TRIBES FACE AN UPHILL BATTLE TO BLEND CULTURE WITH TRADITIONAL COURSEWORK : Teaching (Native) America

By Gallagher, Brian Thomas | The Nation, June 5, 2000 | Go to article overview
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TRIBES FACE AN UPHILL BATTLE TO BLEND CULTURE WITH TRADITIONAL COURSEWORK : Teaching (Native) America


Gallagher, Brian Thomas, The Nation


"How many of you can name one of the Backstreet Boys?" I ask William Cornelius's sixth-grade social studies class at Indian Community School (ICS) in Milwaukee. Dozens of shouts: "Howie"--most students name at least two--"Kevin." "Who was the first President of the United States? Who is the President now?" Naturally, they all know. "Who is Oshkosh?" I ask. "A clothing company," blurts one kid. "A city up north," spouts another (Oshkosh was the Menominee chief who testified before Congress in 1848 so his tribe could keep its Wisconsin homeland). I continue, "Hippies? John F. Kennedy? The Beatles?" Again they all know. "Russell Means? Dennis Banks? AIM?" "They make soup," one student offers nonsensically, before asking, "Are you Indian?" When I say no, a girl slumped low in her desk says curtly, "We're not even Indians anymore."

There it is--the obiter dictum that bespeaks the current state of Native American education, which is still deeply troubled after more than a hundred years of struggle. In many ways, the girl is right. She and her classmates dress and talk in the same pseudo-urban way that characterizes students of all races, from downtown Portland to suburban Baltimore. And these kids are among the few attending an all-Indian school that focuses heavily on integrating culture into the curriculum. Ninety percent of Native American students attend non-Indian schools, public or private, where culturally aware teaching is sorely lacking. Many believe the loss of traditional native knowledge and language is intimately related to the problems of high dropout rates and poor academic achievement. "It's all tied up with identity and cultural dissonance," says Rosemary Christenson, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin and an Ojibwa Indian. "The effects of that cultural dissonance are widespread and continue to grow."

The search now is for a balance between Indian culture and Anglo academics that prepares students for success in both the native and mainstream realms. The particular difficulties of finding this balance are as varied as the educational situations of Native Americans, who may constitute either a small part of a large urban student population, a large part of a small rural student body or the entire student body of a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) school. Each situation carries its own complex set of qualifiers: the vitality and size of the local Indian community, funding mechanisms, language barriers and more. Additionally, Indian student bodies often comprise members of several, sometime dozens, of tribes--each with a distinct language, customs and history. But in too many schools and districts, the gestures toward cultural curriculum are based on stereotypical notions of monolithic Indianism--the noble or downtrodden, even simple-minded, Red Man.

Indian educators like ICS executive director Linda Sue Warner, a Comanche, think teaching kids about Indian culture can be complementary to traditional academics. "I don't see that there's anything wrong with reading and writing and calculating and measuring," she says wryly. Her school--whose motto is "Blending books with drums"--doesn't teach these subjects at the expense of Indian identity (or vice versa) but rather uses the two areas to reinforce each other.

The purging of tribal cultures, traditional knowledge and language, once actively undertaken by the government, is now much more effectively conducted passively, by a combination of television consumerism, socioeconomics and the educational system. The homogenizing influence of popular media continues to take its toll, while Native Americans are increasingly defined by their income bracket and all the problems associated with poverty--unemployment, violence, substance abuse--rather than their ethnic identity. With the fragmentation of extended Indian families and tribes, the unwritten knowledge of elders that was once a counterweight to Anglo hegemony is in danger of being lost.

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