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Native Education Curricula
TIME FOR AN UPDATE
By Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), Vice President, Academic-Career-Technical Education

26 October 2009

BISMARCK (UTN) - Recently a former NIEA President, Ryan Wilson, suggested there should be a comprehensive review of American Indian education. “Given this year’s 40th anniversary of the 1969 Kennedy Indian Education report,” he said, “we need to know where we are and plan ahead.”

      As a former NIEA president myself, I wholeheartedly agree. It’s time for tribal leaders, educators and other stakeholders to update the curricula used in the education of American Indians in the U.S.


Dr. Phil Baird

      Here at United Tribes and at other tribal schools, I’ve been listening to students discuss what a 21st century Native curricula should encompass. There are some emerging themes and topics to consider.

TRIBAL IDENTITY

      Indian identity in America continues to be an issue, especially as ethnicities among our young Native people become more diverse with multiple tribal and non-tribal bloodlines. Some students say this isn’t an issue. That is, until they find out they or their children are not eligible for financial aid, tribal housing, voting in tribal elections or other benefits and privileges afforded to tribal members because of blood quantum limitations.

      Our updated curricula needs to provide opportunities for students to explore their tribal identity from a variety of contexts – historical, cultural, political, spiritual and global – so they understand their unique place in the world.

SELF ESTEEM

      Indian self-esteem closely follows identity. Tribal young people carry psychological baggage tied to their sense of being “Native,” the term they now prefer. Unfortunately, Indian people are still coping with historical trauma, racism, stereotypes, sports marketing (e.g., UND Fighting Sioux), and competition for limited tribal resources and benefits. These affect how our people feel about themselves.

      There is also geography. The 2000 census suggested that more than half of this country’s Indian people now live away from reservation communities. Issues of self-esteem are raised when they are labeled as an off-reservation or “urban” Indian disconnected from indigenous homelands, relatives, tribal governments and native cultures.

      Schools and tribal colleges should create learning environments where students can better understand the factors affecting self-esteem, and strive toward the goal of healing and nurturing positive feelings of pride and self-worth.

SOVEREIGNTY

      Many young tribal people do not understand the legal/political relationship between tribes and the federal government. This is the case despite 40 years of advocacy and teaching about the treaties and the U. S. Constitution. This disconnect clearly limits an understanding about legal issues, such as water rights. It also affects awareness and understanding about tribal land and natural resource management, energy development and the many questions surrounding indigenous people and global climate change.

      Tribal political identities and homelands are at stake if our future leaders are not intimately familiar with treaties, sovereignty and the legal/political relationships with various governments. Contemporary lawsuits such as the Cobell and Keepseagle cases will impact future interaction with federal agencies. An update of Indian education curricula should include the subjects of sovereignty, basic Tribal legal foundations, jurisdictions, and foreign relations.

POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT

      Political activism is another area of interest among young people. Tribal college students took a strong interest in Native voter education during last year’s national elections. I recall several years ago how some United Tribes students were intrigued with a presentation about Wounded Knee II. They asked for a college course that would include Indian events of the 1960s and 70s, now approaching 40 and 50 year anniversary dates.

LANGUAGE-CULTURE-HISTORY

      Our young people continue to ask for lessons about tribal language, culture and history. Over the past 40 years, curricula were developed in these areas. The extent to which these curriculum were integrated into schools depended upon the priority placed on cultural education by tribes and local communities. More recently, we know that “No Child Left Behind” caused a shift in school priorities away from cultural education. Meanwhile, there continues to be great concern about native language loss.

Our young people continue to ask for lessons about tribal language, culture and history. Over the past 40 years, curricula were developed in these areas. The extent to which these curriculum were integrated into schools depended upon the priority placed on cultural education by tribes and local communities. More recently, we know that “No Child Left Behind” caused a shift in school priorities away from cultural education. Meanwhile, there continues to be great concern about native language loss.

THE FUTURE

      These are some of the ideas and themes to consider in updating Native education curricula. Certainly there are other areas such as technology use, development and succession of tribal leadership, workforce skills development, tribal land ethic, intergenerational transitions (e.g., “Digital natives who are native”), adult education, and lifelong wellness.

      This dialogue is by no means a suggestion to remove the top priority that educators must place on 21st century basic education skills such as reading, writing, math, science and technology. Rather, the topics and suggestions here should be seen as supplements and enhancements to current curricula to keep learning and education relevant. How and at what educational level these might be integrated should be topics of consideration.

      Reviewing and upgrading the curricula used for educating American Indians is necessary and important. It is my hope that educators and leaders will work on this at the annual conventions of organizations like the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).