Is There an 'Indian' in Your Classroom? Working Successfully with Urban Native American Students

By Soldier, Lee Little | Phi Delta Kappan, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Is There an 'Indian' in Your Classroom? Working Successfully with Urban Native American Students


Soldier, Lee Little, Phi Delta Kappan


Teachers who work with Native Americans in an urban setting need to be aware of what a move to the city means to these students and their families and of how the students' behavior and school performance can be affected, Ms. Little Soldier maintains.

Many Americans are surprised to learn that more than half of the approximately two million Native Americans in this country do not live on reservations. They live either in rural areas and towns near reservations or in our nation's cities. In fact, many people are surprised to discover that Native Americans still exist at all, much less as a cohesive and growing microculture within American society.

There are only limited opportunities for employment on reservations, and the recent trend in developing gambling facilities on reservations across the country has only slightly changed the picture. Although many Native Americans had already moved to cities on their own in search of economic and educational opportunities, the urbanization of the Native American population accelerated after World War II with the implementation of "relocation programs" for Native Americans who were unemployed and living in poverty on reservations.

In an effort to reduce unemployment on reservations and to enhance the assimilation of Native Americans into the mainstream, the federal government offered vocational training and assistance in finding employment to Native Americans who would relocate to specified urban centers. Thus such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco, and the like became home to many Native Americans from across the country who were trying to break the cycle of reservation poverty and gain a measure of economic self-sufficiency. Many never returned to their reservations.

Although these relocation programs no longer exist, the exodus of Native Americans to the cities continues. Younger Native Americans and their families may move off the reservation to pursue university degrees and advanced training in a variety of fields. Corporate America recruits talented Native Americans for positions in management. For a variety of reasons, then, Native American families have come to urban areas and have enrolled their children in public schools.

At first glance, a move to the city may appear to be a wonderful opportunity for advancement. And it can be. However, there is a downside that must be considered, too. For families from a reservation, the upheaval brought on by the move can be devastating. When families are transplanted from a familiar home setting and placed in a strange and hostile environment, the culture shock is real. Teachers who work with Native Americans in an urban setting need to be aware of what such a move means to students and their families and of how the students' behavior and school performance can be affected.

Life in the city offers Native Americans more opportunities for participation in the dominant society and a chance to become part of the mainstream. However, families may not be prepared for the hostility that they often face when they try to take their place within the dominant society. Prejudice and racism do exist - particularly in urban areas close to reservations that have a sizable Native American population competing in the workplace.

You might find it difficult to determine whether there is a Native American student in your classroom. In the past, many Native Americans were given Anglo names, and thus the family name may not provide a clue as to the student's origin. Moreover, Native Americans exhibit a wide range of physical characteristics. Even Hopi Indians, whose reservation in Arizona is surrounded by the more extensive Navajo reservation, are physically different in appearance from Navajos in stature, body type, and facial features, as well as in traditional dress and hair styles. Although geographically close, these two tribes are "worlds apart" culturally.

Although many Native Americans are easily recognized as "people of color," with characteristics that set them apart from non-Indians, others, because of tribal differences or mixed marriages, have fair skin, light eyes, and brown or blond hair and can easily blend into the crowd. …

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