Reading, Writing and Finding Sovereignty
 American Indian Education  

American Indian Education

books |  conferences |  articles |  columns |  contact |  links |  index | home 

This article appeared on pages 19-21 in the April 2006 issue of Indian Education Today published by the Native American Journalists Foundation, which became the Native American Review in August 2006 and ceased publication in December 2006.

Reading, Writing and Finding Sovereignty

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

Sovereignty is a big issue today that revolves around decolonization and taking back local control of Indian country. While much of the discussion involves federal policies like self-determination and strengthening tribal governments, what does sovereignty mean for the individual tribal member? Taking back control involves taking responsibility for one's life and for one's nation, rather than leaving it to others to make decisions. It can mean paying taxes to support one's tribal government; it means choosing or being competent, visionary leaders; it means being educated.

Sovereignty means that one has to deal with other sovereign nations on a government-to-government basis and that involves knowledge about laws, treaties, policies, business, economics, and a vast variety of subjects that cannot be dealt with without a modern education, including competency in reading and writing. However, Indian schooling for most of history has been anti-Indian sovereignty. It was designed to assimilate students into the mainstream society, often to become low paid service industry workers. So it can seem natural to oppose education in the name of sovereignty or to push a "traditional curriculum" that ignores "white" non-Indian things like reading and writing.

However, as the novelist Thomas Wolfe says, you can't go home again. Are most Indians, even if they could, willing to give up their pickup trucks and other modern conveniences that are part of our modern technological society? You are not sovereign if every time something breaks down you have to call in a "white" guy to fix it--whether that be an auto mechanic, a lawyer, or a medical doctor. No wonder there is so much unemployment on reservations if much of the work there goes to outsiders.

Education does not have to be for assimilation. It can focus on local challenges--whether they be environmental, social, or economic--and they can be dealt with using traditional Indian values and a technical/scientific education that is not the exclusive property of white Euro-Americans. The Chinese, Japanese, and many other peoples around the world are showing us that every day. To study important local challenges is to take control of them and work to improve them. Local issues need to be studied and that includes, but is not limited to, reading up on them and writing about them. So how do you become better readers and writers?

The U.S. Department of Education's 2000 National Report Card on Reading found that fourth graders who read better watch less television, read more for fun, talk more about reading with family and friend, and have more books, magazines, and newspapers in their homes. The emphasis a family and a culture put on reading influences how much effort children put into reading. Stephen Krashen in his book the Power of Reading notes also how important it is for communities and schools to support libraries, especially in low-income communities where families don't have the money to buy many books.

Teachers need large classroom libraries with material on a variety of topics and at a variety of grade levels to give their students choice about what they will read while schools need large libraries that often in isolated rural areas also must serve the whole community because of the lack of public libraries. Dr. Sandra Fox (Oglala Sioux) writes in her introduction to the Creating Sacred Places for Children curriculum published by the National Indian School Board Association, "reading to children is the single most important activity that parents can provide to help their children succeed in school" and recommends that teachers:

  1. Use reading materials that relate to children's lives, to help them understand that literature is experience written down and that it is interesting to read.
  2. Strengthen and expand children's language abilities by providing them many opportunities to have new experiences, to learn new words, and to practice oral language in English and in their Native language.

Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, the first Navajo woman surgeon and now an Associate Dean at Dartmouth Medical School, notes the importance of becoming a good reader in her 1999 autobiography The Scalpel and the Silver Bear. She attended the public high school at Crownpoint in the Navajo Nation where, "I made good grades...but...received a very marginal education. I had a few good teachers, but teachers were difficult to recruit to our schools and they often didn't stay long. Funding was inadequate. I spent many hours in classrooms where, I now see, very little was being taught." What saved her later in college was her "strong reading background." She writes, "I read my way through the tiny local library and the vans that came to our community from the Books on Wheels program." Encouraged by her parents "to read and dream," she could even get out of chores by reading.

The U.S. government recognizes that students who read well tend to do well in school and in life, so its efforts to improve academic achievement tend to focus first on reading as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 does with its "Reading First" provisions. Reading First is largely based on the 2000 review of research done by the National Reading Panel authorized by Congress in 1997. However, the Panel in their extensive review of research did not look at the issue of student motivation and looked only at experimental studies, none of which focused on American Indian or Alaska Native students. The Panel did not look at any ethnographic studies where researchers actually went into classrooms and observed the interactions between teachers, Indian students, and textbooks. The Panel ignored what Sylvia Ashton Warner learned in teaching Maori students in New Zealand that:

First words must have an intense meaning.

First words must be already part of the dynamic life [of the child].

First books must be made of the stuff of the child himself, whatever and wherever the child. (Teacher, 1963)

The Panel strongly emphasized the importance of phonemic awareness despite the fact that half the words in the English language do not follow commonly taught phonetic rules. English has borrowed many words from other languages, including American Indian languages, and pretty much kept the pronunciation from those languages. Warner recommends beginning reading instruction with a "key vocabulary" that are sight words a child uses in conversation and have deep emotional meaning for this child, not the often "dead" vocabulary from the textbook. New words chosen by each child are put on cards and reviewed daily. As Warner notes, getting to know your students' key words is getting to know your students—their hopes, fears, and the challenges they face growing up.

However, if there is one thing I have learned from over thirty years working in Indian education, it is the need for balance and harmony. Because it can be effective to treat a child's beginning reading vocabulary as sight words (words to be memorized rather than sounded out) does not mean that students don't need to learn the relationship between the sounds of a language and its writing system (other than for idiographic writing systems such as the one used in China). But even for phonically regular words, local "rez" dialects may well pronounce a word differently than from the "correct" way given in the textbook.

For that half the words that follow common phonic rules, these rules need to be taught, but using words that students will know the meaning of once they sound the word out in contrast to using whatever "canned" vocabulary list a reading textbook happens to use. One can start with something like the beginning sounds of the names of the students in a class and play with changing those sounds so every student's name starts with the "p" sound on Tuesday (Olin becomes Polin) or one can do an activity with students, have them talk about it, and then write down what they say—there own stories—and use that for the reading lesson, which is called the language experience approach. The final part of any reading lesson needs to go beyond phonic and other activities and focus on comprehension because getting meaning from text is what reading is all about. As Luther Standing Bear noted in 1928 in his book My People the Sioux, just pronouncing words is only parroting—what parrots do when they "talk."

As the research review I did for the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force over a decade ago found, up into high school dropouts view school as boring and unrelated to their lives and they perceive teachers as uncaring—more interested in the subject they teach than the lives of their students. In my 2006 book Education and Language Restoration I write about my son Tsosie's chemistry teacher, Mansel Nelson, at Tuba City in the Navajo Nation. Mansel began to rethink the way he taught soon after arriving in Tuba City after his best chemistry student asked him "Why are we learning chemistry?" He began thinking of ways to make chemistry relevant to the lives of his Navajo students. He started taking local community issues and challenges and teaching chemistry around them--issues of water quality, diabetes, and uranium mining. Like Warner with her key words, Mansel sought to connect the "foreign" content of the mainstream textbook curriculum to actual concerns of his students and their community. His students talked, read, and wrote about these concerns in Navajo and English and by studying these issues prepared themselves for sovereignty—taking control over their own lives and the life of their community.

Students need to read well to do well in advanced mathematics and science classes as well as in language and literature classes, and to read well students need more than instruction. Whether it be basketball or reading, children need to practice, practice, practice to become really good. Series books like those in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books can provide students the practice they need to become fluent readers. They can also learn how much more is in these books than is in the movies that are made from them. Besides popular books like the Potter series, there are many excellent books by and about American Indians that students can read if they are available in school libraries.1

Too much emphasis on book reports and accuracy in reading and writing can discourage and even create resistance in students as reported by Cleary and Peacock in their book Collected Wisdom where they interviewed teachers of Indian students. It is critical as Sylvia Ashton Warner notes that students learn that reading it not just something one has to do in school; it can be an enjoyable recreational activity.

Also, to become good writers students need to do more than fill in blanks in often boring classroom worksheets. They need to write a lot, and their writing will help them learn to reason better and process information about things that are important to their lives and their communities.

Besides the importance of using relevant curricular materials and learner-centered instructional practices, psychologists note the importance of choice in motivating students. Effective schools researcher Dr. Larry Lezotte declares, "we tell kids from a very young age that you are responsible for your own learning, but we don't give them much authority over the learning." He emphasizes that, "Choice is a powerful variable in the learning game" and that "virtually all learning is an act of choice on the part of the learner." He quotes author Peter Block to the effect that, "If you can't say no, yes doesn't mean anything." While students need to learn the knowledge and skills codified in state standards, they also need to have some choice in what they read and what type of learning projects they work on. Sovereignty is a nation making their own choices about their future, and education should be the process of preparing citizens to help make those choices intelligently. Dick Littlebear, now president of Chief Dull Knife College, has summed up the importance of Indian education for sovereignty:

It is difficult for our Native American languages and cultures to survive and it will get more difficult. One of the reasons for this increasing difficulty for Native language groups is that we are in the midst of a cultural transition which has demeaned our languages and cultures. However, remember that our cultures have proven their ability to survive and adapt over the past thousands of years when they have undergone other cultural transitions.,,, [W]e must devise our own strategies to counter the negative effects of cultural transition. Especially since this cultural transition is being complicated by alien organizational systems, by high technology, by alcohol, by drugs, by ambiguous values, by exploding populations, by erosion of language and culture, and by a shrinking world which brings new demands that impact daily the remotest villages and reservations. Because of these complications, this transition is forcing us to realign our cultures to fit the present educational, economic, political, and social circumstances in which we native minority language people find ourselves. However, I believe we can use the white man's education, as we Cheyennes refer to it, to our advantage.

By manipulating the white man's education we can shape our cultures to our liking to fit our needs. After all, it is the white man's education and the way it was perpetrated on us that we have objected to; we have never objected to learning itself. Manipulating the white man's education is a challenge. Let's not be discouraged. But above all, let us not say we do not want the white man's education. Though it was imposed on us insensitively, let's make it our own by giving it our own unique cultural input and making it relevant to our situations. Our languages and cultures will have a better chance of surviving if we have the same academic knowledge as the dominant society.

1Recommended lists of books can be found at

books | conferences | articles | columns | contact | links | index | home 

Copyright © 2010 Northern Arizona University, All rights reserved.