Indigenous Virtue Education and Self-Determination

for American Indians and Non-Indians Alike


Don Trent Jacobs

Presented at American Education Research Association Conference 2002

Northern Arizona University




In the absence of traditional American Indian wisdom that holds that morality stems from the natural world, current efforts to teach virtues fail. In failing, the demise of self-determination, the crucial element of tribal sovereignty and American democracy, continues, as does destruction of the environmental systems upon which we all depend. Until education recognizes this traditional wisdom, it will continue to be oppressive to Indian children and a threat to all life on earth. Until a new generation of parents embraces the stories that reconnect us to nature and its virtues, teachers have the responsibility for bringing these stories into the hearts and minds of children. Even if it requires civil disobedience to teach in this way, the goal of developing sufficient free will and character for following nature's path of beauty will be worth the effort.

Referring to the definitions of the four terms above, the following definition of virtue education might emerge: "Virtue education is about passing on beneficial qualities that support one's free will in discerning and acting in accordance with what is true, right and lasting within the context of one's natural environment.

In both subtle and profound ways, this definition contrasts with the assumptions of most contemporary character education programs which tend coincide with what President Bill Clinton conveyed in a 1997 speech: "All Americans should demonstrate in their personal and public lives the high ethical standards that are essential… to the continued success of our Nation." (1998)

Regardless of political affiliation, education, whether for math or character, is ultimately about the ability of the United States to compete in the global market place. It emphasizes compliance and duty in support of maintaining current power structures that define "success" in ways that often contradict virtues such as generosity, humility, honesty, courage and a respect for life's interconnections. It cares about free enterprise, not free will. Rather than nature, a man-made world is at its core.

This non-indigenous approach to "character education" that separates humanity from nature tends to see nature as the antithesis of morality. It trusts neither nature nor authentic choices that emerge from it. People of character are often defined by what they would do when no one is looking. Their virtues have an intrinsic quality. But too many character education programs in schools emphasize extrinsic rewards and punishments. This stifles good character. For example, an overemphasis on extrinsic motivation diminishes generosity in people. (Fabes et al, 1989, pp 509-519) Rather than encouraging morality that is of nature and an accompanying free will that leads to actions in behalf of harmony and the common good, this approach creates a "culture of fear" that may better serve corporate goals for "national success."

Brain research proves that intrinsic systems have more to do with developing character than do extrinsic systems. (Jensen, 1998) Since the brain is of nature, this offers support the idea that morality is found in nature sufficiently to avoid a philosophical debate about nature-versus-nurture or culture dichotomies. Such a debate obscures the realization "that humankind's heavy dependence on culture, nurturing or socialization is (itself) natural." (Deloria and Wildcat, 2001, p.137) Children come into the world as complete and beautiful as any flower springs up from the earth. Culture should nurture and enhance the unique and natural qualities, not redesign them according to some unnatural agenda. "Only when man is less than fully man not functioning freely (naturally) is it when he is to be feared." (Rogers and Kramer, 1961,p. 105)

Some American Indian educators have tried to bring this understanding about indigenous virtues into the classroom. For example, the education committee of the Navajo National Council created an excellent curriculum for bringing traditional wisdom back into the learning process for children. Its booklet, The Foundation of Navajo Education, has been made available in schools throughout the Navajo nation. Unfortunately, dominant culture's non-indigenous standards for education continue to be emphasized. According to Dine Education Statistic for 1998-1999, only 1% percent of the schools reported following Navajo Nation standards while 83% reported following state standards. (Manymules and Vigal, 2000, pp 9-11) Similarly, although many of the Foundation of Navajo Education standards relate to human and animal relatedness, the same survey found that 86% of the schools reported accessing natural structures less than 2% of instructional times, defining natural structures as forests, canyons, lakes, rocks, rivers and other naturally occurring phenomena that can be incorporated into the student's learning environment.

What then can be done to return American education, on and off Indian reservations, to a more indigenous or natural path? The answer- replace dominant culture's "stories" with those that recall indigenous perspectives. This calls for both a rejection of the artificial paradigm of materialistic competition that American's have come to embrace and for a return to more nature-based mythologies. At the far end of the spectrum, the rejection may well require the kind of nonviolent civil disobedience a reaction that has been endorsed by such figures as Rouseau, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Einstein, Schweitzer, Russell, King and Chomsky.

At the least it asks for a significant effort to actualize priorities that focus on the indigenous sense of simplicity, balance, and truth seeking, while emphasizing the virtues of courage, generosity and humility. This includes working toward an economic system more compatible with self-determination and environmental sustainability, one that emphasizes self- reliance in a regional economy. Hawken's ideas on "natural capitalism" are at least an attempt to define a new system of import substitution that keeps money and exchange circulating within a local economy by developing new local businesses that produce goods and services currently obtained from outside the community. (Hawkens and Lovins, 2000) Much needed on most Indian reservations, this also has merit for U.S. economy, especially in light of the horrors of the current "free trade" phenomenon.

Concurrent with a rejection of the artificial stories in which "God has moved indoors", educators can recreate stories that recognize the true and beautiful identity humanity and its cultures have in the context of the natural world. This involves a richer association with place and wildlife. Not even indigenous language maintenance, of paramount importance in maintaining a connection to nature-based virtue, will suffice if the stories that keep us attached to nature do not replace television and corporate stories to the contrary. Such stories keep alive the reality that animals and plants belong to related families and that a communication between the families is essential for a virtuous life. They remind us that not even love, the ultimate virtue, can flourish unless it is connected to earth.

"Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made personal, merely personal feeling. This is what is the matter with us: we are bleeding at the roots because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars. Love has become a grinning mockery because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the Tree of Life and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table. (Lawrence, 1971, p.42)

Back to Articles

References Deloria, Vine and Wildcat, Daniel, Power and Place: Indian Education in America, Fulcrum Resources: Golden Colorado, 2001, p 137 Fabes, R.A., J. Fultz, N. Eisenberg, T. May-Plumlee, and F.S. Christopher. (1989). Effects of Rewards on Children's Prosocial Motivation: A Socialization Study. Developmental Psychology 25(4, Jul): 509-515. EJ 396 958. Hawken, Paul, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, N.Y.:Little, Brown, 2000 Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA; ASCD Keen, Sam. Hymns to an Unknown God, New York: Bantam Books, 1994. Lawrence, D.H. Studies in American Classical Literature, New York: Penguin Books, 1971 Manymules, Rebecca Izzo and Vigil, Henrietta J. (2000) Dine Education Statistics 1998-1999. Office of Research and Planning Development, Navajo Nation Rural Systemic Initiative, pp 9-11 Rogers, Carl and Kramer, Peter. (1961) On Becoming a Person. Boston, Houghten Mifflin, p. 105