Native American Education

Education among the Lakota and Ojibwe can be divided into three units: traditional learning, Euro-American formal schooling, and contemporary education. This does not necessarily mean that these different forms of education necessarily fall along a strictly linear progression of time. Traditional education does still exist today, and white formal schooling is still a predominant facet of contemporary education. As a whole, American Indian education as observed through these two cultures can be separated into two forms: holistic, community-driven education of pragmatics and spiritual growth for survival in subsistence living, and institutionalized federally-directed study of abstracts for participation in a capitalist economy. Traditional education uses the first form, while white formal schooling uses the second, and contemporary education to some extent blends the two, but has a marked bias toward the Hellenistic educational ideals that have become the standard for the Western world.

Ojibwe Traditional Education vs. Euro-American Education

In his book ''Ojibwe Waasa Inaabidaa'', Thomas Peacock describes the traditional education of the Ojibwe in a social and survival context. He describes how Ojibwe children were raised by the grandmothers, aunts, and other elders of a community for the first part of their childhood. Then, at the age of seven, children’s community education was divided along gender lines, and boys were put into the care of their fathers, uncles, and older male cousins to learn their subsistence gender roles of hunting and fishing, and gender artifact manufacture, such as canoes. Girls stayed under the care of the elders and learned the subsistence gender roles of raising crops and wildcrafting plants, and artifact manufacture such as making nets, gathering and processing fibers, and tanning hides. Before any of this was accomplished though, children underwent a subtler, more fundamental education in their first two or three years of life tied to a backboard. Since children would then be carried everywhere and through all kinds of activities, they observed and listened.

This concept of passive learning through observation is fundamental to Ojibwe traditional education, and the Ojibwe cultural outlook on life. Children not only learned by observing their elders, but by observing the natural world, and the Elder Brothers (non-human animals). Peacock says Ojibwe learn contemplation from silence.

After learning the practical life skills of survival, Ojibwe begin the “search for wisdom” through observation, prayer and fasting, fulfilling the dual nature of traditional Ojibwe education. This spiritual cultivation ensures an Ojibwe person’s passage to the Land of Souls. Elders in a community help younger people along his quest through three types of explanatory stories, the amusing, historical, and moral. These stories have both obvious, direct lessons, and also deeper, subtler lessons, which is another fact of the Ojibwe emphasis on indirect education.

Boys will seek a vision in their search for wisdom and wholeness, and though girls may also try to have a vision, girls are considered inately complete because they bear life. The gift of an Ojibwe name is also essential in traditional education, because only with it can a person communicate with spirits, dialogues which will never be revealed to anyone else, making them an aspect of their personal learning. Gifting is another important aspect of the social learning process, in which someone who wants to ask a question of another will present them with a gift of a personal item and tobacco in return for their help.

In keeping with the Ojibwe prioritization of indirect lessons, Ojibwe children are socialized and made aware of unacceptable behavior via clucking and the universally disapproving “look” by grandparents and aunts. Like many indigenous cultures, a boy’s disciplinarian will not be his father, but his uncle, in this case paternal.


With the culturally violent introduction of enforced boarding schools, people were forced to abandon this holistic and community along with their native language and culture. Ojibwe children were made to under go what Peacock describes as “civilization and Christianization.”1) Following this pattern, formal education began in churches and transitioned to mission schools funded by the federal government. Not only was this a stunning shift in educational material for Ojibwe children, but also in methodology. White formal schooling suddenly imposed on them the study of abstract ideas and skills for conformity to the dominant culture, based on Hellenist philosophy that completely contradicted traditional education. At the same time, teachers actively undermined children’s views of traditional education and subjects, including the fundamental educational tool of language.

With the Indian Civilization Act, white formal education received more funding, and transitioned to trade and heavily regulated boarding schools that tore children away from the locus of family and cultural support. Growing up forcibly divorced from their own parents meant that many adults did not know how to parent, the most basic form of education.

Contemporary American-Indian education has demanded more self-determination, tribal schools under tribal control, mandatory classes about American Indian culture and history, and entire university departments for the education of both Native Americans and non-Native Americans. It has, though, followed the course of Western education with Native American content rather than traditional educational methodology. This marriage of institutionalized education with traditional Ojibwe observational and learn-by-doing learning styles has created a new set of paradoxes and challenges for children and youths in the educational system, as well as those trying to make positive change. Tribal schools allow less stringent regulation and more attention to individual learning styles, but in order to remain accredited and seen as valid by the dominant culture, must remain constrained to Euro-American methodologies.

Lakota Traditional Education vs. Euro-American Education

In the context of the Lakota people, traditional education methods are observed most clearly in the community. Elizabeth Grobsmith points out in her ethnography ''Lakota of the Rosebud'' that Lakota communities with a high percentage of native speakers do not retroactively try to instate language programs to preserve their language, but instead children actively learn language through participation in a Lakota-speaking community. In these communities, language retention programs are redundant. She also draws a direct link between bilingualism and overall appreciation and understanding of traditional Lakota culture. Not only is it a matter of the degree of understanding, but the kind of understanding. Understanding of traditional culture is fundamentally different for those who know Lakota and those who do not. English is an introduced language that did not evolve with the concepts of the Lakota and therefore cannot express them completely. Conversely, the modern Lakota language has a whole new vocabulary to express English concepts, and can maintain traditional syntactical forms.

In communities where there is not a high percentage of native speakers, bilingual programs are often initiated, taking language learning away from the home (and arguably, the practical) to the Western-type school (the abstract). For some children this is the only venue where they can learn and practice the Lakota language, but children who are already native speakers and introduced to schools without bilingual classes find themselves suddenly without a context to speak Lakota in. They must conform to a different linguistic lens by using English, and for those who are less proficient, this transition is jarring and counterproductive. Even in classes that teach about Lakota culture, like contemporary schools, they are an example of putting native knowledge in a Western philosophical format.

Like many Ojibwe born in the early 1900’s, to the Lakota white-formal education meant extraction from home, punishment for doing things that were normal to children, and degradation by educators. In these early schools, education was divided by Western rather than Lakota gender roles, so boys learned trades while girls learned domestic skills such as sewing and cooking. Even though adults who went through this system had profoundly negative experiences, they made the connection between education and success in the dominant culture, and therefore encourage their children to go through the same “necessary evil.”

Contemporary Lakota views about education are that one must have both a traditional and formal education to be a “full human being.” This allows people to compete in the capitalist economy of the dominant Euro-American culture, as well as maintain their cultural heritage and pride. Some on-reservation educational programs do not just teach abstract subjects, but pragmatics like traditional bead and quill work. Though these programs, children not only learn about their traditional culture, but also educate others about it through displays of their work. Some Lakota, however, are afraid that participating in dual education will limit their children’s opportunities by emphasizing the past, rather than preparing them for future opportunities.

Fallout From Indian Boarding Schools

Native American education under the direction of the federal government was such an antithesis to indigenous American holistic communal education that many tribes understandably had no desire to send their children away to participate in white schooling. Canasatego reported one eloquent and pithy response by the Iroquois to demands that they forfeit their children for schooling, in which said that while students who had previously undergone this education might be successful by Euro-American standards, they had returned home functionally useless, but the Iroquois would, on the other hand, be happy to foster Euro-American students and teach them how to be “real men.” Unfortunately, they were often not giving a choice. Federal programs and policies for the institutionalized education of indigenous Americans often began with the ideology that civilization means Christianization. Even when school policies became more secular in language, they still operated with this underlying assumption.

Attempts to convert American Indians to both major sects of Western Christianity were often put into practice through mission schools, which taught, among other things, reading and writing so members of various tribes could read versions of the Bible in their own languages. Mission schools were largely unique in that they not only permitted use of native languages, but actively accommodated them, both with the Bible translations but also with missionaries learning the language in order to reach out to their charges. Spanish missionaries in particular were known for this, though not all of them were so tolerant, and even missionaries who might be seen as progressive were often paternalistic in their attitudes.

Upon the American Revolution, however, when the foreign power shifted from distant European nations to the more immediate, virgin U.S. government, federal policy makers’ concerns were for the Euro-American settlers who had fought and been fought for in the war for independence. The settlers wanted land, and institutional education conveniently removed the difficult problems of already existing peoples. Parochial schools were again utilized to “civilize” the American Indian. Hap Gilliland, author of Teaching the Native American, quotes Santee Normal School attendee Charles Eastman who concluded, “Christianity and modern civilization are opposed and irreconcilable[.]” This was obviously not the view of the American government, which operated under the assumption that the two were not only compatible, but often, the same thing.

The primary methodology of the parochial boarding schools used toward this end was that a child’s removal from his or her community and family environment and support system was in the child’s best interest, so that they would be free of unhealthy or progress-inhibiting influences. This resulted in not only the breakdown of traditional education’s generation-to-generation community approach, and therefore the loss of much native culture and traditions, which was an avowed goal of many Euro-American teachers and policy makers. Language destruction is one of the primary tools of cultural assimilation efforts around the world, and at the very least, the use of English over native languages was encouraged, and at its worst, children were severely punished for speaking their mother tongue. These policies were in direct contradiction to the evidence that missionaries with the highest number of converts, ostensibly one of the reasons the boarding schools were created, were the ones who had learned and communicated in native languages. Children were trained in Euro-American gender role occupations, with Euro-American methods (such as cooking and sewing for girls), and were forced to wear Euro-American clothes. Harsh conditions and extraction from their families resulted in a high percentage of students attempting to escape, and many died, while the rest were locked in. The children in these schools also suffered from the non-ideological attitudes of the the school staff, such as many teachers’ complete lack of interest in native peoples. For many Indian education was simply a job, or even a way to make a profit.

One teacher, Albert H. Kneale, discovered that working cooperatively with his charges produced better results in the area of discipline that harsh corporal or social punishments. Teachers who were responsive to their students’ opinions and needs, however, were rare throughout much of the boarding school era. In the 1970’s, during the Reagan administration, native peoples demanded tribal self-determination and policy makers did accommodate them to a degree. This resulted in the creation of tribal schools, which under tribal control better meet the needs of Native American students. While these schools often suffer from underfunding, and rarely have fellow indigenous American teachers, they are usually more local, meaning that students do not have to leave their family/community in order to finish their education, especially higher education. Tribal self-determination policies also meant that it was easier to include more American Indian culture content, though this is an opportunity that is not always utilized in the classroom.

Cultural Challenges in the Classroom

Cultural differences may impede communication between any individuals and communities, but it is an especially sensitive issue in the classroom of Native American students with a non-Indian teacher. These differences can also exist between students of one tribe and a teacher of another, but are generally more pronounced with non-Indian instructors. Historically, cultural differences were only taken into account in the institutional education of indigenous Americans in order to declare that indigenous American culture was wrong, and European or Euro-American culture was right. This and the careful destruction of native culture through subtle and violent indoctrination has resulted in a delicate situation where many American Indian students may already suffer a cultural guilt and insecurity at a young age, which can too easily be reinforced by a failure on the part of teachers to take cultural differences into account.

Hap Gilliland and Linda Miller Cleary discuss many potential differences between American Indian students and non-Indian teachers that might inhibit education. Some of these differences are temporal-spatial concepts, a group focus rather than individual focus, and socially acceptable expressions of emotion and inquiry.

Personal Space

Different perceptions of time and space create some of the most basic and instinctive cross-cultural misunderstandings. A classic example is how far apart people feel comfortable speaking, which varies greatly from culture to culture, and has many other variations based on the individual, gender, and social class. In many Western cultures, an arms length or is considered comfortable, while many Middle Eastern cultures, it is more comfortable to speak at distances where one can almost feel the other person’s breath. Among people who use signed languages, a much greater distance is preferred so that both signers can see all of the other’s gestures and facial expressions in one “screen.” Gilliland says that generally speaking, traditional Native American students will be more comfortable speaking closer than the average Euro-American is used to, and the instinctive “step back” may be perceived as aloofness. This may be due in part to the intimate familial-community relationships that many traditional indigenous Americans live in, and that many of them speak softly.


Tangentially related to spatial considerations is volume. Euro-Americans are world-renowned for their loud, boisterous voices, and as Gilliland notes, many Euro-Americans are accustomed to being “matched” in volume by the other party and use volume to manipulate the intensity and enthusiasm of a conversation. Distinctions are made between anger, excitement, and passion with tones, facial expressions, and force. For Han Chinese, shouting in an everyday, arms length conversation is neither considered a sign of anger nor unusual. In many Native American tribal cultures however, excessive volume is a sign of aggression, and should only used in that context. Non-Indian teachers, both by speaking as they normally would in their own culture, and possibly in attempts to “liven up” the class, may antagonize students by speaking too loudly.

Concepts of Time

Temporal considerations are also important when taking into account cultural differences. Every culture, even those who have adopted the Western clock, have different ideas of time and what is “on time.” For many Euro-Americans, “on time” means ten minutes early. For the Japanese, “on time” means the exact time stated, for Costa Ricans it means thirty minutes past, and for Ecuadorians it means two hours past. Gilliland uses a comparison of the American, Mexican, and Native American expressions, “Time flies,” “Time walks,” and “Time is with us.” Speaking in generalities, indigenous American concepts of time are more fluid, and predicated on the variation between seasons and weather rather than arbitrary units of marked time.

Response Time in Conversation

American Indian use of time in conversation also varies from what the average Euro-American considers normal. The average Euro-American expects an immediate response to turn-switching cues (which are also differ between cultures) or to a question, whereas some Native Americans might consider it only respectful to give a statement or question thoughtful consideration before responding, even if they already have a reply. For Euro-Americans, if a person needs time to think, it is customary to have to say, “Give me a minute to think about that,” while in many American Indian cultures this idea is implicit. To non-Indian teachers, this “lag” may make them believe a student is not paying attention, is overly shy, or is being uncooperative. Also, when they do respond, traditional students will usually be very concise, compared to the verbosity expected by the Euro-American world.

Asking Questions

Cleary specifically addresses how traditional Native Americans will make comments rather than ask direct questions. At first she thought people making such comments were making value judgments, but later recognized this as an indirect line of inquiry, where there was an implicit expectation of an expectation.

Sharing Answers

To largely group-oriented traditional Native Americans, sharing answers on tests may seem like a cooperative effort instead of “cheating,” a concept which is based on the idea of individual effort. Also, conventional modern school strategies, such as relying on individual competition, do not usually work well in American Indian classrooms. Students may feel active participation in discussion separates them from their friends, or that answering correctly after a friend got a question wrong is self-promotion. Native American children tend to value group solidarity over individual achievement.

Emotional Displays

To Euro-American teachers used to the wide range and intensity of emotions permissible in public, the Native American tendency to restrict the display of strong emotions except in rare circumstances such as mourning may seem frigid or timid. Native American students, on the other hand, may believe they are maintaining social harmony by putting group welfare and mood above their own.

Eye Contact

Another possible difference Gilliland notes is differing ideas about eye contact; as a general rule, indigenous American peoples view less eye contact as a sign of respect, where as Euro-Americans tend to see direct eye contact as a sign of respect, and perhaps more importantly, trust.


In the case of non-Indian speech pathologists, differences in concepts of syllabary may cause difficulty. English is a notoriously complicated language with as many spelling and phonetic rule exceptions as there are rules. English also has many sounds, some of which are very difficult to pronounce by the standards of the rest of the world, especially the “th” sound. Phonemes and vowels that come naturally to native English speakers are alien to most people who do not speak Germanic or Slavic languages. Failure to recognize this could result in frustration for both the speech pathologist and the student, potentially leading to a greater alienation from English for a Native American child.

Working Together

As Gilliland readily states, not all of these differences may exist in every Indian student/non-Indian instructor, and not every misunderstanding will necessarily lead to irreparable tension in the classroom. On the other hand, Thomas Peacock says how he still has difficulty switching between these two cultures' ideas of normal behavior. All of these differences can be understood and overcome on both sides, but it is the duty of the instructor to do his or her best to meet the students on their own ground, especially in circumstances of severe cultural discrimination like indigenous Americans have been subjected to for the last three centuries.

Classroom Methods

There has been significant evidence in research in the past three decades that conventional educational methods, those involving inter-student competition, motivation by percentage and letter grades, and the study of abstracts with little or no practical application, are inhibiting learning. Therefore, new methods have been introduced into classrooms that improve self esteem and utilize cooperative learning. These methods are appropriate for all students in a classroom learning environment, but they are especially necessary for many traditional Native American students. The reasons for this are twofold. First, these methods suit indigenous American culture much better than the isolationist, Hellenist model of institutional education. Second, due to a long history of oppression and cultural destruction via the educational system, many students may feel too jaded or inhibited want to learn.

Gilliland stresses the importance of cooperative learning as the best way for any group of students to learn in a classroom environment, but especially for Native American children. This is not just a learning method, but arguably a learning style. There are several other learning styles, that, as a general rule, apply more to Native American students than Euro-Suburban students.

Observation and Visual Learning Style

Traditional American Indians 2) tend to be much less verbal, with a focus on visual learning that includes a desire to have concepts, ideas, and facts shown and demonstrated. They will then usually observe until they feel comfortable doing or talking about it themselves. This visual learning style can be tapped into through videos and other multimedia presentations and hands-on demonstrations by the teacher or other proficient elder. These could include crafts, dioramas of historical events or traditional ceremonies, and pictures. To incorporate learning public speaking skills and theatre, students can take on the role of someone else and act out an event or situation. By being someone other than her or himself, the child often abandons previous inhibitions based on the desire to not disrupt the status quo.

Team Competition

Since traditional American Indians tend to be much more willing to compete as teams, as their competitiveness benefits their teammates, team competition can be a useful method, if used frugally. This allows for a potentially more intense and enlivened atmosphere, which could be taken advantage of if students otherwise find the subject boring or difficult to grasp, and also allows them to assist each other in their learning.

Holistic Introduction to Subjects

Another important learning style more commonly found among Native Americans is the desire to see the whole before the details, rather than moving step-by-step. Teaching methods that can utilize this learning style include the use of maps and other graphical representations of data on posters to illustrate the whole, and then have specific elements attached outside, showing the exact points where they relate to the whole and other elements. In mathematics, a particularly abstract subject, graphs may help students understand the interaction between variables and numbers.

Creative Writing

Gilliland writes about creative writing techniques such as parallelism, addressals, and similes mostly in the context of individual effort, but collaborative stories and poems are an exciting way work with friends. Working with other people using figurative language and personification opens avenues one might not have explored, but allows one to share in that creativity rather than have each person’s effort confined to her or himself. All indigenous cultures have ancient story telling traditions, and students could choose to build upon existing myths or create new stories of their own, contributing to the body of the story tradition of their people. This is a way to participate in their own native cultures in a contemporary, still-evolving ways in addition to honoring their ancient traditions.


This same approach can be taken to reading. Rather than restricting reading activities to being read to by a teacher and reading independently, students can read to each other in a circle, taking turns. By picking a text that is engaging to all of them, they can all be motivated to contribute to do their best for the benefit of the group, and they will want to encourage and support each other in order to hear everything. Children will not want to disappoint their friends by being unable to do their part, a far better social motivation than criticism or disappointment of an instructor. If someone is unsure about a word, or doesn’t understand a grammar point, they can ask their friends for help without being too intimidated to ask the teacher. When possible, to incorporate traditional elements, the reading group can be organized in the traditional story-telling structure of their people (ie. shape of the gathering, ordering of people, traditional dress, an outdoor locale).

Positive Reinforcement

For reinforcing learning and self esteem, Gilliland cites evidence from research and his person experience, about how immediate but unobtrusive, specific, individual praise, and more obvious praise about a child’s part in assisting the group as a whole are the most effective methods. These will convey a teacher’s approval and happiness at the children’s success without singling them out and potentially making them feel isolated from the group, which might make an individual withdraw and not try again. Besides the verbal praise most Euro-American teachers are familiar with, smiles and small touches might be more meaningful to Native American children, though this is something the teacher will have to learn about his or her particular community.


The integration of Native American materials and learning styles into the subject area of mathematics could be particularly challenging and interesting. Mathematics is a very abstract subject, known for being unpalatable to many students as onerous, hard work. There is strong evidence that math programs that use story telling as the medium for teaching math, such as the Interactive Math Program (IMP), result in greater comprehension and retention of math.

The story problems presented in the IMP system, where students are presented with a long story problem and then set off to use existing math skills to find new forms of equations and algorithms on their own and build on their progress, are largely very silly and based on European or Euro-American situations (eg. kings and dump trucks). Stories, which appeal more to a visual style of learning, could be developed in groups and adapted to tribal legends, variations using tribal mythological figures, or local figures and family that would be familiar to many students through their extensive network of relations. Also, since traditional indigenous American children may learn guided and globally better than discovering linearly, they could preview the ultimate equations before returning to the basic equations they will build on, or dissect the equations.

Tribal games are also an excellent venue to explore mathematics, especially probability and statistical analysis. Traditional architecture could be used to explore trigonometry, and students could even build models or moderate full-sized structures. Traditional clothing could be an avenue to explore geometry for patterns, and ecology for the animal and plant materials the clothes were made out of. Both these examples would allow students to make an interdisciplinary approach using secondary research, math, history, interviews (of elders or other knowledgeable persons) among a group toward an exciting and practical goal.

David M. Davison, in Teaching the Native American, suggests recording the data of a throwing arrow contest (presumably in teams) to represent the distances graphically. This same activity could be used to explore velocity, force, wind sheer, and gravity. Davison also uses the study of buffalo as a mathematical opportunity, by calculating the number of people a buffalo can feed, buffalo herd sizes across the years, grazing land needed, and buffalo migration.

The integration of native languages and mathematics must be carefully considered, because while some languages do have terms for many mathematical concepts, English has a more specialized and extensive mathematics vocabulary. This lexicon often differs from the use of the same words in conversational English, which is an important distinction to make. If students are not familiar with math terms in their own language and the terms are available, this presents another opportunity to enhance knowledge of native language.

Contemporary Challenges

Contemporary American Indian colleges face many of the same problems as boarding schools in terms of relocation. This is especially true for students with children of their own, who because their energies are devoted to studying, do not have as many opportunities to educate their own children through parenting. These challenges are eased somewhat by local universities such as Sinte Gleska which offer both local education and local control, but like many American Indian schools, it suffers from underfunding.

The dynamic of American Indian education provides a profound example about the damage an arbitrarily enforced education system can be to indigenous culture and language. It also, however, demonstrates the resilience of so many Native American cultures that have been maintained despite such calculating oppression. Whether modern American Indian education will continue to follow Western Hellenist paradigms or return to traditional holistic social methodologies will remain to be seen.


See Also


1) Reyhner, Jon, and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
2) Cleary notes that it is important to gauge how traditional students are. To assume that students are completely assimilated in their attitudes or completely traditional, both impossibilities, will inhibit learning. Every student is somewhere in between the two extremes of the continuum.

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