American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
Teaser Image


Native American education is not a new idea or even a Euro-American idea. Indians were educated prior to their first contact with Europeans. Just as they had their own cultures, their own governments, and their own histories, Native peoples taught their own young as well. Indian education by Indians has always had goals similar to "all societies, to perpetuating family values, language, religion, politics, economies, skills, sciences, and technologies" (Lomawaima, 2002, 422). On the other hand, these features of Native culture were targeted for eradication by European colonizers and form the key element in the acculturative educational initiative imposed on Indians by outsiders.

Indian education has for centuries put the federal government at odds with Native governments, as mainstream values have come into conflict with traditional values. Federal control has been imposed on Indian tribes and nations, as well as on individuals, in an attempt to subjugate and exploit them rather than provide them with a practical, desirable education. In response to this treatment, "students devised strategies to assert independence, express individuality, develop leadership, use Native languages, and undermine federal goals of homogenization and assimilation" (Lomawaima, 2002, 423). Finally, Indians have asserted individual tribal and pan-Indian sovereignty, winning their right to educational self-determination.

Since colonial times, Indian education has involved struggles for educational autonomy where the education of Indian children is concerned. The goal was local control and the implementation of tribal sovereignty in the development of curriculum and in deciding who will govern school boards. Most contemporary Indian education goals concentrate on "effective local control, and locally relevant curriculum, language materials, and pedagogical methods" (Lomawaima, 2002, 424). Since the civil rights movements of the 1960s, there have been many victories in realizing this goal of self-determination and self-empowerment.

Lomawaima explains that, traditionally, Indian education generally "utilize[s] structured and ageorability-graded curricula developed by social and ceremonial groups such as kivas (Pueblo), houses (Northwest Coast), kin-defined clans (nearly everywhere), social classes (such as the Yurok Talth) and/or, women's or men's societies" (Lomawaima, 2002, 425). Using specialists, Native educational systems built successive layers of skill and knowledge in various subjects important to the group. Students are often separated or divided into programs of "selected groups" and guided in the learning of "selected knowledge." In other words, "higher education is not necessarily open to, or sought out by, everyone" (Lomawaima, 2002, 425).

From the late 1800s through the 1920s, there was little agreement about the goals and methods of Indian education. "Policymakers, professional educators, federal bureaucrats, and interested citizens argued over Indian abilities as they proposed radically different visions of the Indian 'place' in America" (Lomawaima, 2002, 427). Indians were the only interested parties not consulted in this discourse (Lomawaima, 2002, 427). During this era, industrial (vocational) schooling for Indians was intended to coincide with Congress's passing the General Allotment Act of 1887. This act stripped many Indian tribes and nations of their lands, thus forcing them to give up their traditional lifestyles and assimilate. At the same time the Act provided access to this land to the constituents of those who had voted for it. Federal educational initiatives were geared to condition Indians to work individual plots of land while simultaneously eroding the idea of common, tribal property (Lomawaima, 2002, 430).

Brenda Child explains that, while the General Allotment Act (1887) fragmented Indian communities by breaking up tribal landholdings, the boarding schools—especially the schools located offreservation—destroyed Indian family structure. One can only imagine the profound despair of having lost home, family, livelihood, and important elements of culture. These hardships were compounded by high rates of death and disease suffered by Indians, especially during the height of the era of allotment and the boarding school period. The land remaining in the hands of Indians was not sufficient to sustain their traditional ways of securing their sustenance such as hunting, fishing, and harvesting fruits and wild rice and the maple sap, used for making sugar (Child, 1998, 361). The high death rate created many orphans. Child emphasizes the effects of the additional pressures of allotment on these orphans. Traditionally, these children would have been adopted within the tribal community—often by extended families—where they were "treated with kindness, and little distinction was made between 'natural' children and those adopted." Due to the unraveling of the community fabric, these children were taken by the federal government to be adopted outside the community (Child, 1998, 366).

While the boarding school policy may have been intended to assimilate Indians into mainstream society, it sometimes had the opposite effect. Many Indian children saw the "boarding school experience" as a means to come into contact with other Indians—building the first foundations of a pan-Indian viewpoint—away from European-American society (Lomawaima, 2002, 436).

Generally, Indian people have been absent from discussions concerning Indian education, which has historically been applied by non-Indians. The results have been devastating to Indian peoples, fragmenting entire cultures. Now, through self-determination initiatives such as tribally controlled community colleges (TCCC), Indians regained control of their own destinies to aid in the reconstruction of their cultures.

Margaret Connell Szasz thoroughly chronicled Indian education from the 1980s through the 1990s. She explains that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was given the responsibility for educating Indian children in the late nineteenth century (1977, 1). This responsibility was executed in a variety of venues, including boarding schools and day schools, both off and on the reservations. Conditions at most of these schools were harsh. Boarding schools were overcrowded, and children had insufficient food. Sick children were not cared for properly, resulting in epidemics. Preadolescent students worked "long hours in the shops, the gardens, and the kitchens" (Szasz, 1977, 2) as a means of reducing operating expenses. Discipline was strict, and life was regimented by stern superintendents and their staff. Academics were too basic, coursework was not applicable to reservation life, and the vocational training left most students who have been unable to succeed in an urban environment (Szasz, 1977, 2).

In 1928, the Brookings Institute, an independent group of experts, published the Meriam Report, which included an analysis of the BIA's Education Division's methods and success in educating Indian young people. The report found many problems and provided a myriad of suggested reforms (Szasz, 1977, 1–3). Among the suggestions were to build more day schools on the reservations that would also serve as community centers, to integrate Indian culture into the curriculum of the boarding schools, while making instruction more pertinent to the life needs of students, and to provide salaries for professional educators. Many of the suggestions were implemented during John Collier's tenure as the commissioner of Indian Affairs between 1933 and 1945, but then an era of stagnation ensued for about fifteen years (Szasz, 1977, 3).

The National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, saw education as a major priority during the war years, but its priorities turned to fighting termination shortly afterward. Termination was a direct assault on Indian communities in an attempt to dissolve the relationship that had long been established between the Indians and the federal government. Although the fight against termination had been a great distraction from educational issues, it gave many Indians the experience of dealing with federal bureaucracies that later proved necessary in the broader battles for sovereignty in the 1960s (Iverson, 1998, 7). In 1969 the Kennedy Report was released by the U.S. Senate Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, providing new hope for Indian education (Iverson, 1998, 160). The report exposed misappropriations of funds by state public schools that served Indian students and opened the door for a change in policy (Iverson, 1998, 5–6).

In 1961 approximately 800 American Indians met in Chicago for the American Indian Chicago Conference (AICC) in a pan-Indian attempt to address the problems of Native Americans and find solutions by working with the federal government to better help themselves. They produced a forty-nine-page document called the Declaration of Indian Purpose. They proposed to avert the crisis that Indians faced in America at the time, which was mainly the result of abject poverty. Much of this Indian poverty was a direct result of the termination policy of the federal government (Lomawaima, 2002, 131–132).

In recent decades, Native American communities considered some common issues. They want to undo the effects of urban migration's draining of population in Indian communities, as well as the loss of tribal unity and values, by economic rejuve-nation and social improvements such as educational advancements. At the same time, the BIA wants to discontinue the use of boarding schools and the old system of day schools by placing Indian children in public schools. According to Peter Iverson, "by 1980 about 80 percent of all Native children attended public schools" (Iverson, 1998, 159). In the mid-1960s through 1970s, off-reservation schools, such as Chiloco in Oklahoma and Phoenix Indian School in Arizona, were in decline as public schools on reservations took their place (Iverson, 1998, 159–160). Into the 1980s these "off-reservation schools attracted a steadily higher percentage of students who had serious problems" (Iverson, 1998, 160).

While Indians fought for control of their education during the 1960s and 1970s, they began to realize significant victories along the way. These victories included increased funding for public schools located on many reservations, "the development of community or contract schools," the founding of tribally controlled community colleges, and a higher enrollment and graduation rate by Indian students in mainstream institutions of higher education (Iverson, 1998, 160).

Another indication of the victories during this period was a shift in government policy, as "from the mid 1960s through the 1970s Congress passed more legislation relating to Indian education [than] it had approved during the prior two centuries" (Iverson, 1998, 160). This new legislation included the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which encouraged "community involvement" and also assisted low-income families; the Indian Education Act of 1972; and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. With this new legislation also came provisions for more control by the United States Office of Education, to reach those Indian students overlooked by the BIA (Iverson, 1998, 160).

The new legislation had been ushered in by the Kennedy Report. The report described the national Indian education policy as "a failure of major proportions," yet it provided no viable solutions to the problems that it pointed out. This lack of solutions on the part of the federal government provided opportunities for Indians to take control of the issue in the form of contract schools (Iverson, 1998, 160). Rough Rock Demonstration School, opened in 1966 on the Navajo reservation in Arizona and was the first contract school, followed by Ramah Navajo High School, also in Arizona, and Busby School on the Northern Cheyenne reservation on Montana (Iverson, 1998, 161).

Another factor that helped to determine the direction of many aspects of Indian education was a large number of newly registered Indian voters. These voters began to influence the composition of public school boards in areas with large Indian student enrollments. By the early 1970s, seventy-eight public school district boards had a majority of Indian board members (Iverson, 1998, 161). Thanks to these initial changes in Indian self-determination, Indian children can now study their own language in the same venue as English, rather than having to "[scrub] toilets with a toothbrush" for speaking their Native languages (Iverson, 1998, 162).

The first Native-controlled community college was the Navajo Community College (NCC), founded in 1968. It shared the facilities with a BIA boarding school at Many Farms, Arizona, while awaiting the completion of its own facilities at Tsaile, Arizona, in 1973. Funding to continue the operation of the school was guaranteed by the Navajo Community College Act of 1971, along with financial support from the Navajo Nation and privately sponsored foundations. In 1997, the school's name was changed from NCC to Diné College, to utilize the Navajos' name for themselves (Iverson, 1998, 162). Also founded in the late 1960s through early 1970s, were the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge (Sioux) Reservation and Sinte Gleska College on the Rosebud (Sioux) Reservation, both in South Dakota (Iverson, 1998, 162–163). These first institutions provided a basic template for the rest to follow.

One important development that coincided with the founding of many of the TCCCs was a new commitment of non-Indian institutions to the success of Indian students in higher education (Iverson, 1998, 164). Another advantage to Indian (and non-Indian) students that developed during these years was the offering of new Indian studies programs in institutions of higher learning throughout the United States. The programs provided scholarship relevant to the enhancement of Native community colleges and their missions, and stimulated the formation of their teaching cadres as well (Iverson, 1998, 164). With more urban Indians finding a forum for discussions of Native American issues, they saw a need for a national Native-controlled university that would serve the needs of nonreservation Indians.

Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University (D-Q U) was cofounded in 1970 by Jack Forbes and other Indian and Chicano scholars (Iverson, 1998, 163). Forbes had advocated such an institution to teach Indians to control their own futures since 1961. The new university was housed in an abandoned military communications facility near Davis, California, under reclamation procedures for "surplus land," similar to those invoked unsuccessfully at Alcatraz Island. Department of Health, Education and Welfare officials wanted D-Q moved to the campus of the University of California at Davis, but D-Q refused (Iverson, 1998, 163).

When the Tribally Controlled Community College Act was passed in 1978, D-Q's board members saw an opportunity to gain support and stability, and hopefully end many of the school's financial problems, by becoming an urban TCCC. The decision was made to make the transition and the Chicano board members stepped down, leaving an all-Indian board of trustees. D-Q had already joined the American Indian Higher Education Consortium in 1972 (Iverson, 1998, 163–164).

TCCCs had not yet become the standard for tribal higher education initiatives when Northwest Indian College (NWIC) began as the Lummi Aquatic Training Program in 1969. "[W]ith 18 trainees under the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA) funding for the purpose of providing skilled technicians for the new Lummi Aquatic Project [LAP]" (Lummi Archives, 2002, 1). After the first eighteen students completed the program, eight became assistant instructors, eight went on to colleges or universities, and two became full-time employees of the LAP. Sixty-four Lummis enrolled in the second session of the program, of whom forty continued to an advanced program at the LAP (Lummi Archives, 2002, 1).

As the Lummi Nation received requests to train members of other tribes, an intertribal approach became one of the core principles of the program. In 1972, the school—Lummi Indian School of Aquaculture (LISA)—was officially formed. In the first two years of operations, students from twenty-five Native nations and tribes, from across the United States, received certificates of graduation from LISA. These students learned the necessary skills to return to their tribes to help solve "similar water resource development problems" (Lummi Archives, 2002, 2).

The federal funding that made the aquaculture program possible in the beginning was due to "[t]he Democratic sweep of 1960 [which] initiated yet another switch in federal Indian policy" (Boxberger, 1989, 131). In 1961, the Kennedy administration halted the termination process, a policy of the 1950s aimed at relocating Indians into urban centers in an attempt to "terminate" tribalism and reliance on the federal government, by assimilation into mainstream society; the policy had had limited success and had proved extremely detrimental to most Indian communities and to the individuals who participated. While relocation continued, it was restructured into a program that provided financial aid and vocational training. Until this time, "[g]enerally the relocatees were unskilled and undereducated" (Boxberger, 1989, 130).

Many Lummis who left their reservation during the 1950s and 1960s returned in the 1970s. Their arrival was the result of changes in the commercial fishing opportunities ushered in by court decisions. The Boldt decision of 1974, for example, upheld Indian fishing rights as provided by the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1855 (Boxberger, 1989, 154). This return of tribal members, along with the favorable court decision, did not, however, put an end to the Lummis' legal or economic troubles.

By this time, more than half of the Lummis' reservation land had passed into non-Indian ownership. The Indian gillnet (salmon fishing) fleet was dilapidated, and seasonal unemployment was soaring as high as 80 percent in the Lummi Nation (Boxberger, 1989, 131, 147, 149). By the 1970s, the primary means of subsistence on the Lummis Reservation was welfare (Boxberger, 1989, 150). The state of Washington relentlessly pursued court battles against Indian fishing rights in the Puget Sound area, and state regulators harassed Indian fishermen. With yet another change in federal Indian policy, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act (1975), signed into law by the Nixon administration, the Lummis found themselves able to receive federal funding for educational and economic development. The Lummi Indian School of Aquaculture was the direct result of this act. These new laws also provided for more Indian control of the salmon resource (Boxberger, 1989, 132).

LISA has been of great importance to the Lummis and other tribes throughout the United States, by providing an opportunity to develop or enhance water use and fisheries. However, the school has never been the commercial success that is so desperately needed on a reservation with few economic resources. There seem to be three reasons for the failure of LISA: First, the bulk of government funding dried up; second, management turnover was so high that the project was mismanaged; third, all of this occurred during a time when the Boldt decision turned the Lummis' attention to catching fish, rather than raising fish. However, it did form the basis for the development of an institution of higher learning by the Lummis and for carrying the concept out as an intertribal endeavor. Coming out of the turbulence of the court battles, Washington State's application of its interpretation of fishing laws, and the Indians' fish-ins as a means of protesting this application of the law, the founders of LISA/NWIC and its students have traditions steeped in nonconformity and protest, as does D-Q. This student body has become, by all indications, a solid foundation for Native American higher education in the region (Boxberger, 1989, 152–153).

When examining the history of Indian education, one can easily recognize the importance and interdependence of the foundations of activism and the civil rights movements; the creation of new legislation regarding Indian education and self-determination; and the social change that came about as a result of this legislation. This is what created the atmosphere in which the tribally controlled community colleges were born.

As in most social movements, government support, indigenous leadership, public sympathy, and effective mobilization strategies advanced the cause. The effort and reform came at the right historical moment to benefit from the larger reform efforts. Higher education expanded for many Native Americans due to the sociopolitical changes that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. These changes, in turn, had an effect on Native American higher education. They provided more educators and administrators—Indian and non-Indian—who where more aware of Indian issues and the needs of Native Americans. These individuals created the foundations of Native American education—the specialized Native curriculum.

Daniel R. Gibbs

Further Reading
Boxberger, Daniel L. 2000. To Fish in Common: The Ethnohistory of Lummi Indian Salmon Fishing. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Boyer, P. 1997. Tribal Colleges: Shaping the Future of Native America. Princeton, NJ: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.; Child, Brenda. 1998. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Iverson, Peter. 1998. We Are Still Here: American Indians in the Twentieth Century. The American History Series. Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson; Lomawaima, Tsianina. 2002. "American Indian Education: By Indians versus for Indians." In A Companion to American Indian History. Edited by Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.; Lummi Indian School of Aquaculture. Lummi archives. Available at: 8/3/2002, 1. Accessed December 26, 2006.; McClanahan, Alexander J., and Hallie L. Bissett. 2002. Na'eda: Our Friends: A Guide to Alaska Native Corporations, Tribes, Cultures, ANCSA and More. Anchorage, AK: CIRI Foundation.; Reyhner, Jon. 1988. Teaching American Indian Students. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Szasz, Margaret Connell. 1977. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination Since 1928. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  Chronological Essays
  People and Groups
  Southwest Nations
  California Nations
  Northwest Coast Nations
  Great Basin Nations
  Plateau Nations
  Great Plains Nations
  Northeast Woodlands Nations
  Subarctic Nations
  Arctic Nations
ABC-cLIO Footer