Why Indian Education?

Why Indian Education?

Should there be a special focus on helping Native American students find success in school? Isn’t the quality of education the same for all children regardless of ethnicity? Why a special focus? Before we answer these questions, let’s take a walk back in history.

Let me first say that Native Americans have always been educated. Their parents and elders taught children those skills they needed to live happily within their culture. The education was diverse, sophisticated and challenging. So to infer that Native children are or were lacking in “education” is an injustice. When confronted with other cultures, other kinds of skills are needed. If you have ever lived for a period of time in another culture, you know what I am talking about. The white culture, obviously, was not part of the Native culture years ago—enter Carlisle Indian School.

When we hear about Carlisle Indian School most people either know nothing about it or they think of Jim Thorpe, the famous Indian athlete from Carlisle who helped upset Harvard in 1911 by a score of 18 to 15. A famous area athlete who went to Carlisle was Charles Bender. He was from the White Earth Reservation and went on to play pro baseball. He was the first person to use a pitch called a “slider”, which is now commonly used by most major league pitchers.

For almost forty years Carlisle was a “noble experiment” which had as its goal to help Native young people assimilate in the majority white culture. When Carlisle closed its doors in 1918 nearly 12,000 children had been through the school. Students came from 140 tribes from all over the United States.

The founder of Carlisle was Richard Henry Pratt an officer of the 10th Cavalry who commanded a unit of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” and Indian Scouts.  In 1879 Pratt had received permission from the Secretary of the Interior to turn a former cavalry post into a school for Indian children, the majority of which were teenagers.

The school was described in this way.  “School life was modeled after military life. Uniforms were issued for the boys, the girls dressed in Victorian-style dresses. Shoes were required, no moccasins were allowed. The boys and girls were organized into companies with officers who took charge of drill. The children marched to and from their classes, and to the dining hall for meals. No one was allowed to speak his or her native tongue.”

Carlisle closed its doors 100 years ago and Native American education is still trying to catch up to where it needs to be to ensure that all Native children find success in today’s mostly white schools. Whereas Pratt’s intentions were somewhat good, the process he used to “educate” Native children was not. Less than 8% graduated from the full program, while well over twice that percentage ran away. Approximately 190 students are buried in the Carlisle cemetery.

One hundred years after the closing of Carlisle and thanks to the efforts of educators, who have given greater attention to Indian education, we find that the number of Native American students who graduate from Minnesota’s high schools has increased significantly, but, sadly, not nearly enough. The over all graduation rate for all students in Minnesota is 82%, for Native students it is 60%—in some schools more in some schools much less.

Indian education “Carlisle” style bears no resemblance to what occurs in today’s schools. More attention is given to curriculum, to involving parents, to the culture and to hiring Native teachers not to mention the attention given to, in our case in this area, the Ojibwa language.

Here comes the “but,” but much more remains to be done. Only when we see Native youth graduate at the same level as white youth and then continue on to college and have similar high graduation rates, can we say our work is done.

To ensure that this happens every now and then (more “now” than “then”) schools and colleges need to stop and take a look at the progress they are making with Native youth. Is the attention given to Native American education enough? Do we need to do something different? How is the graduation rate? Are we involving the Native community? Are we working with parents? Do we need to get together with other neighboring schools and share strategies?

There is no magic answer but time is wasting. We continue to lose too many kids.  When people question me about the seemingly impossible 100% graduation rate for Native youth and all youth, my response is, “Who are you going to leave behind?” The answer is we can’t leave anybody behind and this is why we continually need to give greater attention to help all Native youth find success.

Riddle of the day: Why does it take pirates so long to learn the alphabet?
(Because they spend years at C!) Our grade for graduating Native Americans is a very low “C”. It needs to an “A” and it’s everyone’s responsibility to help.


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