The K-12 system didn’t fail the American Indians. Its methods have followed its own design to the letter…

Formalized education in the United States was not designed to empower us. It was designed to pacify us, while it extinguished our culture.

Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.

The relationship between the American Indian people and formalized education within this nation is one of contention, controversy, and trauma. The school system of the United States was not designed to give our people an opportunity at having a stable, thriving life whereby our culture could flourish. For that reason, when evaluating it today, the educational system of the United States has in fact been a success.

From the earliest days, the federal government’s plan for “educating” American Indians was to forcibly relocate and assimilate our elders within the dominant American culture. The chosen vehicle to accomplish this task, after warfare, were the schools. The targets of these assimilative practices were the most impressionable and vulnerable population to be found – our youth. After years of rolling warfare throughout the American frontier (what the United States would refer to as the “Indian Wars” but what we refer to as our fight for survival) a deep desire to pacify the indigenous people once and for all permeated the halls of Washington D.C.

Yet even before the bloody conflicts of the 18th century came to their malicious conclusion with the massacre at Wounded Knee, the dominant culture had already philosophically justified their subjugation of indigenous people through their own legal opinions. Courtesy of the Marshall Trilogy of Supreme Court rulings during the 1820’s, our ancestors were deemed as nothing more than “wards of the state” – wayward orphans in need of the continual guidance and protection as rendered by the federal government. It was believed by elected officials of the day that the United States possessed an obligation to incorporate American Indians into the greater American diaspora. More importantly, the federal government sought to prevent us from disrupting the successful westward expansion of the nation through our ongoing resistance to white settlement as effected through force of arms.

A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Credit: Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.

Sixty years later, as our warriors and spiritual leaders were killed, assassinated, and imprisoned, federal concern then turned towards the next generation. As described in the works by David Wallace Adams, John Reyner and Jeanne Eder, and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (Education for Extinction, American Indian Education: A History, and White Man’s Club – respectively) thus began a systemic conscription of American Indian children – often times taken forcibly against the will of their parents – on into a rigid educational structure situated far away from their families and ancestral lands. It was here at these remote locations, behind the high brick walls that bordered the stone barracks where our children were warehoused – that the public educational system set to work to purposefully exterminate our cultural identities. Today this period is referred to by American Indian scholars as the “Boarding School Era.” Yet within those institutions, despite the inhumane brutality imposed upon them on a daily basis, our ancestors heroically managed to keep our culture alive. In the face of corporal punishment, sexual and mental abuse, and isolation, the culture was somehow preserved by those that were there. This continuance of our language and of our ways – often times pursued in secret and at great risk to the individuals who dared – will serve as a supreme act of resistance from which our currently reality is derived.

By the 1920’s, when it became apparent that the forced assimilative practices of the boarding schools were failing to engender the desired results sought by government officials (i.e.: the complete extinction of indigenous cultures in North America), mainstream public schools in surrounding municipalities were then turned to as the principle means for acculturating American Indian youth. Here, as before, there were no considerations whatsoever regarding our unique cultural status, and our desire to preserve it. As a result, no allowance was made for any type of educational offering to support our indigenous identities. Instead, our youth at that time were enrolled into a public education system that had been modeled upon the estimable tenets valued by an industrialized society. Along with their non-Native peers and recent European immigrants, students were force-fed into an academic machine that provided assembly-line educational practices designed to produce “citizen widgets” – capable of little more than holding down menial, low-skill jobs upon graduation. Our boys were taught rudimentary skills within the industrial arts, and our girls were schooled only in the ways of home economics and child rearing. Such a narrow focus reflected the limited nature to which educators viewed the prospective futures for American Indian youth. These methods would continue on without disruption for the next forty years.

Credit: Canada Biblio Archives
Credit: Canada Biblio Archives

It was not until the political upheavals of the late 1960’s, where the civil rights movement and identity politics surged to the forefront of American consciousness, when the American Indian community began to galvanize for change. For our people, the work of Vine Delora, Jr., Richard Oakes, John Trudell, and the American Indian Movement brought forth a new awakening that called upon the need to practice and teach our culture in more overt ways – particularly if it were to survive for future generations. As detailed within Judy Davis’ 2013 work, Survival Schools, by the early 1970’s the American Indian people began to take community control over the education of their children. Parents and elders began placing emphasis on the practices and traditions of our people over the insistence of an industrialized educational system that had thus far failed to provide a stable future for our people.

As a result, within these new, small, community-controlled schools the American Indian culture became the fulcrum upon which the development of our youth would hinge. Yet despite these modest successes occurring in rather isolated pockets, the majority of our children were still ensnared within the machinery of American public schools, with their academic achievements wilting under the continual denial of the life-giving traditions and customs that were such familiar nutrients within their homes and amongst their families. For so many of our students, academic success was a near impossible realization as they found themselves being ground up between the gears of a system that continued to refuse to acknowledge cultural distinctions among their students.

Now with the 21st Century underway, many new and progressive educational approaches have begun to surface in several different locations, and have been applied towards American Indian education (many of which were pioneered right here in the Twin Cities). The work of the Minneapolis Public Schools District’s Indian Education Department, as well as schools such as Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, stand as powerful testimony to the efficacy of this new vanguard of pedagogy – whereby a strong hybrid of American Indian culture and traditional academic pursuits are offered in tandem for our students. Yet funding remains at a premium, rationed out among a myriad of other enterprises deemed of equal import by civic leaders. There is so much more to do, particularly when considering what is occurring beyond the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.
The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.

In this respect, the public school system continues to fail the majority of American Indian students, but when considering what it was designed to do by its original architects, it also could be argued that it has performed exactly as intended. As current academic data in the state of Minnesota indicates, the youth of our people continue to struggle mightily to achieve in this current educational system. In the end, as they reach adulthood, many cannot help but to emerge and live lives within the modern economy that resemble the very “wards of the state” designation bestowed upon us by John Marshall nearly 200 years ago. Yet despite these recorded failings, the current system remains incredibly rigid – still slavishly adhering to its own industrialized design and sense of self-import. Despite the successes demonstrated in certain arenas as mentioned above, the system continues to addictively reinvest staggering amounts of money back into its own failing enterprises without much in the way of incorporating new and innovative models that have proven successful. Why?

A century ago, the provision of a proper education for our people that included our culture, and that was supported with a full complement of resources was believed to be a dangerous enterprise – empowering designated enemy combatants of the United States. It was believed by government leaders that such measures would invariably reconstitute an indigenous resistance, that once reformed would have to yet again be contended with by the United States military – only now perhaps on more equal footing. This was simply never in the plans for this republic during its infancy, whose citizens found themselves squatting on foreign land and feigning ownership of a continent that was not theirs.

Here now, in 2016, evidence continues to pour in yearly demonstrating that the educational system simply does not work for all students – in particular for American Indian youth. Instead of diversifying their approaches, and further supporting differentiated delivery models that offer culturally contextualized programming (such as what is offered at Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, or through Minneapolis Public School’s Department of Indian Education), the system powers forward insisting upon the preeminence of its own authority and efficacy – despite the data. For our community, such insistence by the system in favor of itself makes us wonder what its true motivations are. From our perspective, it is hard to see much difference from what has come before and what is in effect today. As we tend to our children and grandchildren, we are no longer interested in feeding them into a machine that merely produces wards of the state. We demand something different . . .