Partnering with Indigenous Education

By Richard Simonelli

Indian education in North America is experiencing the most profound and exciting change it has ever known. Native people are entering mainstream post-secondary institutions of higher learning more than ever before, but they're making this transition in a way they hope will keep their cultural identities intact. At the same time that some native people find themselves moving into the wider educational community, others are rediscovering and beginning to teach the ageold principles and practices of indigenous education, which have nurtured indigenous cultures worldwide for thousands of years.

Embracing both mainstream Western education and traditional indigenous knowledge offers urban and reservation communities the best chance for both physical and cultural survival in the 21st century. This twofold educational movement among Indian people­pursuing a college education while at the same time relearning viable principles behind the Old Ways­promises mainstream educational reform a potential new ally. But where must it look for this collaboration and what questions should be asked? And what has happened in Indian communities allowing traditional wisdom to be heard once again?

According to Dr. Gregory Cajete­a Tewa from Santa Clara Pueblo, educator and author of Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education­the principles of tribal education arise directly from connection to place. He says, "The very word 'indigenous' is derived from the Latin roots indu or endo, which are related to the Greek root endina, which means entrails. Indigenous means being so completely identified with a place that you reflect its very entrails, its insides, its soul." Cajete's book is a scholarly work describing the principles by which tribal people were taught. It stands one step before actual curriculum design and development. But like indigenous education itself, the book contains stories, myths, drawings and commentary which attest to the intrinsically holistic nature of indigenous education.

Tribal peoples worldwide often use circular symbols to describe the inherent connectedness or holism of all phenomena. One expression of this is called the Medicine Wheel. The Medicine Wheel originates with Plains Indian cultures and its teachings are like a compass that can help individuals, communities or nations understand the whole-system implications of their activities. The Medicine Wheel teaches that all individuals are comprised of spiritual, emotional, mental and physical qualities. In one rendering of the Medicine Wheel, the human spirit is connected with north, emotions with the east, mental qualities are located in the south, and the physical aspect is identified with the west. The Medicine Wheel teaches that there are also societal and communal qualities carried by each of us. These are placed in the center of the Wheel to show that healthy community is the result of whole persons. The key idea in Indian education is that in order for harmonious, productive community activities to occur, all principles of the Medicine Wheel must find expression in education.

The qualities of indigenous education are a direct outcome of being deeply committed to place. When people feel affection for where they live, a sense of the whole develops and the intuitive faculty of compassionate vision comes into existence. Vision or far-seeing allows individuals and communities to articulate healthgiving plans and goals which, as the Iroquois people say, must look seven generatins into the future for the good of society. What are some of the principles of indigenous education? Look to the Mountain touches on these, and many more:

1. Comprehensive thinking and awareness of diverse areas of knowledge must be active in all aspects of education. Indigenous education is interdisciplinary education.

2. Nature is the first teacher and model of process. Connection to nature is not romantic or sentimental, but essential for survival. Whether in kindergarten or studying calculus, indigenous education is environmental education.

3. Indigenous teaching focuses as much on learning with the heart as on learning with the mind. Indigenous education always includes the affective or feeling side of life.

4. Overt intellectualization is kept to a minimum. Teaching through a real situation expands the realm of learning beyond speculation. Indigenous education favors direct experience and learning by doing.

5. Readiness to learn is a basic determinant of learning. Indigenous education seizes moments of teachability as the best teachers.

6. At all levels, whether in preschool or in a university engineering program, the relationship of student and teacher is key. Indigenous education is always a person toperson process.

7. Teaching and learning is a matter of serving and being served. Indigenous education is servicebased education.

8. Creative dreaming, art, ritual and ceremony help the student externalize inner thoughts and qualities for examination. Indigenous education includes the inner world.

9. Learning is a socially and community based experience. The student moves freely between private study and group experience. Effective indigenous education is that which takes place between learners and their community.

10. From middle school to graduate school, learning is connected to each individual's life process. Education is a relationship between one_s inner self, family, community and the natural environment, as well as involvement with the information content of the subject. Indigenous education is first and foremost a sacred life journey.

Spirituality and the sacred are important values in traditional indigenous cultures. What these words signify to any individual may be a very personal matter. But in order to discuss indigenous education, the central role of these must be kept in mind.

Although the concepts contained in Look to the Mountain are ancient, they are also new to many Indian people due to the destructive, and highly effective, assimilation policies of the federal government. As Indians move into higher education, sometimes they seem to be caught in noone's land. Cajete says, "Indian people continue to struggle with modern educational structures that are not of their own making, but are separated from, and compete with, their traditional forms of education. There continues to be an educational schizophrenia in Indian education as it exists today. Indian people continue to be one of the most educationally disadvantaged and atrisk groups in America."

For Indians to succeed in college and also retain their varied traditions, it is becoming increasingly clear that the strength and support of the Indian community at school is a makeorbreak factor. Schools with high Indian retention and graduation rates are those with good Indian programs. Indian programs form the nucleus for panIndian communities often far from a student's home country. Effective Indian support programs are those which have a solid funding commitment from the administration, a native director advocate who has also been down the educational road and students with a keen desire to give back to their people. If these exist, then Indian student organizations, tutoring and mentoring relationships, ceremonies, celebrations and the caring and sharing which are part of Indian culture support students in an educational system with values very different from their own.

Cornell University has an Indian student population of approximately 70 graduate and undergraduate students plus an excellent Indian support program. Cornell also offers a modest academic Indian studies curriculum. At Cornell, Indian Studies is a course concentration that benefits both Indian and nonIndian students. Colleges nationwide usually administer Indian support programs and Indian studies programs as two distinct entities.

The Akwe:kon (pronounced aGWAYgohn) residence at Cornell University is a new Indian program house in which people of all ethnicities are encouraged to live together. Akwe:kon is a Mohawk word meaning "all of us." Akwe:kon, in fact, pioneers a handson approach to teaching about cultural diversity because people share housing and get to know each other first hand. It is just one example of the principle that, indigenous education favors direct experience and learning by doing. The Cornell Indian program is also developing partnerships with Indian communities and school districts among the Indian populations in upstate New York. A conference on economic and educational matters was held at Cornell in early June so that grassroots Indian community members and K12 Indian educators from around the state could talk about their needs.

The "Science Clan" at Northeastern State University (NSU) in Tahlequah, Oklahoma is yet another example of grade school-university partnerships taking place in Indian education.

Native American science students from the AISES (American Indian Science and Engineering Society) chapter at NSU have begun to take a "Mister Wizard" science show on the road, serving many rural schools with Indian enrollments. The volunteer effort of the Science Clan offers many youngsters the first glimpse of handson science that they have ever sen.

What is the possible common ground between Indian education and mainstream education? In particular, what can the educational reform movement learn from native people striving to meet their own educational challenges? The education of whole persons, by re-emphasizing the ethical, affective and humanistic foundations of education, is certainly suggested by studying the ten aspects of indigenous education excerpted from Look to the Mountain. And a fresh look at what is meant by "sacred" in contemporary culture might come as a boon from such a collaboration.

The new field of traditional or indigenous knowledge is another possible area of crossfertilization. Native peoples have always had their own understanding of plants, animals, stars, the environment, prehistoric migrations, and knowledge resulting in harmonious community, to name but a few categories. AISES, in partnership with noted author Vine Deloria, Jr., has hosted four traditional knowledge conferences since 1992, and more are planned to further explore this field. There are also innovative traditional knowledge programs currently underway at the California Institute for Integral Studies, Sinte Gleska University (Mission, South Dakota), Northern Arizona University and Evergreen State College (Olympia, Washington.)

At its root, indigenous education is about human virtue, respect, sharing, caring, helping and humane and ethical relationships. When these exist then technical knowledge has a better chance to become a community builder rather than a community destroyer. As Indian students increasingly learn the skills and technologies which have become synonymous with Western, American education, mainstream public education has an opportunity to reexperience in partnership with native people a face that it once knew. Partnering in this way we can_t fail to realize that we are all indigenous to the earth.

Back to Table of Contents of the Fall 1996 Issue of On Common Ground

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