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Indigenous Education and the Prospects for Cultural Survival

All too often, the world’s 350 million indigenous peoples have been forcibly expelled from their ancestral lands to make way for ill-conceived development schemes, colonization programs, and military occupation. Dispossessed of their lands—and hence their economic livelihoods—many indigenous peoples have been forced to migrate to cities and towns in search of work. Historically offered the least amount of schooling and access to basic social welfare services, displaced indigenous peoples have been marginalized. Many have been driven to eke out a living in the squalid shantytowns that ring the globe’s urban centers.


As indigenous peoples are deprived of their territorial, economic, and political autonomy, their customary beliefs and values—which once unified them and their communities—begin to waver. The result is invariably the loss of a community’s cultural identity, particularly as the sense of pride in language, traditional practices, and respect for elders gives way under pressures to conform to the dominant national society and the “modernizing” and seductively alluring impulses of global popular culture. Indeed, the story of indigenous education is intimately tied to the “introduction to Western concepts of progress and to the global marketplace,” as Jon Mingle notes in his article on Ladakh.


Notwithstanding the abysmal record of historical abuse and colonial domination exercised through the imposition of formal education, indigenous peoples and their allies have long contended and amply demonstrated that Native peoples have their own forms of local knowledge, practical expertise, and culturally specific means of transmitting knowledge, albeit marginalized (and in some cases violently suppressed) by the dominant agents of national society. Formal education has often been associated with language death and those forces undermining indigenous peoples’ distinctive identities, worldviews, forms of social organization, and cultural practices (Crystal 2000). Configured by an urban, monolingual-based model of pedagogy, formal schooling tends to be deeply authoritarian in practice and hierarchical in its organization. Moreover, imposition of dominant national languages (such as English and Spanish) through state-sponsored literacy programs has separated indigenous peoples from their traditional means of socialization and customary modes of expression. As a result, we see examples like the Ifugao of Northern Luzon, Philippines, who, Leah Enkiwe-Abayao notes in her article, are taught about Shakespeare, “but remain ignorant of their own epics such as the Hudhud and the Alim.” Industrial Western models of pedagogy (emphasizing individual rather than collective achievement), and “education as a commodity,” are, as Tracey Lindberg, Priscilla Campeau, and Janice Makokis contend in their essay, “antitethetical to traditional indigenous notions of information sharing.” Not only have indigenous students learned skills that are not appropriate for their particular socioeconomic and historical situation, they have also been indoctrinated into being ashamed of their own cultural and linguistic heritage.


While it is clear that prospects for indigenous peoples’ cultural survival may be analyzed in general sweeping terms, it is also evident that a close analysis of each local and regional case reveals significant recent transformations in approaches to inter-cultural education. Over the past generation, states have become increasingly more tolerant of cultural difference. Indigenous peoples have used the change in the political climate to advance rights-based claims for self-determination, political participation, and cultural autonomy. As demonstrated by the contributors to this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly, innovations in educational practices have provided hope for the cultural survival of indigenous peoples.


Cultural survival is not a matter of maintaining a way of life, frozen at a particular moment, as if it were in a virtual time warp. As Cultural Survival co-founder David Maybury-Lewis (2003) contends, cultural survival is a relative concept that is not about cultural stasis. It involves what he notes are a peoples’ “cultural control and continuity” in the face of an ever-changing world dominated by global processes. In addition to a secure land base, this survival means freedom of religious, cultural, and linguistic expression, rights which members of dominant national groups all too often take for granted. Notwithstanding governments’ historical disinclination to act on behalf of subalterns, indigenous peoples’ participation in education is an essential part of transforming abstract policy formulations into long-awaited results that make a real difference in peoples’ lives. The complex history of Haskell Indian Nations University provides a poignant illustration of the contradictory histories characterizing indigenous education around the planet, which range from ethnocidal assimilation to emancipatory ideologies of Native sovereignty, self-determination, and cultural revalorization.


Located in Lawrence, Kansas, Haskell is emblematic of the significant transformations in official educational policy toward indigenous peoples. Over the last century, Haskell evolved from a school for assimilating Native American children, into a fully accredited university that celebrates indigenous peoples’ cultural diversity.1


The Case of Haskell


Haskell was an early Indian boarding school and is now the oldest inter-tribal university in the country. One of a handful of “boarding schools” for American Indians founded in the late 1800s by the United States government, Haskell’s 180-degree transformation took place slowly, gaining additional momentum during the late 1960s and 1970s with the florescence of Native American Indian activism. The federally financed university traces its roots to one of the most bitter legacies of the Indian wars of the 19th century, which followed European migrations west, and led to the confiscation of Native American territories and natural resources, culminating in the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) of 1887. In treaties dating back to the late 1700s, the U.S. government acquired millions of acres of Native American peoples’ land in exchange for promises to provide education, health care, and other services.


Established by the U.S. government in part to fulfill a number of treaty obligations that promised to educate Indians in return for their ancestral lands, Haskell opened its doors in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training School. Haskell first provided agricultural training for grades one through five. In 1890 Congress renamed the school in honor of the late U.S. Representative Dudley C. Haskell, former chairman of the House of Representatives committee on Indian affairs, who died while serving as a congressman from the second district of Kansas.


The U.S. government used Haskell and similar boarding schools, such as Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, to instruct young Indians in the “civilized and enlightened ways” of national society. As a result, Native American children were separated from their homes and families and marched off to boarding schools where they were not allowed to speak their mother tongues. School leaders cut off children’s hair, discarded customary garments, and refused to let students practice traditional forms of spirituality. Boarding schools embraced military regimentation as the preferred pedagogical model, and as an essential tool of ethnocide. In his 1886 Annual Report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Haskell's Superintendent Arthur Grabowski wrote that, ”It was deemed necessary to establish during the year a stricter system of discipline then heretofore prevailed. A cadet battalion organization of five companies broke up the tribal associations."


Native students at boarding schools wore uniforms; they were assigned to battalions, and were subjected to a strictly regimented life ordered by bugles, bells, and alien rules. Harsh discipline, including corporal punishment, was the fate of those Native students who strayed from the rigors of daily life in the boarding school, which included long hours of hard work to keep Haskell operational.


While some Native American families willingly sent their children to Haskell, believing it was beneficial, others reluctantly forfeited their children to the Indian boarding school through coercive, government sponsored round-ups reminiscent of the Spanish reduciones. With an eye to redirecting loyalties to school and away from family and natal communities, students were obliged to stay at Haskell for three or four years. Difficult, lengthy separations were common; many students were not allowed to return to their families during their time at Haskell.


Bordered on one edge by wooded area and surrounded by a five-foot chain-link fence, a half-acre cemetery behind a small sewage plant on the Haskell campus bears witness to the ghastly horrors of violent cultural transformation, including the deadly ravages of disease, the tumultuous effects of family destruction, and the cruel history of formal Western education. One of the cemetery’s first occupants was a six-month-old Cheyenne boy named Harry White Wolf. He was among nine Haskell children who died during the bitterly cold Kansas winter of 1885. By 1889 there were 47 graves in the cemetery. Forced work, poor nutrition, inadequate medical attention, psychological trauma, and rampant sickness, including respiratory infections, tuberculosis, pneumonia and diphtheria, all took their toll. The burials at Haskell for the most part ceased by the first decade of the 20th century, but the exact number of deaths is unknown due to a fire that destroyed the records in the early 1900s.


Despite the dreadful conditions, enrollments at Haskell steadily increased to more than 400 students. Students formed new intratribal associations and communities of mutual support that helped them endure, and in turn shaped the contours of contemporary Native American societies. By 1894 academic training at Haskell expanded to include the eighth grade, and a normal school was established. At Haskell, boys studied tailoring, farming, and black smithing, and they learned how to make wagons, harnesses, and footwear. Girls studied the domestic arts, including cooking and sewing. Most of the school's food was grown on Haskell Farm, where students were expected to participate in the various stages of agricultural production.


By 1927, the secondary curriculum had been accredited by the state of Kansas and Haskell began offering post-secondary courses. Industrial training became an important part of the curriculum in the early 1930s. By 1935 Haskell had evolved into a post-high school vocational-technical institution. Academic reform occurred under the direction of Haskell's first indigenous superintendent, Dr. Henry Roe Cloud who is credited with encouraging the introduction of culturally appropriate approaches to indigenous education. Roe Cloud's progressive leadership foreshadowed the shift of official indigenous educational policy, from assimilation to self-determination. Indeed, Roe Cloud encouraged Haskell faculty to, "build up curricula for ability levels, different interests, and needs of the student, and turn out eventually Indian leaders who can manage their own individual lives, understand civic responsibility and know how to enrich tribal and family life."2


Haskell's high school program was gradually phased out, with the last class graduating in 1965. Haskell became Haskell Indian Junior College in 1970, and began offering a junior college curriculum.


In 1992, Haskell’s board of regents recommended a new name to reflect its vision for Haskell as a national center for Indian education, research, and cultural preservation. The following year, Haskell changed its name to Haskell Indian Nations University after receiving accreditation to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary teacher education. Haskell is now fully accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and offers a number of degrees: Associate of Arts, Associate of Sciences, Associate of Applied Sciences, and a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education. Several baccalaureate programs have been developed including Native studies, environmental science and engineering, natural resources management, and business. Today, Haskell has an average semester enrollment of 800. Students represent federally recognized tribes from across the United States and are as culturally diverse as the country’s geography.


Faded photographic images from local historical archives bear little resemblance to life on the contemporary Haskell campus, where students attend lectures by prominent indigenous activists, including Rigoberta Menchú and Vine DeLoria, and prepare for midterm examinations by seeking spiritual strength in sweat lodges. In addition to the accoutrements of academic ritual, graduation ceremonies now include pow-wows and eagle feather headdresses.


In terms of academic programming, Haskell actively integrates American Indian and Alaskan Native culture into all its curricula. Of special note in the development of culturally appropriate educational models and practices is Haskell’s elementary teacher education program, which was conceptualized and developed by Haskell faculty members in consultation with other Native and non-Native educators involved in Indian education. Working to preserve the history of Haskell’s transformation from boarding school to an innovative university at the forefront of indigenous education, Haskell Indian Nations University now has a cultural center and museum to house its archive collections, artifacts, and oral history projects. Symbolizing both continuity with the past and the changed nature of Haskell, the Medicine Wheel is a landscape design of sacred means. The design was envisioned by Haskell art instructor Les Evans and Nate Tafoya of the Santa Clara Pueblo, and created by crop artist Stan Herd with the help of the Haskell community. It symbolizes Native spirituality and the sacred nature of the cosmos. The history of Haskell is reflective of the broader challenges of self-determination and cultural survival associated with indigenous education.


Cultural Revalorization & Language Revitalization


Intercultural education raises a number of difficult questions which overlap spatial, cultural, and temporal boundaries. How can indigenous peoples appropriate Western knowledge and educational models in ways that advance their own community-based interests, particularly in the face of the digital revolution and the various pressures emanating from market-based economies? How can indigenous education, as Duane Champagne argues in his article, “uphold the values, interests and cultures of Native communities and nations”? Or similarly, how can indigenous peoples become, as Linitä Manu’atu notes in her article, “producers of knowledge rather than simply consumers of technical skills and ideas”?


This issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly provides readers with a reliable and timely source of information on indigenous education. To this end, contributions explore the active participation of indigenous peoples in education and training programs, while also examining the administrative, financial, and political challenges facing contemporary indigenous communities. Taking her cue from the Tongan notion of TalanoaMälie (peaceful social dialogue), Manu’atu demonstrates how the “rich tapestry of TalanoaMälie” has led to educational innovation in New Zealand. Similarly, Mingle details the the innovative work of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh, which was founded in 1988 in response to inadequate educational opportunities in northern India.


The role of education in indigenous peoples’ struggles for autonomy and self-determination is emphasized by a number of the articles in this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly. Champagne chronicles the development of Native studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and explores the prospects of “education for nation building.” Developing the model of indigenous education “for and by indigenous people,” Lindberg, Campeau, and Makokis assess the challenges and benefits associated with culturally relevant distance education in Canada. Philip Dennis and Laura Herlihy’s article about the “pluri-ethnic university,” the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Carrean Coast of Nicaragua, demonstrates how higher education is central to the Miskitu, Mayanga, Rama, and the Afro-Caribbean Creole and Garifuna peoples’ struggle for cultural and political autonomy. Following her review of the history of the formal and customary education systems of the Philippines, Leah Enkiwe-Abayo explores the emancipatory potential of an indigenous pedagogy based on context-specific learning systems.


In light of perceived language decline worldwide, support for and understanding of indigenous peoples’ expressive genres have become vitally important to their cultural survival. Emphasizing the pioneering work of the Oklahoma Native Language Association, Tracy Hirata-Edds, Mary Linn, Lizette Peter, and Akira Yamamoto’s article documents how teacher-training seminars have created a knowledge base and a pool of teachers and speakers with the skills necessary to revitalize endangered languages in Oklahoma and Florida. José Antonio Flores Farfán and Cleofas Ramírez Celestino’s essay on cultural survival in Guerrero, Mexico, evaluates efforts to develop a culturally sensitive corpus of Nahuatl narratives designed to promote cultural revalorization and language revitalization.


While this issue of Cultural Survival Quarterly stresses cultural revalorization and language revitalization programs, it also emphasizes efforts at providing access to knowledge, skills, and technical proficiency associated with formal Western. As Ray Barnhardt and Anagayuqaq Oscar Kawagley note in their article on education reform initiatives in rural Alaska, “indigenous knowledge systems need to be documented, articulated, and validated.” To this end, Barnhardt and Kawagley discuss how the principles of both complexity theory and self-organization have influenced the educational reform strategy of the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, which has fostered complementarity between the formal educational system and indigenous communities.


Highlighting innovative and collaborative educational partnerships committed to restoring and maintaining indigenous peoples’ cultures and languages, the authors voice—in different but complementary ways—a common concern for the cultural survival not only for the people with whom they work, but for indigenous peoples throughout the world. Perhaps most importantly, the contributors demonstrate the strengths of an intercultural pedagogical approach that is sustained through direct and on-going contact with local indigenous communities.

1. See

2. Indian Leader (1934, June 8).

Bartholomew Dean is a professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, and also teaches in the graduate program of Amazonian Studies at the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima, Peru. He is book reviews editor for Cultural Survival Quarterly

References and further reading

Crystal, D. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dean, B. (2004). Digital Vibes & Radio Waves in Indigenous Peru. In Protecting Indigenous Intellectual Property Rights: Facing Legal Barriers, Developing Innovative Solutions. Riley, M., Ed. Walnut Creek, California: Altamira Press, Native American Series.

Levi, J. & Dean, B. (2003). Introduction. In At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights & Postcolonial States. Dean, B. & Levi, J., Eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Maybury-Lewis, D. (2003). From Elimination to an Uncertain Future: Changing Policies towards Indigenous Peoples. In At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights & Postcolonial States. Dean, B. & Levi, J., Eds. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


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