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Teaching Native American Culture Is Key to Teaching Native Americans

By Welda Simousek

What would it feel like to not have your culture acknowledged at all, or have it taught in an inaccurate or stereotyped fashion? This is what many Native Americans/American Indians must deal with in our schools on a daily basis. As a result of centuries of federal policies that have tried to either eliminate American Indian peoples or assimilate them into the nationalist culture, Native American children have the highest dropout rates of any ethnic group in the US. This year, Native students graduated from high school at a rate of 71 percent, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group in the US.

Within schools (such as many of our nation’s public schools) where Native students may be less than 1 percent of the population, it may be preferable to have teachers be neutral (mentioning nothing specific) on the subject of Native Americans, rather than doing a biased, but well-meaning, presentation or unit. Rachel Byington at Madison Metropolitan School District in Madison, WI says these well-meaning but biased “units” may actually have a net loss impact when students report that they wish they were not there during their “Native American unit”.

Some public schools which have a larger population of Native students (such as Lac du Flambeau Schools in Wisconsin which has a Native population that is 86.1 percent) do a better job of acknowledging Native American culture in the school. For example, according to Terri Andrews, the students in Lac du Flambeau recite the Warrior Pledge every day, which includes the Seven Grandfather Teachings:

For students living on reservations and attending reservation schools, it is still a challenge to incorporate their culture into a curriculum that is often designed for the “masses” and not cognizant of Native American culture. For example, Navajo children struggle to preserve their native language and culture, to see their culture represented in what they are studying, and to be taught in ways that match their learning styles. According to Eleanor Jones and Dr. John McIntosh of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), Navajo and other Native American children often learn in visual ways, and like to see the big picture.

Although it is difficult to accurately generalize the learning styles and pedagogical needs of Native American children, (there are 567 Tribal entities recognized and eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) by virtue of their status as Indian Tribes), there are some extra differences that are worth noting. Native American students tend to reflect more than mainstream students, taking more time to gather evidence before they offer an answer; they prefer to “watch then do” or “listen then do.”

Cooperative learning is more important with Native American students, and individuals often do not like to be put on the spot, even in a positive way. Group awards are often more acceptable than awards earned through individual competition. Schools must create, use and support culturally appropriate curriculum that uses materials and resources that link traditional knowledge and culture into the curriculum. The use of tribal art, history, language, geography, literature and science can infuse the educational experience in relevance that will serve the needs of the Native student.

The use of parents, grandparents, elders, and members of the community to engage in routine interactions with preschool and elementary students have been found to be innovative and promising practices. This helps students to know who they are.

USA mapIt is also important to help Native American students see the relevance and need for higher education. A Georgetown University report predicts that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the US economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.

Since only 2 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives are enrolled in degree-granting institutions, this is an obstacle for them. Schools that help students see pathways to higher education and careers will have greater success with students staying through high school and going on for more training. Some schools, such as the Lac du Flambeau Schools in Wisconsin, offer academic and career path training as young as grade six.

What are some ways that we might better meet the needs of our Native American students?

 1.  Do project-oriented work that involves group work and empowers students to study and promote their cultural heritage (Welda Consults LLC has a “Currintz Project” that teaches students how to create and market a product based on their heritage and family experiences as well as best practices for literacy. Students utilize the 21st Century skills of creative and critical thinking, research, production, and presentation. In the end, students share their products beyond the school walls with real-world audiences.)

2. Find out students’ interests and backgrounds, and include references to important elements of their culture (whether it be the hogan, the rodeo, sheep, horses, etc.) in the curriculum.

3.  Learn about and incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices.

4. Match teaching styles to the stronger learning styles of the students, especially for tasks that are important and/or difficult.

5. Incorporate students’ native language whenever possible.

6. Help all students learn accurate aspects of Native American people and their culture, beginning in the primary grades.

In general, schools must respond to the individual needs of each student, differentiating the curriculum (and making it relevant) to meet the students where they are and taking them to their next level of challenge. For Native American students, this also means incorporating their culture and an awareness of the current status and place of the American Indian in our country.

It is no longer okay to just talk about the past status of the Native American nor is it okay to stereotype what American Indians are. We must embrace Native American culture in real ways to allow pride for Native Americans and true awareness and understanding of them for students in the mainstream culture.

*There are also 16 states that have state recognized tribes.


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