May 22, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Fall 1993 Vol. 2 No. 3
The Path of Native American Education: Where Tradition and Technology Meet
By Richard Simonelli
Native people, while they hold their traditions sacred, are knowledgeable in mainstream ways, including trends in education and technology. Our writer talked with educators at three reservations and with first nation philosophers about issues surrounding Native American education. He found that some leaders and teachers fear that exposure to modern technology in the schools will result in assimilation of young Native people into the non-native culture. Others argue that this technology can be instrumental in preserving and teaching traditions and may even be used to educate the wider society in Native ways. As our writer explains, tradition and technology meet on the first nations' path to the future.
The educational journey of American Indian students rolls down a long and varied scholastic highway, stretching from reservation preschools and Head Start programs in rural Native communities to prestigious urban universities lying far away from Indian cultural centers. Native American students attend both reservation and urban public schools, private alternative schools, and, increasingly, more than two dozen unique tribal colleges.
The education of modern Indian people thus spans two distinct value systems and two world views: The Native American sacred view encounters the material focus of the wider society. In this encounter lies the possibility for an educational give-and-take, a two-way street on which educational reform might prosper in the winds of cross-cultural dialogue.*
(*In 1821, Sequoyah developed his written syllabary for the Cherokee language in the belief that literacy would prove beneficial to his people.)
Sequoyah teaches his Cherokee Syllabary.
The mainstream voice in this dialogue offers the reemerging First Nations a standardized subject matter plus the latest tools in educational technology. Computer hardware and software, coupled with telecommunications, open up education as never beforeand many Indian students and teachers are as excited as anyone about participating.
With its sacred tone, the Native voice in such a dialogue offers values essential to a survivable future. The center of the Indian vision is people and relationships. Indigenous values include cooperation, respect, generosity, courage, wisdom, spirituality, and an integrated, or holistic, world view. Without harmonious communities and societies, what good is the abstract European-American notion of progress with its attendant technological tools?
Native Americans are now gaining access to the information superhighway and acquiring skills crucial for the economic development of reservations. Native communities are cautiously emerging from centuries of isolation and poverty with the help of modern education. But Native people disagree among themselves about the role technology should play in their future. Many feel that their own ways of understanding the worldsometimes called indigenous scienceare far less harmful to the earth and to the lives of individuals than is Western science. In some Native communities, technology is applied to daily living in a minimal way so that their culture won't be destroyed. This careful use of technology is termed subsistence science. As the future unfolds, Native American involvement with technology will probably span the spectrum from a little to a lot. How much will depend on the needs of both individuals and communities.
A few Native American school districts utilize and produce modern technology-based educational tools. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, and the Hannahville Indian Community on Michigan's Upper Peninsula have one or more schools that are truly exemplary in their uses of technology. While these schools are not typical of all Indian schools, they do show the direction in which Indian education may be headed.
And that has many Indian people and leaders concerned. They worry that education may be the ultimate agent for assimilating Native societies into mainstream culturesomething that Native Americans have resisted ever since European contact some 500 years ago.
Oren Lyons is a respected leader and faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation whose ancestral lands lie in what is today upstate New York. As a chief of the Turtle clan and a college professor, Lyons does what he can to keep his people's history and traditional values alive. Before a gathering of about 2,000 Native American college students in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1992, he expressed his feelings about the tightrope Native people walk as they move deeper into the American educational process.
We've always looked upon education as being a way of assimilating our people. And indeed, if you look at the law on Indian education, it says very clearly that its purpose is to assimilate the Indian people into the mainstream of American life. I've always been against assimilation. I've always been for the Nation, for the people. And so, a little warning: As you move through these times, as you take your steps, not only should you look back, but you should walk back and not make education a brain drain from your territories and from your nations. You should go back. Put your efforts back into the people. Support where you come from, because we are in perilous times. Be careful. I'm a teacher; I'm a professor at the University of Buffalo. That tells you what I think about education. I really moved into that position as a defensive measure to catch some of our people before they were totally assimilated. To remind them.
Many Native leaders would argue that the best Indian education today combines a solid curriculum in Indian culture and local reservation or urban issues with instruction in academic and vocational subjects assisted by educational technology. The best Indian education reminds people of who they are culturally while simultaneously taking them into the future. But some wonder whether Indian values can survive among all those hard drives and megabytes.
Vine Deloria, Jr., is a Standing Rock Sioux, a noted author, and a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. For many Americans, his 1969 blockbuster book Custer Died for Your Sins is synonymous with the Native American drive for self-determination that began in the late 1960s. Professor Deloria writes about the relationship between education and traditional Native culture in his book of essays, Indian Education in America.
Education in the English-American context resembles indoctrination more than it does other forms of teaching because it insists on implanting a particular body of knowledge and a specific view of the world which often does not correspond to the life experiences that people have or might be expected to encounter . Education in the traditional setting occurs by example and not as a process of indoctrination. Elders are the best living examples of education and of what the end product of education and life experiences should be.
Deloria's criticism of American education, particularly as it is applied to Indian people, is that it's not education in the true sense at all. Rather, it's a refined vocational training that prepares people to assume roles in the job market. He points out that traditional Native American knowledge enabled people to see their true place and worldly responsibility. In contrast, Deloria says, Formal American education helps us to understand how things work. He feels that these two thrusts are worlds apart and that it is important not to confuse the two. The major shortcoming in American institutional life, he concludes, is that most people cannot distinguish these two ways of knowing. For many Americans there is no personal sense of knowing who they are, so professionalism always overrules the concern for persons.
Knowing who we are implies an inner knowledge, a knowledge of the person that may have little to do with information coming down an electronic superhighway. This kind of knowledge is important to traditional Native people. Here, at this juncture, Native American respect for wisdom and spirituality stands apart from the de facto goals of the dominant culture.
Deloria calls for local control of Native education, emphasizing that the activity should be perceived as Indian or tribal. Traditional people, he says, should teach a curriculum that includes tribal histories, languages, customs, and traditions. His vision for Indian education may well be at odds with modern teaching tools and methods already at work in Indian country. But those same tools and methods can be used to educate young Native Americans in just the way Deloria envisions.
Is it really possible for tradition and technology to go hand in hand on the path of Indian education? On at least three reservations they do.
White Earth Reservation
The Mahnomen school district has about 950 students in grades kindergarten through 12. It is located on the White Earth Indian Reservation800,000 acres of mixed forest, prairie, and lake-studded lands in northwest Minnesota. The district's commitment to the use of technology in the education of its mixed Ojibwe Indian and non-Indian student body is strong, as the presence of 400 computers attests.
Brent Gish, of Ojibwe descent, is principal of the Mahnomen Elementary School. Of the technological tools in his school, he says: We have been extremely fortunate, first of all, to have the resources within our school district, and then the support of the administration and our school board, to make technology a real priority, a very high priority. We are one of the leaders in our region, and we're told in the state. There are very few schools with more technology than we have.
Computer technology in the Mahnomen schools includes automated desktop teacher tools, such as report card, lesson plan, and record keeping for outcome-based education. Gish speaks with pride of this wider computer usage: We're all connected by electronic mail. The teachers are able to communicate back and forth. He also is proud of the student setup. We have business labs with technology; we have writing labs at the high school. Children have access to computers in the classroom, as well as in lab situations, that are all connected with server units. We can call up one program and serve the entire student population. We have projection capabilities. It isn't just drill and practice. It's one of the ways we enrich our basic curriculum.
The elementary school (K6), with 160 children, is supported by 35 computers. And computers are just being introduced intensively at the kindergarten level.
Kindergarten teacher Gayle Gish, wife of the principal, is a non-Indian who has lived on the White Earth Reservation for more than 20 years. She explains that there are very few full-bloods at White Earth, and few children speak Ojibwe or come to school with English as a second language. Yet the staff and students of the Mahnomen schools have produced their own CD-ROM program, Culture and History of the White Earth Ojibwe, which includes Ojibwe language instruction as well as history, geography, and appearances by local Native leaders. The language curriculum is supplementary; in class and through the use of this program, teachers hope to rejuvenate and expand interest in spoken Ojibwe among both students and their parents.
Gayle Gish says that her kindergarten kids take to computer instruction immediately; it's natural for them, having been TV viewers all their lives. To the little ones, computers are just two-way TVs. She speaks ardently of the connection her students have formed with computer instruction. My children, starting with kindergarten, have no fears of it. This is just an extension of their lives. I suggest that the parents come in so they can learn with their children. Even though the kids are only five years old, they have knowledge they don't even realize they have because they're experimenting without fear.
The establishment, maintenance, and effectiveness of the large networked computer system at the Mahnomen schools would not have been possible without the encouragement and expertise of Kent Estey. An Ojibwe born and raised on the White Earth Reservation, Estey received a degree in mass communications from nearby Bemidji State University, then left Minnesota for a while to work in radio, TV, and sales. Traveling around with his 1984 Macintosh, he learned everything he could about the Mac from books and courses.
On his return home in the late 1980s, Estey worked as a paraprofessional in special education for the school district. He began to observe what was going on with computers and education, becoming a fervent proponent of the transition to technology which he knew the schools must make. A computer position with the district was created for him, and as he tells it, his part-time hobby became a full-time job. Now I feel like I'm playing every day because it's so excitingand the kids are enjoying it. But it's taken a lot of salesmanship on my part. There are teachers who've been here for 30 years, and all of a sudden there are computers on their desks. I tell them, You can do this! You have to believe that you can do this!’
In demonstrating technology use in White Earth education, Estey sometimes encounters disparaging comments. He speaks to such deprecation eloquently.
There are those who say that Indian people don't learn using these new tools and [that] they are in conflict with some of the traditions. My belief is we're never going back. And there are those who would like to keep us in the woods in the tipi and not let us move forward, [but] we're moving ahead. We find that our kids absolutely love the computer and are comfortable with it. And they know that in a job today they're going to run into a computer. But there are those who have given us some flack. Isn't this against your tradition? They're non-Native peopleand that's what's interesting. It's non-Native people who've been the most critical of our program because they profess to be knowledgeable about Native Americans. Our response has been: Who would you rather have producing Native American software than the Native American people from the reservation you're talking about? Non-Indians are concerned about preserving the heritage, and they want us to stay back there and not move forward. Isn't that a form of prejudice?
Pine Ridge and Hannahville Reservations
Misty Brave is a 1992 Christa McAuliffe Educator and a teacher of high school biology in the village of Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She is of Sicangu Lakota background; her people come from the Rosebud Reservation, which lies just east of Pine Ridge. It is a large reservation of 2.8 million acres and is a home of the Lakota (Sioux) people, whose portrayal in Dances with Wolves opened up channels of understanding between Native people and the rest of North American society.
Little Wound School, with an enrollment of 750 students in grades K12, is committed to using computers and especially multimedia as part of regular instruction. At the school, Brave and her students mix tradition and technology daily so that students may meet the future, keep their traditions, and contribute to global understanding.
Brave confesses to having had a Mac attack. In other words, she's a passionate supporter of educational technology. She likes to describe one great moment in cross-cultural education made possible by advanced telecommunications. Her students were linked via picture phone with students at another school in the Midwest, which had just stopped using an Indian mascot for one of its sports teams. As students on both ends of the hookup viewed each other live, one of Brave's students asked a child at the other end, Do we look like Indians? Across the audio portion of the telelink came a tiny voice: No. You look like people.
Little Wound School uses two-way teleteaching hookups with other schools in South Dakota. Enthusiastic about teaching in this manner, Brave says, It's a good way to share your knowledge with people who are not immediately with you. When asked if anything is missing in teleteaching, compared with classroom teaching, she thinks for a moment. Maybe, she says. Maybe some of the humanness, some of the closeness. But it's something you get over. It's a mind-set that changes and you get used to.
Technology and tradition truly follow the same path at Little Wound School, where community elders are an important part of education. They are involved with the placement of spoken Lakota onto HyperCard, and many of the instructors in the Lakota culture curriculum are elders. The community has a foster grandparent program in which members are asked to assist the school as aides. Sometimes they are paid because they offer considerable cultural expertise, but more often than not, they are volunteers who wish to be deeply involved with the education of the young people.
Navajo Sunday Saddle Blanket, Circa 1870s.
Is Misty Brave concerned that extensive use of technology will erode Indian culture?
I don't think technology encourages assimilation. When you're working with computersthat's the medium that kids are using these daysyou've got to go with the flow. Go with what attracts them. My kids want to show others their values of wisdom, respect, generosity, and courage with these new things. My message to these kids has always been: Be different. You don't have to be like everybody else. I let kids know that it's OK to be different; it's OK for one to like the computer, and for another to hate it. Assimilation? No! There will never be. The new technology is just another way of showing us to people.
The Potawatomi tribe is yet another Native group combining ancestral ways with the use of technology. The Hannahville Indian Community on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a small, 2,850-acre reservation, has a K12 school of 100 students supported by 40 computers.
Science and math teacher Rich Sgarlotti champions the use of computers at the school. He points out that in biology classes, for instance, the use of dissection simulation software fits into the Native culture's reverence for animal life because it means that fewer specimens are killed. Both students and teachers at Hannahville's school are free to take computers home, thereby improving access to technology for parents and others whose economic means may be low.
Where the Path Begins
The First Nations of North America have survived 500 years of cultural erosion and are reemerging into a new springtime. Education of all sorts plays an important role in this reemergence, and traditional values remain a guiding light for Native people. The Four Worlds Development Project of Lethbridge, Albertaan organization dedicated to individual and community wellness for Native peoplesums it up: Through the guidance of the tribal elders, Native values and traditions are being taught as the primary key to un-locking the force that will move Native peoples on the path of their own development. The elders have prophesied that by returning to traditional values, Native societies can be transformed. This transformation will then have a healing effect on our entire planet.
Technology and tradition can meet and walk in harmony on the path to Native education, as evidenced in the schools at White Earth, Pine Ridge, and Hannahville, where mainstream educational techniques, ideas, and technology are held up to the wisdom of Native traditions. And, wisdom is a magical glue that binds together facts and all kinds of knowledge to create real understanding. The whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Without wisdomfacts, information, and especially knowledge become downright dangerous. But what is wisdom? Where is it found? And what is our purpose in seeking it?
These are questions education should never stop asking.
Painting of Sequoyah, reproduced from cover of Indian Education in America: Eight Essays by Vine Deloria, Jr., with permission of AISES.
Photos of Native American artifacts courtesy of Gordon L. Fritz, American Indian Research and Art Studies, P.O. Box 35865, Tucson, AZ 85740.
At the time he wrote this article, Richard Simonelli was environmental editor of Winds of Change, a magazine dedicated to American Indian education and opportunity published by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). His feature articles on aspects of modern Native American culture and development have appeared in other U.S. and Canadian magazines. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.