Colonizing Education:

The American Indian Experience

Don Trent Jacobs /Oglala Lakota College

(Presented at Hebrew University on May 29, 2001 in Jerusalem, Israel)

"Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, unless they are Indians…."-Frontispiece for "Sovereignty Under Siege:
A Study of Federal Seizure of Indian Jurisdiction" by Robert L. Pirtle and M. Frances Ayer, 1998.

Around the world, governments use military force against the sovereignty of indigenous populations to protect state or corporate interests. When education is also used as a tool to maintain socio-economic and political structures, a form of "educational militarization" exists that counters the authentic goals of public institutions of learning. This is what is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Outside of educational institutions, corporate and military partnerships are an obvious threat to indigenous sovereignty.
A few of the many examples will suffice:

The culture of the U'wa people of Columbia is currently being threatened by oil drilling. A military patch depicting a soldier standing next to an oil rig is worn on the right shoulder of every soldier that protects oil installations in Colombia. The U'wa, an indigenous community of 5000 people, do not want to be part of the cycle of violence that oil development brings. But as oil companies and the government increase pressure on the U'wa, more soldiers wearing this patch are appearing on their lands.

The Raramuri simarone people of Central Mexico have chosen to live in remote caves deep in Copper Canyon rather than adopt western cultural values. Yet, efforts to protect their land from development and lumbering are thwarted my military intervention. Moreover, with the illicit support of corrupt government military troops, drug mobsters violently are forcing the Indians to grow opium poppies on remote corn fields.

In the heart of the United States of America, in my own home state of South Dakota, the White Plume family's efforts to support themselves with a hemp farm was halted in an early morning raid by 25 FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency troopers armed with AK-47s. Without any warning or involvement of the sovereign Lakota nation, whose laws support the growing of industrial grade hemp, the intruders destroyed the entire crop, ending their hope for ecological economic development in this impoverished region.

Similarly, in an effort to close down a border-town liquor store responsible for contributing to the plague of alcoholism on the reservation (and indirectly responsible for the unresolved murder of several Lakota men,) a peaceful protest march occurs every Saturday from the reservation line to the liquor store. Each time, armed police officers line the streets with police dogs in spite of the fact that most of the protesters are elderly men and women. This action prevents others from participating, thus minimizing the effectiveness of the protest.

These are some examples of the corporate/military/government partnership outside the educational arena. But the colonizing is also a part of formal schooling. Up until only the last two decades, Indian children were taken away from their parents and forced into western culture's school systems. Their hair was cut off and their mouths were washed out with soap if they spoke their native language. They were beat if they misbehaved. They were forced to wear uniforms. Under threat of punishment, they were not allowed to participate in their spiritual ceremonies and were forced to learn Christian orthodoxy.

Today the colonizing effect of the corporate/government powers are more subtle but equally powerful. It is found in

I want to briefly discuss each of these, then follow with a recommendation to remedy this unfortunate situation.

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The Curriculum:

State standardized curriculum is generally disconnected from relevant and meaningful context. This is damaging to any learner, but it is especially harmful to American Indian children whose views on learning traditionally emphasize complex and mysterious interconnections. Subjects most important to the culture like the arts are minimized.

What is worse than fragmented subjects, however, is an agenda that continues to ignore oppressive historical and contemporary interpretations of reality. A good example of what I mean is a course on "The First Americans" taught in a particular social studies class for sixth graders at a reservation school. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, two anglo pioneers of 19th century fame, were presented as "the first Americans."

Of course, one of the more egregious examples is how Christopher Columbus is often regarded in the curriculum. An extreme example of this can be found in the words of Jeffrey Hart, the Distinguished Professor of English at Dartmouth University and senior editor of the National Review, a magazine influential in current U.S. government policy making decisions. He says, "Columbus was a genuine hero of history and of the human spirit. To denigrate him is to denigrate what is worthy in human history and in us all."

This view is often taught in American schools today and sometimes even on Indian reservations. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, then he "discovered" America, is how it goes. Seldom do students learn about his return voyage in 1493 with an invasion force of 17 ships and his orchestration of an extermination of the native population in the Caribbean islands that reduced about 8 million people down to 100,000 within 7 years and down to only 200 individuals within 50 years.(2) Of course, within the next 100 years, 100 million more of America's first nation's people would be killed by disease and violence. This also is not a favorite subject in American classrooms, but certainly gives pause for the adoration of Columbus.

All in all, the curriculum that American Indians are forced to learn does more to crush their own cultural values than it does to prepare them to cope in the dominant culture. A letter written by an anonymous American Indian in 1744 to the educators at William and Mary College illustrates a point that could be made today:

" We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those colleges, that the maintenance of our young men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinced that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must not take it aim if our ideas of education happen not to be the same as yours. We have had some experience of it. Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your subjects; but when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living, neither fit for hunters nor counselors, they were totally good for nothing. We are however, not the less oblig'd by your kind offer, tho' we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them."(3)

High-Stakes Standardized Testing

According to President Bush's new education program, "Leave No Child Behind," any school that does not achieve significant improvement in standardized test scores will be punished by the removal of federal and state dollars from that school. American Indians score the lowest on such tests than any other population. Notwithstanding the fact that the tests illustrate an approach to teaching and learning that stifles creative and critical thinking, the tests themselves are biased to non-Indian students.The requirements for schools to play this game add to the continuing colonization of the Indian children.

Neo-Conservative Character Education

President Bush has proposed 25 million dollars for character education programs throughout the United States and the push for such programs on high-crime Indian reservations is significant. Unfortunately, these programs tend to be extensions of conservative ideology and are more about compliance to authority than good character. Reflection on character as it relates to ecological issues, social justice problems and democratic ideals is minimal in many of the popular character education programs. My new book, Teaching Virtues: Building Character Across the Curriculum, offers an American Indian perspective that, according to Vine Deloria and Noam Chomsky, offers a "much needed perspective" on this subject.

BIA Mentality

Reservation schools are largely under the influence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to Indian educator, Terry Albers, this leads to "doing things the right way, but not doing the right thing." As a result, money for education is wasted, innovative practices are either ignored or suppressed, and children become cogs in the bureaucratic machinery of an agency that has historically been more dangerous to Indian sovereignty and health than helpful.

Non-Indian Teachers

Nearly 70% of the teachers in the 14 elementary schools and 4 high schools on Pine Ridge are non-Indian teachers. Although many are wonderful, caring people, more than a few actually are prejudiced against Indian people and their ways. Thus, the hidden curriculum of assimilation is not so hidden.

Blood Quantum Policies

Government monies for educational institutions relate to tribal membership and tribal membership relates to blood quantum and blood quantum requirements for federal dollars is controlled by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The genocidal potential of this is devastating because the only way to assure sufficient blood quantum is to marry from within the tribe. This is getting harder to do without marrying close relatives. But for a starving people, marrying a first cousin is preferable to losing funding and many of our students go to school as a way to earn money.

Authoritarian Pedagogy

In Primal Awareness: A True Story of Survival and Transformation with the Raramuri, I show how most indigenous people see authority in terms of personal experience and reflection in light of the spiritual awareness that all things are related. Indian student drop out rates on the reservation are 70%, higher than any other population group. One reason for this is the top-down structure of instruction and the lack of opportunities for individual relevance and critical, challenging inquiry.

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Military Recruitment

Lakota people are proud of their veterans because of the traditional values of bravery and fortitude, so children are likely candidates for U.S. armed forces recruitment campaigns. Recruiters tell young people the military is a way out of the poverty of the reservation. However, because the military system so opposes natural Indian philosophy, the men wind up either court-marshaled for desertion or they return to the reservation embittered and join the ranks of the oppressed.

Decreasing Boundaries

12,000 Lakota people live within the 100 x 50 square mile reservation and nearly 5000 are wait listed for housing. Land is continually being confiscated by the federal government in violation of treaty rights and non-Indian ranchers often move boundary lines to encroach on Indian lands. The result of this situation is that the best and the brightest students leave the hopelessness of reservation life for better opportunities, thus leaving behind less social capital for authentic solutions.

Administrative Sabotage

Administrators for the K-16 schools on Pine Ridge are trained to maintain a rigorous status quo by mandating bureaucratic efficiencies that tend to stifle critical and creative thinking. In keeping with the "oppressors that rise to power tend to oppress" motive, the problems relating to such "sabotage" of authentic cultural values are intensified.

Another interesting development relates to our president's initiative to encourage retired military personal to move into administrative and teaching positions throughout the nation's schools in order to meet the increasing demand for teachers and administrators.

Religious Conversion

Most of the education of American Indians has been designed to destroy their Indian identity. Missionaries imprisoned Indian parents who would not send their children to schools. Punished children who referred to their own culture or spoke their own language. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, respecting separation of church and state, did not apply to Indian children and allowed the Secretary of the Interior to have jurisdiction of Indian education. Missionaries in fact were provided with federal funds to educate Indian children. Until 20 years ago the Indian child was taught that to follow the way of his or her people was sinful. In many ways, this remains the hidden curriculum.

State Exemption

States have been given permission by the federal government to regulate Indian education but states have withheld public services to Native Americans because of their special relation with the federal government. Yet hoses states utilize the native population census to increase their share of federal funds for public services. The secretary of the Interior assesses fees for various services which benefit Indians even though the monies given to us by the federal government are in fact related to federal bonds or other legal obligations to us.

The Solution

It may seem even arrogant to say that there is a worldview common to many indigenous people that is a prerequisite for true democracy-based education. However, contrasting the generally opposing assumptions of indigenous and more dominant cultures can, I hope, stimulate a vital dialogue that can lead us to a more truthful understanding of our mutual goals. I use the word, "truthful," here with Parker Palmer's wonderful definition in mind. In his book, The Courage to Teach, he says, "Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline."

My assertion is that until educational systems modify their essential worldview with one more in harmony with that of traditional indigenous tribes, such as those of America's first nation peoples, schools will continue to erode, not sustain democracy.

I am not saying that any race, culture, religion or ideology is better than any other. All people of any race or culture are subject to living according to unhealthy assumptions. However, if we study the outcomes of their respective worldviews, I believe that traditional indigenous perspectives, such as those held by North American Indian tribes, have proven healthier for the common good than those that have driven more dominant cultures for the past two thousand years.

I close by asking you to consider the primary differences between the dominant worldview and the American Indian worldview as I state what former is.(4)

All great cultures have the same universal principles somewhere in their memory, but too many have forgotten them, allowing misinterpretations and power politics to create new belief systems or apathy. On the Pine Ridge reservation, the joyful recognition of life's beauty still exists here and there, but only outside the places that have robbed people from their heritage. Oppression from within is common, for as Victor Frankl taught, the oppressed become the oppressors when blinded by the worldview that ignores the principles outlined above. Oppression from the dominant culture continues in many forms, most notably in our education systems. Yet there is hope if enough of us reform our schools in accordance with the universal path to harmony our indigenous brothers and sisters from around the world still remember in their hearts.

At a recent conference of the American Education Research Association in Seattle, Washington, 96-year old Maxine Green was given a prestigious award from the John Dewey Society. Upon accepting it, she said,

"I traveled across the United States not just to receive this wonderful award, but to say something you must hear. When I worked with John Dewey in 1939, he was trying to protect democracy from outside threats with education that fostered free inquiry, creative imagination and moral reflection. Today, such a curriculum is rare, and as a result, I want to tell you that an even bigger threat to democracy exists, only this time from within."

Nell Noddings, author of many books on a caring curriculum, followed Dr. Greene by saying, "Teachers have been far too quiet on this subject. It is time for a rebellion."

Ohiyesa, A Dakota Indian from South Dakota who was the first America Indian to earn a medical degree from Boston University back in 1890, once asked, "Is there not something worthy of perpetuation in our Indian spirit of democracy, where Earth, our mother, was free to all, and no one sought to impoverish or enslave his neighbor?"

I believe all of us, in our hearts, know the answer to his question. It is time now to act.


Churchill, Ward, A Little Matter of Genocide.City Lights: SF, 1997, p.44. These statistics are well documented with scholarly citations in Ward Churchill's book, A Little Matter of Genocide, City Lights: SF, 1997. McLuhan, T.C. Touch the Earth. New York: Outerbridge and Dienstfray, 1971, p.57 See my more complete article on this at in the Journal of College Values Eastman, Alexander Charles, "The Ways of the Spirit," in The Wisdom of the Native Americans, ed by Kent Nerburn, The New World Library: Novato, Ca. 1999

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