Teaching Indigenous Students: Honoring Place, Community, and Culture

Teaching Indigenous Students: Honoring Place, Community, and Culture

by Jon Reyhner (Editor)

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Indigenous students learn and retain more when teachers value the language and culture of the students’ community and incorporate them into the curriculum. This is a principle enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and borne out both by the successes of Indigenous-language immersion schools and by the failures of past assimilationist practices and the recent English-only policies of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States.

Teaching Indigenous Students puts culturally based education squarely into practice. The volume, edited and with an introduction by leading American Indian education scholar Jon Reyhner, brings together new and dynamic research from established and emerging voices in the field of American Indian and Indigenous education. All of the contributions show how the quality of education for Indigenous students can be improved through the promotion of culturally and linguistically appropriate schooling.

Grounded in place, community, and culture, the approaches set out in this volume reflect the firsthand experiences of teachers and students in interacting not just with texts and one another, but also with the local community and environment. The authors address the specifics of teaching the full range of subjects—from learning literacy using culturally meaningful texts to inquiry-based science curricula, and from math instruction that incorporates real-world experience to social studies that blend oral history and local culture with national and world history.

Teaching Indigenous Students also emphasizes the importance of art, music, and physical education, both traditional and modern, in producing well-rounded human beings and helping students establish their identity as twenty-first-century Indigenous peoples. Surveying the work of Indigenous-language immersion schools around the world, this volume also holds out hope for the revitalization of Indigenous languages and traditional cultural values.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146997
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 04/30/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 995,167
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jon Reyhner is Professor of Education at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. He has taught on the Navajo Reservation and served as a school administrator for the Blackfeet, Fort Peck, Havasupai, White Mountain Apache, and other communities. He is editor of Teaching Indigenous Students: Honoring Place, Community, and Culture.

Read an Excerpt

Teaching Indigenous Students

Honoring Place, Community, and Culture

By Jon Reyhner


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4999-8


Overcoming the Legacy of Assimilationist Schooling


For today's educators to understand the need to find new and better ways to teach Indigenous students, it is important to briefly chronicle the destruction and transformation of Indigenous cultures through a history of culturally assimilationist schooling in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States and to examine which aspects of this history can be considered cultural genocide and which can be considered voluntary cultural change. We will then discuss current efforts to reverse assimilation and revitalize Indigenous cultures through language-immersion programs and conclude this chapter with examples of human rights rhetoric on the treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Too often, schooling for Indigenous children has amounted to cultural genocide. Polish scholar and attorney Raphaël Lemkin coined the word "genocide" in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe and defined it as:

a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.... The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups....

Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor. (79)

This definition includes cultural genocide (also termed ethnocide), the destruction of a people's culture (see Nersessian 2005). Cultural genocide is much more widespread and ongoing than the murder of ethnic minorities. In the four countries discussed here, government policies promoted English-only schooling and conversion to Christianity, making schools instruments of cultural genocide. If Indigenous students resisted, they were further marginalized, and if they attempted assimilation, they often found that their skin color still excluded them from full equality.

Some people think that democracies are immune to genocide, but through pervasive ethnocentrism and the "tyranny of the majority," laws can be passed that suppress minority languages and cultures, as do the various "English-only" and "Official English" laws in effect in some U.S. states today (see, e.g., Crawford 2000). In his original discussion of genocide, Lemkin included the "prohibition of the use of their own language by the population of an occupied country" (1944, x). Instances of this policy are by no means a present-day phenomenon. For example, the 1868 Report of the U.S. Indian Peace Commission stated, "Schools should be established, which [American Indian] children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted." Besides suppressing Indigenous languages, colonial governments have suppressed Indigenous cultural practices, including potlatches, Sun Dances, and other religious activities.

Since the formation of the United Nations (UN) at the end of World War II, and informed by Lemkin's definition of the crime of genocide during that war, the UN has issued a series of declarations promoting human rights, condemning various forms of genocide, and affirming the rights of ethnic minorities and Indigenous peoples to self-governance. This stand is exemplified by the UN's 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which only Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States initially voted against. Since then, all four countries have reversed their position. These four predominantly English-speaking countries have a history of English-only assimilationist education dating back to the nineteenth century and before. In most colonized countries in Africa and Asia, colonized populations have largely taken control of their countries back from their colonizers. However, in these four English-speaking democracies, immigrants from Europe rapidly outpopulated the Indigenous inhabitants, and by the time colonized peoples finally got the right to vote in the twentieth century, they could easily be outvoted in anything other than very small, local elections.

With more efficient agricultural practices that could support larger populations, European immigrants tended to displace smaller Indigenous populations. Such displacement is not new. Ranchers with cattle and other animals tended to displace Indigenous hunter-gatherers, because herding allowed for denser populations, and farmers displace herders because farming can support even larger populations if the land is arable. That larger population, constantly increased by immigration from Europe in the case of the United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, usually overran the Indigenous populations within decades, killing or pushing them aside to marginal lands. The experiences of Indigenous peoples in Asia and Africa, as well as the continued existence of New Mexico pueblos, shows that it was harder to displace settled Indigenous farming populations than more mobile groups. Adding to the population imbalance caused by the flood of immigrants to Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas was the depopulation that occurred due to virgin-ground epidemics, which killed many Indigenous people.

However, to describe the European settlers as merely greedy, power-hungry people interested in overrunning Indigenous nations is to ignore that many were the "huddled masses" and "wretched refuse" portrayed by American poet Emma Lazarus in "The New Colossus" (1883). Many were displaced from Europe, including Indigenous refugees from Ireland who were escaping the 1840s potato famine, which was exacerbated by the inhumane policies of their English colonial rulers. Struggling to survive themselves, these impoverished and often desperate newcomers threatened the survival of Indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere.

The perception of the American West as empty land to be taken and settled lured European and other immigrants to the United States, while the many attractive things European technology had to offer Indigenous peoples often promoted voluntary cultural change. When they got the chance, Indigenous people tended to quickly adopt guns, horses, and metal utensils that made hunting and other aspects of their lives easier. Today, automobiles to drive and homes with electricity and running water are the technological boons that make life easier for Indigenous people and give them entry to the modern cash economy. These cultural adoptions could change Indigenous life radically, as was the case when Plains Indians in the Americas rapidly acquired horses to make hunting buffalo easier. Militarily defeated tribes sometimes voluntarily adopted Christianity, because its god appeared to be stronger than theirs, since their own prayers for victory had gone unanswered. Sequoyah, a Cherokee, invented a syllabary that allowed Cherokee to become a written language, because he saw the advantages that literacy gave the colonists.

For Indigenous peoples to take full advantage of all the labor-saving technology brought by colonists, some education was indispensable. Education offered to Indigenous peoples by nation states in the name of progress and "civilization" could be genuinely welcomed. As human rights activist Gay J. McDougall noted:

As the UN Independent Expert on Minority Issues, over the past three years I have travelled to countries in practically every region of the world. I have talked extensively to people who belong to disadvantaged minorities on every continent. When I ask them to tell me their greatest problem, their most deeply felt concern, the answer is always the same. They are concerned that their children are not getting a quality education because they are minorities. They see educating their children as the only way out of their poverty; their under-dog status, their isolation. (McDougall 2009, 7)

Such education helps Indigenous children survive in the modern world and brings about cultural change because of necessity. But warnings about the loss of Indigenous cultures, often focused on language loss, are increasing exponentially as present-day globalization breaks down the isolation that protected Indigenous populations in the past. The National Geographic Society's Disappearing Languages web site (2014) notes, "By 2100, more than half of the more than 7,000 languages spoken on Earth—many of them not yet recorded—may disappear, taking with them a wealth of knowledge about history, culture, the natural environment, and the human brain."

Automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, and now the Internet, all things that Indigenous people can embrace voluntarily, are rapidly breaking down the protective isolation that, even in the Amazon basin and the far north, allowed many Indigenous cultures to survive well into the twentieth century. However, globalization has also allowed Indigenous peoples across the planet to learn from each other's experiences and to lobby for support from the United Nations and other supranational bodies, support which they often do not get locally because they represent only a small minority of their country's population.

Cultural change is inevitable for all people, but when does that change become cultural genocide? A key question is whether the change is forced, especially upon children in schools. What say do Indigenous students' families and communities have in determining the kind of education their children will receive? Especially important today is whether a national language and culture is taught as a replacement for, or in addition to, the students' Indigenous language and culture. In the words of the U.S. National Association for Bilingual Education and similar organizations, is it "English Plus" or "English Only" schooling that is being offered?

Many UN declarations support the rights of ethnic minority communities and parents. For example, the UN's 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 26 that "Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children." The 1992 Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities declares in Article 1: "States shall protect the existence and the national or ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic identity of minorities within their respective territories and shall encourage conditions for the promotion of that identity." Article 2 affirms that "Persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities ... have the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, and to use their own language, in private and in public, freely and without interference or any form of discrimination." The 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reasserts and extends these rights.

Yet despite the 2007 declaration, schooling is often still a matter of cultural genocide because it is presented as, and is often accepted by students and their families as, an either/or proposition, as indicated in the title of Karen Stocker's book I Won't Stay Indian, I'll Keep Studying (2005). Stocker examined a problem in Costa Rica that is shared by Indigenous peoples worldwide: "the label Indian had connotations of backwardness and even inferior intellect.... Being Indian automatically set students up for being treated as inferior, and "for most students from the reservation, projecting an Indian identity seemed incompatible with school success" (2). From this explanation one could argue that assimilation is a matter of cultural suicide rather than cultural genocide, but that is because Indigenous peoples are presented with a false dichotomy: they must choose between the modern world and some "world language," often English, or remain seen as "savage" or at least "backward" second-class citizens.

While not universal, the ethnocentric attitude of the colonizers was nearly so. There have always been a few isolated examples of culturally sensitive recognition of Indigenous cultural strengths. For example, the explorer and first director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, John Wesley Powell acknowledged, more than a century ago, "so few Americans yet realize that of all the people on this continent, including even ourselves, the most profoundly religious, if by religion is meant fidelity to teachings and observations that are regarded as sacred, are the American Indians, especially wherever still unchanged from their early condition, and this deeply religious feeling of theirs might, if properly appreciated, be made use of, not weakened or destroyed by opposition" (1896, 112–13).

A nineteenth-century example among the Cherokee Indians of what that cultural appreciation could accomplish can be seen in the way that Moravian missionaries, who never learned to speak Cherokee or see any value in Cherokee traditional beliefs, had little success in converting the Cherokees to Christianity. Whereas, Baptist missionaries, who learned the Cherokee language and utilized a syncretic approach that included traditional Cherokee practices in their services, were able to convert many Cherokees (McClinton 2007). Far too often, the pervasive colonial approach to education was to contrast Euro-American "civilization" with Indigenous "savagery," rather than recognizing and building on Indigenous cultural strengths. As teacher and Indian agent Albert H. Kneale noted, the U.S. government's Indian Bureau "went on the assumption that any Indian custom was, per se, objectionable, whereas the customs of whites were the ways of civilization" (1950, 4). In the late nineteenth century Darwin's theory of biological evolution was corrupted into a theory of "Social Darwinism," which posited that societies evolved in a way similar to living things, with the ethnocentric addition that "white" western/European societies were at the top of this evolutionary heap and Indigenous cultures were doomed to extinction through "natural selection."


Historically the dominant theme in colonial education for Indigenous populations has been to blame the victims for their inability as a group to prosper given the schooling they were offered. Originally this blame was often based on racist ideas of non-white genetic inferiority. More recently it has been attributed to cultural deficit, whereby Indigenous cultures do not promote the type of behavior needed for success in the modern world, which tends to stress individualism. This latter notion promotes educational efforts that see assimilation into the dominant culture as the solution to the economic and social challenges faced by Indigenous peoples. Recent examples of this in the United States are state-level "Official English" and "English Only" laws in California, Arizona, and Massachusetts that discourage or even ban bilingual education in public schools (Reyhner 2001a). Thus even in the twenty-first century the United States, at least, has taken a step backward from efforts after World War II by the Civil Rights Movement and the UN that shifted the blame of culture loss from the victims to the oppressors.

The open discussion of the causes of Indigenous students' academic difficulties can be hampered, at times, by fits of "political correctness" that stifle the free exchange of ideas about equality and education to the point that "only males can be described as sexist and only whites can be described as racist" (Felson 1991). Maori author Alan Duff notes, "Racism, where many Maori, the Indigenous people of Aotearoa/New Zealand are concerned, cannot possibly cut both ways. And the reason for this is the classic noble oppressed concept that the 'victim is never very wrong'" (1993, 80). Duff declares that white people are fed "a message of one-sided guilt, one-sided culpability, a message that was hammered and hammered from every angle, everywhere you went" (x). From the colonizers' extreme of "blame the victim," Duff argues that the Maori had gone to the other extreme of blame the "Pakeha" (non-Maoris). Duff and others point out the failures of their Indigenous cultures, and they tend to be labeled as cultural traitors who are selling out to the beliefs of the oppressors. Duff's caveats, such as, "Admirable though many aspects of Maori culture are, equally there are aspects which are not," are seen as inadequate support for his people (47). Some of the negative aspects Duff finds in traditional Maori culture are its historical class structure with hereditary chiefs and its second-class status for women. He has also criticized contemporary Maori culture for its lack of a work ethic and poor health habits, including smoking and drinking. His antidote for Maori social problems is education and self-help, which mirrors individualistic Eurocentric cultural teachings and Horatio Algers's "rags to riches" myth. A central problem of blaming the "oppressor," if you are a victim of oppression and a member of a dominated minority, is that you will be powerless in the face of the white/European power structure and will not be able to do much to change things. As Duff writes, "The great majority of Maori ... do not accept for a moment that the bulk of their woes, if any, have a cause, let alone a solution in themselves" (1993, 26). Duff criticizes the contemporary Maori lifestyle, but for Indigenous peoples assimilating into the modern world too often means picking up a hedonistic and materialistic lifestyle that can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other negative effects. He concludes, "New Zealand white people do have a lot to answer for on most of the matters aggrieving Maori. But equally Maori have a lot to answer to themselves on what afflicts them right now" (60). This seeming middle ground did not insulate Duff from criticism.


Excerpted from Teaching Indigenous Students by Jon Reyhner. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction Jon Reyhner,
1. Overcoming the Legacy of Assimilationist Schooling Jon Reyhner and Navin Kumar Singh,
2. The Continuum of Literacy in Native American Classrooms Sheilah E. Nicholas and Teresa L. McCarty,
3. Promoting Indigenous Literacy Jon Reyhner and Ward Cockrum,
4. Mathematics David W. Sanders,
5. Indigenous Knowledge and Science Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert,
6. Social Studies Christine K. Lemley, Jeremy D. Stoddard, and Loren Hudson,
7. Music Chad Hamill,
8. Physical Education Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert,
9. The Fourth Generation: The Sustainability of Native American Art Education Michael Holloman,
10. Immersion Education Jon Reyhner and Florian Johnson,
A. Sources of Information on Children's Books,
B. Sample Science Lesson Plan Format,
C. Social Studies Resources,
D. Recommended Music Recordings,
E. Sample Format for Development of Instructional Materials,
List of Contributors,

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