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Education For Nation-Building

Education in Native communities should uphold the values, interests, and cultures of Native communities and nations. While Native communities have their own methods of transmitting knowledge and understanding, Western society understands contemporary education from the point of view of the formal institutions of primary and secondary schools and college. The best way for Native community members to learn Native history, culture, customs, and social life may still be according to the old ways of transmitting knowledge. Western education institutions and plans do not focus on Native communities and retention of Native knowledge, and therefore dominant society education does not provide good tools for tribal cultural survival. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Native people over the past few centuries have been caught in an increasingly globalized world, and we will need to adjust institutions and learning tactics, and adopt much of the non-indigenous world’s knowledge base in order to survive. We will need to construct more enduring governments and viable economic institutions, and develop new understandings of indigenous nationhood, in order to preserve community, sovereignty, and cultural traditions.


Understandably, many Native students do not find the dominant school systems to their liking, and often are indifferent to their own success. In some Native communities, there is cause for celebration if only a few students graduate from high school. Most Native children are exposed to Bureau of Indian Affairs or public school curricula. And while many Native communities in the past 40 years acquired greater control over education in their communities and introduced some aspects of Native history and culture into kindergarten-to-grade 12 curricula, few Native children have detailed understandings of tribal sovereignty, government, or policy when they graduate from high school or community college.


In the early 1980s the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) created a master’s program in Native studies, but no undergraduate major. UCLA faculty and administration at the time reasoned that Native students should take the usual college courses and majors in order to prepare for work in mainstream society or to bring the knowledge back to their communities. Over the years, however, those of us who helped develop the Native studies program noticed that while the Native students were often engaged in issues concerning the Native community, they knew little about Native rights, policy, or the status of Native communities in the United States. When Native students gave speeches at rallies protesting repatriation or mascot issues, or issues addressing student admissions and recruitment to the university, they often did not have accurate information, and the audiences seemed to know less. For a Native studies teacher, this situation was embarrassing. Why did it happen? It appeared that, while the students were studying the mainstream courses and disciplines in anthropology, political science, or other fields, they were never taught the history of Native policies, rights, or issues. The academic disciplines rarely, if ever, focused on contemporary Native rights and policies. In order to develop more intellectually well-rounded students who could understand contemporary Native issues, rights, and policies, UCLA decided to introduce a minor in Native studies, and during the late 1990s expanded the course offering to include a major. Native studies majors are now required to take an internship for at least one term participating in a reservation-based project.


New Strategies for Native Studies


Training in the mainstream disciplines is valuable, but does not provide students with enough tools to understand and participate in Native communities and issues—an ongoing complaint within Native communities. Graduates of college or professional schools often return to the reservation but have little first-hand knowledge or understanding of how Native institutions, communities, and values work. They have difficulty applying their training to Native communities, because the training is often focused on mainstream communities and institutions. Once, some years ago, while I was back home on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in northern North Dakota, I saw a sign outside the tribal council chambers in the tribal government offices: “We don’t care if you have a bachelor’s degree, it doesn’t mean anything here.” The sign was puzzling. Around this time, a former schoolmate worked with traditional members of the community and was active in Native issues, and often articulated strongly Native and nationalist positions in the local Turtle Mountain newspaper. She wrote an open letter to the community stating that she had gotten an education, received a bachelor’s degree, and returned to the community, but she was not offered a job, and could only find work that no one else wanted. She seemed extremely bitter about the experience, and later married out of the community.


In a more recent case, an elder was advocating the use of traditional unwritten law in the Native courts. She lamented the opposition from the tribal council and some judges and lawyers, who preferred to use evidence, procedure, and adversarial methods commonly found in United States and Western courts. The elder said that the tribal council and judges were only interested in qualifications and education, but not how to apply the law to help people. From her point of view, Western law, procedure, and adversarial methods were in opposition to the healing and helping promoted by the traditional unwritten laws of the tribe. She added that the adversarial law did not have “heart” and therefore was not well-understood or adhered to by the community. These examples illustrate that formally trained college and professional school graduates, whether Native or non-Native, often do not have enough understanding of Native communities to apply their learning within the cultural and institutional relations of Native communities. Sometimes their training and learning does not fit, and they are often not trained to make adaptations to non-Western cultures. Universities must train students to work in Native communities, and offer fieldwork and courses that address contemporary Native issues and interests, as well as social, cultural, and political arrangements.


A second audience exists for Native studies training—the Native people who have elected to remain in their communities or reservations and have not sought formal education in the non-Native world. While Native communities retain considerable wisdom in law, social life, government, and culture, they also need the knowledge and understanding of their history, community, laws, rights, and government within the context of U.S. or non-Western history and policy to be able to defend their land, sovereignty, government powers, and cultural ways of life.


Native Education Strategies


During the early 1990s, while we were developing a minor and major in Native studies, UCLA Professor of Law Carole Goldberg introduced a joint degree program in Native studies and law. The rationale for this joint degree program emerged from our many contacts with Native and non-Native lawyers on a variety of legal, policy, and community issues. Many of the lawyers were dedicated and bright, and served their Native clients well. But we observed that in many cases the lawyers had little understanding of Native culture, social and political institutions, or policy issues. We thought they could better serve Native communities if they had better understanding of Native cultures, institutions, policy, and points of view. The joint degree program combines a two-years master’s degree in Native studies with three years of the law program, but can be completed in four years. The student is required to write a thesis, usually on a tribal law or policy topic.


In order to provide law students with training in the field, Goldberg created the UCLA Tribal Legal Development Clinic. Students were invited to participate in courses on federal Indian law and training seminars on assisting tribal communities on writing legal code, revising constitutions, developing tribal courts, and other work. The clinic does not litigate cases, but provides free services to tribal communities on agreed-upon tasks. Most non-Native students have never visited or worked for a tribal government. At the clinic they have great experiences and leave better prepared to serve Native communities. The clinic’s services are in great demand, with requests from around the country, but the clinic cannot meet this demand with the limited resources available through fundraising and donations, which often come from tribal communities.


The minor-major, joint degree program, master’s program, and clinic all help provide more sensitive understandings of Native history, policy, and community to students. We have also been active in serving education programs to tribal professionals and community members. In the early 1980s, Jerry Gardner, current director of the Tribal Law and Policy Institute in Los Angeles, created a series of courses for training tribal law and court personnel at the New College in northern California. The program provided courses so that Native court and legal personnel could be trained in tribal, state, and federal law to enable them to serve as judges, court advocates, court clerks, or paralegals. After a couple of years the program was closed, in part because the Native people did not want to travel to California for extended periods of time. Some court personnel are now trained through law schools, but most attend week-long or weekend seminars designed to deliver information especially to them. While these short sessions are useful, Gardner decided in the 1990s that he wanted to present more extensive and in-depth training for Native tribal court personnel.


Gardner joined us at UCLA in the late 1990s to create a tribal legal studies curriculum that would deliver directly to tribal communities through tribally controlled community colleges. We applied for several grants and received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education. We named the program Project Peacemaker. The original three-year grant started in 1998 and was extended into 2003. We delivered courses to four community colleges: Diné College, Salish Kootenai College, Northwest Indian College, and Turtle Mountain Community College. The curriculum of eight classes included federal Indian law, introduction to tribal legal studies, tribal criminal law and procedures, tribal legal research and writing, and Native family law. Our strategy was to bring the courses directly to the Native communities and modify the courses so they had cultural content appropriate to each community. We intended to train Native community members in their rights and legal status, assist tribal professionals who needed law knowledge, create certificate and paralegal degrees, and encourage students to enter law careers. One of the main difficulties we encountered was paying local lawyers familiar with the tribal courts to teach the courses on a regular basis. Often the funding was scarce, and the community colleges were not willing to use their own resources to pay the teachers. At Turtle Mountain we were successful in introducing the entire Peacemaker curriculum, in part through the aid of federal grants to pay for student tuitions and support. Northwest Indian College was also successful in introducing most of the curriculum.


Because of the difficulty in finding and paying teachers, we have been experimenting with online Web-based courses. In spring 2003, we introduced an online course in tribal legal writing and research and taught 17 students (about 11 finished the class). In cooperation with UCLA Online Extension, we are testing the offering of the entire Peacemaker curriculum. Three classes were offered in fall 2003, and more courses are scheduled for the winter and spring quarters of 2004. If the online courses are successful we will continue to offer them to national audiences online. The online courses, however, are relatively expensive for community college students—our primary target—because they run about $500 for each four-credit course. A community college student in California pays about $18 per credit. We are still seeking ways to offer the courses online through community colleges and make them more available to community college students. We would also like to develop a market of tribal legal and government personnel who might need additional training in legal issues to help them carry out their work and would subscribe to the classes on a regular basis. One of our most consistent online students is a former tribal chairman and current tribal council member who has been taking the online Peacemaker courses to improve his knowledge and ability to write about Native legal and policy issues. This leader is exactly the kind of student we would like to see take more courses. We hope to present Project Peacemaker as a certificate program online, if we can solve some of the financial issues. With the help the Turtle Mountain Peacemaker grant and other federal funds, we are producing a nine-textbook series in tribal legal studies for the Peacemaker courses, to be published by AltaMira Press.


A Tribal Learning Community


The Peacemaker program provided us with considerable experience with tribal communities and tribally controlled community colleges. We have been able to use much of this experience to create a broader-based program called the Tribal Learning Community and Educational Exchange (TLCEE), which will develop course work on a variety of issues in law, policy, education, economic development, community building, and other topics. Planning for TLCEE started several years ago when we were working with repatriation issues with tribes in southern California. One tribe had suggested that in five years they would create a community center to carry on their culture, and to display objects about their tribal history and culture. The community members asked that UCLA provide internships and courses to train their people to carry on cultural preservation and museum work. At the same time, the community members suggested that all the necessary knowledge did not reside at UCLA, so they would provide community leaders and elders to help teach the courses. This early discussion led to an internship exchange between the tribe and UCLA during 2002. The tribal interns spent a couple of quarters at UCLA taking classes and special seminars; several non-tribal UCLA students took the same classes and then worked during the summer on the reservation.


In order to support the education project, Diana Wilson, a special researcher hired by the vice chancellor for research of UCLA, wrote a grant for the National Endowment for the Humanities and secured about $24,000 to create a seminar and plan trips to Native communities to generate a curriculum based on both Western academic knowledge and tribal knowledge. A seminar took place during the 2002-2003 academic year, during which courses, curriculum, and community relations and input were constantly discussed. The seminar was free-wheeling and ultimately very creative. One of the students from San Manuel, a successful gaming community, offered to help solicit funding from his tribe. After some meetings and a presentation before the San Manuel General Council, the general council offered $4 million as an endowment. At this writing we are still negotiating the details of the gift, but hope to initiate a program based on the endowment funding for the 2004-2005 academic year.


TLCEE is an effort to provide courses directly to Native communities. Many California Indian students do not finish high school, but many have considerable experience working with their tribal governments on the issues that confront the tribe on a daily basis. TLCEE courses will be offered at UCLA, along with online courses directed primarily at southern California students (although they are available to national audiences). The televideo courses at UCLA are subsidized by the chancellor and are therefore free to teachers and students, opening exciting possibilities for exchange classes with other institutions and tribal communities. Academic year 2003-2004 is a planning year, and we are offering at least 10 online courses through UCLA Online Extension, including the Peacemaker offerings in tribal legal studies, as well as courses in business techniques in Indian country, nation-building through economic development, and two Native theater courses. For students at UCLA, and TLCEE students who want to attend UCLA, we are offering several courses including internships in community-building and a course in culture resource management, taught primarily by a southern California elder.


In 2004-2005 we hope to initiate a two-year sequence of electives and required courses for the TLCEE program. The courses are focused on nation- and community-building, and on southern California cultures and current issues. We presented the plan for the TLCEE program in June to a group of southern California Indian educators who had many comments. One person pointed out the need for institutions with Native studies programs and departments to share courses and students. Currently we are forming a Regional Learning Community, which will be composed of colleges, universities, education organizations, tribal education departments, and some tribal government organizations. The Regional Learning Community may share courses and students, and strengthen the existing degree and major programs with more classes and greater choices for students. We have to work out issues concerning tuition, credits, and other institutional requirements. More than 20 colleges and organizations have expressed interest in joining. Most express the view that there are too few courses and faculty at their institutions to mount good Native studies programs. Perhaps by creating distance-learning programs, we can create stronger course and degree offerings. Some institutions wish to exchange graduate courses and upper-level courses. Eventually, we may be able to offer degrees through the coalition.


Education for Nation-Building


We are continuing to test our education ideas and seek ways to deliver them in cost-effectively. Native students need to learn more about their own histories and cultures from the perspectives of their own communities. This learning experience should be a critical element for any Native student, not only to value education and help see its value and relation to community, but also to help develop values and skills necessary to work in the community and assist in its efforts to preserve itself and wisely adopt change that suits its long-term interests. Education for Native students needs to be made relevant to their history and lived experience, and it will then become more valued.


Most schools and colleges do not provide Native students with the perspectives, opportunities, and understandings that assist in building and preserving their communities and nations. Education for Native students needs to start in the community and must incorporate the interests, values, and cultural orientations of the community.


Indigenous studies departments and programs can facilitate this education process, and some Native communities are beginning to take more control over the education of their children. Nevertheless, there are few financial and intellectual resources to support Native education in a nation-building context. We need to create the curricula, intellectual materials, and programs that will help tribal communities develop the leadership and Native technical personnel that will enable them to pursue their values and goals from their points of view. This hope is not a challenge to the mainstream education system, but a means of preserving cultural and national diversity. Education for nation-building is a means to help preserve Native cultures and communities as self-governing cultural and political groups with territory from time immemorial


Duane Champagne is a professor in the Native studies program at the University of California-Los Angeles.

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