the individuals involved were better community development men than others; that is, they tried to involve the Indians and they even trained Indians as teachers. Nevertheless, they had educational goals which were arrived at independently of the Indians; namely, they wanted to civilize and Christianize them. In 1818 the House Committee on Appropriations said, ". . . . one of two things seems to be necessary. Either that those sons of the forest should be moralized or exterminated." In that sort of framework you would not expect to find an enthusiastic group of Indian parents helping shape school policy. This situation, though clearly modified in the desirable direction, is still with us.

You will be interested to know that from 1819 to 1917 the federal government gave money to mission schools for the education of Indians. But in 1917, the feeling that this violated our notions of separation of state and church came to the surface and such financing was declared illegal.

A more thorough study of the history of Indian education would confirm what this cursory glance indicates: The formal education of the American Indian has been imposed from above. This was a serious mistake—though understandable at the time. (I hope that in our eagerness to encourage education in the developing countries of the world that we do not repeat this mistake.) But in the Indian schools of today the majority of the teachers and administrators still do not realize bow important it is for the child and his parents to see the school as his school, the school’s program as his program.

The traditional debate on the education of the American Indian has focused on the question of whether he should be educated to assume a place in the white man’s world or in the Indian’s world. I would suggest that the more fundamental question is whether or not we should educate the Indian child to become a self-actualized person. Although everyone would probably answer yes, by asking this question we clear the air. We can see that we must face the problem of how we can assist the Indian child to become a self-actualized person. Should he be taught to appreciate his native language, the language of his father and mother? The customs of his parents? I believe the answer is clearly yes. It seems reasonable to assume that the child who does not view his heritage with confidence has special difficulty in becoming what he is potentially.

We must recognize, of course, that the Indian world and the non-Indian world are no longer mutually exclusive. The technology and social institutions which influence one world influence the other. Perhaps this makes our educational curriculum-planning less arduous. The occupations which lead to gainful employment in the Indian world are frequently the same as in the non-Indian world. This problem being somewhat solved for us, we may look for differences more in the non-vocational aspect of the curriculum.

I am personally convinced, at ]cast for the lower grades, that the teacher who includes teaching his Indian students about the Indian way, who introduces units of study about the Indian culture of which the child is a part, the teacher who introduces Indian dances and arts and crafts, this teacher is much more likely to help the Indian child become self-actualized in either the Indian or non-Indian world.

The teacher plays a more important role in formal education of the Indian than he does in the education of the non-Indian. I mean this in the sense that an unsatisfactory teacher does less permanent damage to the student who is psychologically and academically secure in the school environment and who comes from an educationally directed home. Also, the teacher of Indians is on even less tenable ground if he lets the textbook carry the ball, so to speak. It is important, therefore, to look closely at the teacher and his partner, the school administrator.

Generally speaking, the academic requirements for teaching in a federal school on a reservation are the same as for public school teachers. However, I believe that there is a higher percentage of unsatisfactory teaching on the reservation than in the off-reservation public schools. Some are unsatisfactory because they dislike Indians. Though in a milder way, they feel towards Indians in somewhat the same fashion as the "prejudiced" teacher feels towards Negroes or Mexican Americans. There is another category of unsatisfactory teacher of Indians, and it is of a much larger number. He likes Indians in general, but he does not like the particular Indians with whom he works. He is not hesitant to say he teaches on a reservation; he likes Indian art, he wears Indian jewelry, and he owns several Indian baskets and rugs. But the child in his classroom, hesitant to learn, unwashed, seemingly unappreciative, that’s another matter. The gulf between this teacher’s world and the particular Indian child is too great for the teacher to overcome. The teacher becomes impatient, the child becomes more hesitant, and the gulf widens.

It should be emphasized that the teacher of Indian children is not subject to the pressures from parents that the teacher of non-Indian children is. It is much easier for the teacher of Indians to fall into a rut. This is not to say that irate Indian parents never call on the superintendent or the principal. It is less frequent, but the real hitch is that the superintendent can, and does, put them off in a hundred ways, and it takes an event of earth-shaking proportions for the parents’ complaint to have any repercussions. If the pressure is great enough the teacher may be transferred, but it is unlikely that he will be stigmatized. This is not to say that the complaints of Indian parents are always just. They are not. They suffer from the same myopia as the teacher. But in a typical non-Indian school situation the teacher knows that he must answer for complaints, just or not. The teacher is forever sensitive to the parents of at least some of his students. This is much less likely to be true among the teachers of Indian children.

I believe that this is the major contributing factor to why there are more unsatisfactory teachers of Indians than non-Indians. One may argue that the teacher who elects to teach on a reservation is predisposed to escape from the realities of a situation. But I doubt this. I believe that it is the lack of parental and community pressures, plus the concomitant lack of parental and community appreciation, and the difficulty of the job itself, that account for this unfortunate situation. I believe that it takes an unusually strong person to stay on his teaching toes for several years or more on a reservation. The successful teachers and administrators of Indian children that I know seem to be unusually dedicated or self-sufficient.

The school program provides few opportunities for the student learn the art of choosing, which is particularly disastrous for the Indian. This stems, in part, from the fact that the mature Indian is usually passive. Now, for a free person this may be a virtue but for an institutionalized Indian youth this passiveness can be detrimental to further growth. Passiveness is a virtue when it arises from acceptance, acceptance which is based on deliberate and personal choice. The school should do more than it does, both in and out of the classroom, to provide activities which teach what it means to be a free person making a decision.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is moving away from the idea that boarding schools are desirable. The Bureau would prefer to see the child live at home and attend a day school. This is a wise move. In the past, Indian children were sent to boarding schools because the government thought it would help wean the children from the ways of their parents, and there were logistical problems when schools were not located close enough to the homes to allow the children to return to them each day after class. I believe that it is more difficult to provide psychological security in a boarding school, and I further believe that in our society it is difficult to have a publicly owned boarding school situation in which there can be a great deal of freedom.

It is particularly disturbing to see so few kindergartens for Indian children. When the Indian child is five years old he should be in a day school. He is old enough to profit from the experience of school; young enough to be influenced by the new experiences. This is extremely important. Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs and public schools are beset with monetary problems, they do not face up squarely to this serious deficiency in the educational program of the Indians. There are no kindergartens financed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The public schools in most states are also neglecting this area. The Indian youth has traditionally stayed in the first grade for two years, but this is not a satisfactory solution. In some cases the repetition has connoted failure. Also, other factors such as entering the first grade at seven years of age has caused an inordinate number of Indian children to be over age when and if they enter high school.

Following are a few questions which occurred to me as I observed or visited with Indian adults and youth. In a minor key, I have answered the questions. I intend that the answers will help the particular Indian child become a self-actualized person, recognizing that he lives in the second half of the twentieth century.

Which language should bilingual Indian parents introduce first to their children? English. There is a recent movement among bilingual, educated Mexican Americans, especially in California, to have Spanish as the first language of their children in the home and in the public school. I am opposed to this movement, but I think it has valid arguments on its side. One thing I like about it is that it springs from strength, from choice. I can imagine it leading to self-actualization, to freedom, for a particular Mexican American child.

Should the school actively discourage the speaking of Indian outside the classroom? No. The Indian should be encouraged to express himself in Indian and English and in the dance and music of the Indian and the non-Indian. He should come to understand that the language of his parents is a good language, with the capacity for communicating important ideas.

In a school where you have both Indians and non-Indians is it sometimes wise to have some sections of first grade consist of only Indians? No, this is not wise. However, after the first month of school the teacher may group the non-English speaking students for short periods each day for special instruction.

Should the schools teach the Indian child about his tribe’s history and ceremony? Yes. The traditional ceremony plays a large part in the social and spiritual life of many Indians; and I see no necessary conflict between the school’s attempt to help the Indian find meaning in life as expressed in his tribe’s history and ceremony and the school’s attempt to help him find meaning in the technologically oriented larger society of which he is also a part. The Indian who no longer responds affirmatively to the ritual and grace of his heritage must find a substitute or be lost to the fuller possibilities of life. It is easier to build meaning on meaning. By that I mean that the child who sees meaning in his past is better prepared to face a new world with new meanings than the child who knows nothing of his past.

Should the child be excused from attending class if it is requested by the medicine man in the same way that he would be excused if it were requested by a medical doctor? Yes. If this is ever abused by the physicians or the medicine men, a group of the offending party’s peers should be brought in to investigate.

What obligation does an Indian have for helping to make the United Nations, for instance, an effective instrument for world peace? The same as the non-Indian. I am haunted by this question. I believe my answer is incontrovertible, but I hear voices, and I don’t know where they’re coming from, which say he has less responsibility.

Should the schools teach values such as punctuality? Yes.

At the college level, should there be special sections of freshman English for Indians? No. The Indian is already inclined to see himself as incapable of doing regular college work, and this would reinforce his opinion. However, those financially responsible for the higher education of the Indian (parents, tribal governments, Bureau of Indian Affairs, etc.) should see to it that low cost tutoring is available for Indian students requesting it.

At the college level should there be a club for Indian students? Yes, but non-Indians should be encouraged to join. These clubs give the Indian student a chance to express himself, develop leadership abilities, and self-confidence. These clubs will help the member of one tribe learn to get along with members of another tribe, a characteristic not always evident in Indian adults. Also, it helps the Indian of one tribe learn to accept new ideas from members of his own tribe.

Turning away from these specific questions, back to more general ideas, I would say in the way of summary that the Indian child should be thought of more as all individual than he generally is. Looking at the Indians as a group, we tend to say that there is an essence called "Indianness" which we want "them" to get more of or less of. But when I talk to one Indian youth, when I reach out and touch him or look deep into his dark eyes, or raise his shyly lowered head, I am overcome by his individuality, and I find myself feeling that he is infinitely more than all Indian. I want to say to him that he will continue to create his uniqueness and that he is unlike anyone that I’ve ever known.

"Indianness is a characteristic that you may choose to adopt, but you are unlike any Indian that I have ever known, or that you will ever know. So in a very real sense you do not choose to be an ‘Indian.’ There is no such thing as an ‘Indian.’ Even if you try to escape the responsibility of making many choices, by saying that you will be Indian, you will still be unique, though to others you will be harder to find. And if you try to escape the responsibility of making choices by saying that you will be non-Indian, you will still be unique, though to others you will be harder to find. You were born to Indian parents, and you were not asked about this. You were taught an Indian tongue. Indian myths helped explain to you those complexities of life which can be approached only through myth. This is a part of you. And your hair is black, and your eyes are dark, and your skin has a brownish hue. This is a part of you. But I tell you, you’re not like anyone I’ve ever known, or that you will ever know. I wonder what you will choose to become."

I will further summarize by saying that although each student is unique, the teacher must be able to look at the world through the eyes of each of his students. This necessitates a series of creative acts, and that’s why teaching is an art. But the artist can learn, and the point I wish to make here is that the teacher of Indian children must go out of his way to learn the culture of his Indian students, and the further removed his own culture is from that of his students, the more he must study the culture of his students.

If our moment in history is one of great change, our curriculum must he consciously created to provide for an orderliness of change, and this will be best provided for by an understanding of the past as well as the future. For the Indian child the change is particularly dramatic. Not only is his rate of change greater, but his past and his future are particularly ill-defined. Although this would be true of any student, the Indian is particularly in need of a curriculum that he can see meaning in and a use for. It should include both the past and the future, but it should emphasize the future.

The more the student perceives the school as a hostile environment, the more the teacher must convey an attitude of love toward the student. The greater the difference between the school’s environment and the home environment, the greater must be the attempt of the teacher to convey an attitude of love towards the student and his parents. When the student perceives the school’s environment as different from his home’s the teacher must be able to convey a feeling of acceptance to the student; and the greater the difference between the environments, the more important this becomes. To the Indian child this difference is large indeed, and the teacher, therefore, must love his students and be able to communicate this love.

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