Teaching Indigenous Languages  

Teaching Indigenous Languages

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Note: This paper was first published in The Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, Volume 12, Special Issue III, Summer 1993, pp. 35-59.

American Indian Language Policy and School Success

Jon Reyhner


On October 30, 1990, President Bush signed the Native American Languages Act (Title I of Public Law 101-477). Congress found in this Act that "the status of the cultures and languages of Native Americans is unique and the United States has the responsibility to act together with Native Americans to ensure the survival of these unique cultures and languages" (102, 1). Congress made it the policy of the United States to "preserve, protect, and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice, and develop Native American languages" (104, 01). "The right of Indian tribes and other Native American governing bodies to use the Native American languages as a medium of instruction in all schools funded by the Secretary of the Interior" is recognized (104, 5). Furthermore, the act declared that "the right of Native Americans to express themselves through the use of Native American languages shall not be restricted in any public proceeding, including publicly supported education programs" (105).

The Native American Languages Act has three important implications. First, it is a continuation of the policy of Indian self-determination that has been effect over the last twenty years. Second, it is a reversal of the historical policy of the United States Government to suppress Indian languages in Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other schools. And third, it is a reaction to the attempt to make English the official language of the United States. The Act represents the grass roots support of Indian people for their native heritage. This article looks from a historical perspective at what impact the implementation of the American Indian Languages Act might have on Indian education.

There is no question that there are problems with Indian education today that need immediate attention. The 1991 Audit Report of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Inspector General showed students in BIA schools achieving on average far below non-Indian students and "generally not receiving quality educations" (Office of Inspector General, p. 11). Bureauwide average percentiles ranged from a third and ninth grade low of the 24th percentile to a twelfth grade high of the 32nd percentile. Students in only two out of 153 schools had average scores at or above the fiftieth percentile (Office of Inspector General, p. 11). The issue today is how do we change Indian education without repeating mistakes of the past.

The history of the suppression of American Indian languages is especially relevant today as organizations such as U.S. English and English First lobby for a constitutional amendment to make English the official language of the United States. Crawford ( 1990) identified sixteen states that have made English their official language. In addition, books, articles, and special issues of journals are being published that debate the pros and cons of bilingual education in United States schools (e.g., Baron, 19 90; Hakuta & Pease-Alvarez, 1992; Porter, 1990). This debate of language use has implications for Indian education for both tribes that want to maintain their tribal languages and for tribes who want to restore languages that were suppressed in past years.

The implications of the current English-Only movement for American Indian education were clearly expressed recently, ironically in the Journal of American Indian Education, by Glenn Latham. Latham (1989) considers a child's non-English native language as a liability to be quickly overcome rather than an asset to be built upon. He warns that if tribes should decide "that English will be taught as a second language, or that the tribal language will be the language of instruction through grades two or three, it must be understood that such a decision has cultural, social, and economic consequences" (pp. 8-9). He contends that only exceptional individual Indians have been able to retain their native languages and also be successful in the white world. Latham quotes former Secretary of Education T. H. Bell to the effect that, "regardless of students' cultural and ethnic background, if they are to hope for access to the full range of options available in our society, the language of their education must be English: no other language will suffice" (Latham, 1989, p. 8). Bell's successor as Secretary of Education, William Bennett also expected non-English speaking students "to speak, read, and write English as soon as possible" (1986, p. 62). Bell and Bennett might as well have been quoting Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz or Commissioner of Indian Affairs J.D.C. Atkins who expressed the same opinion over a hundred years ago (Reyhner & Eder, 1989).

Missionaries and native language use

The use of indigenous American languages in Indian education has a long history in the Americas. The Reverend John Eliot came to America in 1631 and preached to Indians in their own tongue in 1646. In 1663, he got the New Testament published in the Massachusett language with the help of Indian translators and printers (Szasz, 1988). Missionaries often noted the value of using Indian languages in their educational work. In the early Nineteenth Century, a Northeast mission school used only books written in the Chippewan language. When the missionaries later switched to instruction in English, the quality of education declined (Layman, 1942). Stephen R. Riggs (1880) found teaching English in the 1830s to the Sioux "to be very difficult and not producing much apparent fruit" (p. 61). It was not the students lack of ability that prevented them from learning English, but rather their unwillingness. "Teaching Dakota was a different thing. It was their own language" (p. 61). Riggs and Pond wrote a religious oriented Dakota primer published in 1839. Pond was convinced that his influence on Indians "would depend very much on the correctness and facility" with which he spoke their language" (1893, p. 215). He wrote in his autobiography, "It has often been represented by persons having a superficial knowledge of Indian languages that they are imperfect and defective, and can be made to express but a very limited range of ideas" and declared that representation untrue in regard to Dakota (1893, p. 50).

The success of missionaries in spreading the new Dakota orthography is indicated by the report Mr. Janney, a Quaker, to the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1871. He wrote that "A very small portion of the tribe, so far as I could discover, speak or write the English language, but a large number speak and write their own, and are able to hold correspondence with those who are in Minnesota and Wisconsin" (Annual Report, 1871, p. 161). In the same report a Mr. Welsh wrote "Theirs is a phonetic language, and a smart boy will learn it in three or four weeks; and we have found it far better to instruct them in their own language, and also to teach them English as fast as we can" (Annual Report, 1871, p. 168).

In contrast to the success of native language instruction, reports on English language instruction were often discouraging. The fourth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for 1872 dilineates some examples of this. For instance, an Indian Agent from Tahlequah, Indian Territory, supported bilingual education, reporting that "The children . . . go to school, and with great labor learn to read and write English, but without understanding the meaning of the words they read and write" while "almost the whole of those Cherokees who do not speak English can read and write the Cherokee by using the characters invented by Sequoyah" (p. 159). A teacher from the Wichita Agency, Indian Territory, noted that students after eight months were "reading fluently in Wilson's First and Second Readers, the difficulty being they do not understand what they read" (p. 159). The superintendent of the school for Creeks reported students lacking "school language" and "those who do speak English use a miserable idiom, which must be 'drilled' out in the school room" (p. 160). Colonel Porter mentioned Creek students who "learned to read in the first and second readers, and would not understand a thing, but would know it all by heart" (p. 191). Again, the Reverend John B. Jones described students who could speak and write English without understanding. On the other hand, Reverend Jones found that "almost the entire [Cherokee] population who do not read English or speak English can read and write their own language" (p. 189).

In the fifth Annual Report of the Board of Indian Commissioners for 1873, the Reverend J.C. Lowrie of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions reported on a teacher in Nebraska,

She went on for a year teaching these scholars, which the agent, her especial friend, secured, almost compelling them to attend, and at the end of the year these scholars could read English beautifully, could spell English beautifully, and could write English beautifully, and they did not understand the first word of English. (Annual Report, p. 174) Lowrie repeated this incident later when the Commissioner of Indian Affairs insisted on exclusive English language instruction (Annual Report, 1878, p. 116). Lowrie felt teachers of American Indian Students needed to understand Indian languages and needed to have bilingual textbooks (Annual Report, 1873).

Government suppression of Indian languages

After the Civil War, President Grant appointed Peace Commissioners in an attempt to bring an end to the Indian wars on the frontier. The commission concluded that language differences led to misunderstandings and that:

Now, by educating the children of these tribes in the English language these differences would have disappeared, and civilization would have followed at once. . . .

Through sameness of language is produced sameness of sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus in process of time the differences producing trouble would have been gradually obliterated. . . .

In the difference of language to-day lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools should be established, which children should be required to attend; their barbarous dialect should be blotted out and the English language substituted. (Report of the Indian Peace Commissioners, 1868, pp. 16-17)

As the government geared up its educational efforts there was an early optimism regarding how easy it would be to assimilate Indians into the general population by giving them a white man's education for a few years in a boarding school (Hoxie, 1984). This optimism was based largely on the apparent success of students of the first government operated boarding school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after its founding in 1879. In 1885, the Indian school superintendent for the BIA optimistically predicted, if there were a sufficient number of reservation boarding-school-buildings to accommodate all the Indian children of school age, and these building could be filled and kept filled with Indian pupils, the Indian problem would be solved within the school age of the Indian child now six years old. (Oberly, 1885, cxiii) Under Secretary of the Interior Schurz, the Indian Bureau issued regulations in 1880 that "all instruction must be in English" in both mission and government schools under threat of loss of government funding (Prucha, 1973, p. 199). Again in 1884 a specific order went out to a school teaching in both Dakota and English that English language only must be taught the Indian youth placed there for educational and industrial training at the expense of the Government. If Dakota or any other language is taught such children, they will be taken away and their support by the Government will be withdrawn from the school. (Atkins, 1887, p. xxi) It was felt by J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1885 to 1888, that the students native language was a "barbarous dialect" and that "to teach Indian school children their native tongue is practically to exclude English, and to prevent them from acquiring it" (1887, p. xxiii). The ethnocentric attitude prevalent in the late Nineteenth Century is evident in Atkins' 1887 report, which is worth quoting at length,

Every nation is jealous of its own language, and no nation ought to be more so than ours, which approaches nearer than any other nationality to the perfect protection of its people. True Americans all feel that the Constitution, laws, and institutions of the United States, in their adaptation to the wants and requirements of man, are superior to those of any other country; and they should understand that by the spread of the English language will these laws and institutions be more firmly established a nd widely disseminated. Nothing so surely and perfectly stamps upon an individual a national characteristic as language. . . . [As the Indians] are in an English-speaking country, they must be taught the language which they must use in transacting business with the people of this country. No unity or community of feeling can be established among different peoples unless they are brought to speak the same language, and thus become imbued with like ideas of duty. . . .

The instruction of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of their education and civilization, and no school will be permitted on the reservation in which the English language is not exclusively taught. (Atkins, 1887, pp. xxi-xxiii)

A number of missionaries with the support of their national organizations strongly objected to Atkins' pronouncements claiming that he lacked knowledge of their successes in the field. Missionary societies that were engaged in foreign missions were very conscious of importance of using vernaculars in their work. The president of Dartmouth college declared that, The idea of reaching and permanently elevating the great mass of any people whatever, by first teaching them all a foreign tongue, is too absurd ever to have been entertained by sane men. (Bartlett, 1887, p. 1254) Observers in the field including general Oliver O. Howard (1907) reported that successful missionary teachers learned the tribal language so that they could understand the children and the children could understand them. A Sioux and former Carlisle student, Luther Standing Bear (1928) started teaching in 1884. He reported, At that time, teaching amounted to very little. It really did not require a well-educated person to teach on the reservation. The main thing was to teach the children to write their names in English, then came learning the alphabet and how to count. I liked this work very well, and the children were doing splendidly. The first reading books we used had a great many little pictures in them. I would have the children read a line of English, and if they did not understand all they had read, I would explain it to them in Sioux. This made the studies very interesting. (1928, pp. 192-193) Standing Bear complained that new teachers sent to the reservations knew only books; in other words, they knew nothing of the children they were to teach. Enforcement of the English-only regulations was usually strict. Lawrence Horn, a Blackfeet, who attended the government school at Heart Butte, recalled students getting a stroke of a leather strap with holes in it every time they spoke Indian (Parsons, 1980).

Missionaries favored ending tribal traditions, but they were more willing than the government to use tribal languages in their educational efforts. Reverend S.D. Hinman reported "it is a wonder to me how readily they learn to read our language; little fellows will read correctly page after page of their school books, and be able to spell every word, and yet not comprehend the meaning of a single sentence" (1869, p. 25). Hinman complained about the "monotony and necessary sameness of the school-room duty" (1869, pp. 25 & 29). In contrast to the problems associated with getting Indians to learn English, Hinman reported that three adult Yankton (Sioux) warriors rode back and forth from their agency forty miles every week to learn to read and write their own language (1869, p. 33).

In 1871 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions started publishing with the Dakota mission a monthly newspaper called IAPI OAYE (The Word Carrier) mostly in the Dakota language. An editorial in an early edition of that paper declared,

It is sheer laziness in the teacher to berate his Indian scholars for not understanding English, when he does not understand enough Indian to tell them the meaning of a single one of the sentences he is trying to make them understand properly, though they have no idea of the sense. The teacher with his superior mind, should be able to learn half a dozen languages while these children of darkness are learning one. Even though the teacher's object were only to have them master English, he had better teach it to them in Indian, so they may understand what they are learning. (Editorial, 1874, p. 4) In 1884 the paper was split into an all Dakota edition and an all English edition. The mission schools for the Santee Sioux, including the Santee Sioux Normal School started in 1870 by Stephen R. Riggs' son Alfred to train Sioux teachers, made extensive use of the Dakota language. After the children were taught to read in Dakota, they were given a book with illustrations explained in Dakota and English. A correspondent traveling with Secretary of the Interior Schurz reported, Mr. Riggs is of the opinion that first teaching the children to read and write in their own language enables them to master English with more ease when they take up that study; and he thinks, also, that a child beginning a four years' course with the study of Dakota would be further advanced in English at the end of the term than one who had not been instructed in Dakota. (Annual Report, 1880, p. 77) Dr. Alden testified to the Board of Indian Commissioners, Our missionaries feel very decidedly on this point, and that is as to their work in the teaching of English. They believe that it can be better done by using Dakota also, and that it will be done by them in their regular educational methods. While it is not true that we teach only English, it is true that by beginning in the Indian tongue and then putting the students into English studies our missionaries say that after three or four years their English is better than it would have been if they had begun entirely with English. (Annual Report, 1880, p. 98) Anti-Catholicism and Indian education

The vernacular question became caught up with the anti-Catholicism of the period. While the presidentially appointed Board of Indian Commissioners was all Protestant, the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions through an organized drive to establish mission schools garnered the lion's share of government funding. Catholic Indian schools were grouped with urban Catholic parochial schools by Protestants who labeled both as un-American in contrast to the non-denominational public schools. James M. King, representing "The National League for the Protection of American Institutions" declared "much Roman Catholic teaching among the Indians does not prepare them for intelligent and loyal citizenship" (Annual Report, 1892, p. 65). Soon after, Commission er of Indian Affairs and Baptist minister T. J. Morgan accused Catholics of "treason" and declared "We ought to insist that the flag shall float over every schoolhouse, that American songs shall be sung" (Annual Report, 1893, p. 130).

The journal Education greeted the appointment of Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morgan and Superintendent of Indian Schools Dorchester, a Methodist minister, saying they were in "hearty sympathy with American ideas, and the American theory of education and system of public schools" (Editorial, 1890, p. 449). To help end government funding of Catholic mission schools, the parent mission societies of most Protestant mission schools, including Riggs', ceased applying for government funds, and between 1895 and 1900 direct government funding of mission schools was ended with the result that many mission schools were forced to close or reduce their size.

Once Morgan and Dorchester left the Indian Service upon the election of a new President, attitudes changed again. The new Superintendent of Indian Schools criticized workers in Indian schools for knowing "little about the Indian as an Indian" (Annual Report, 1896, p. 119). He went on to say that the change in view from the Indian as a savage to the Indian as a human being had led to greater use of native languages in schools (Annual Report, 1896, p. 120). Yet, when the government issued a new set of Rules for Indian Schools in 1898, rule number 198 reiterated that,

All instruction shall be in the English language. Pupils shall be required to converse with employees and each other in English. All school employees must be able to speak English fluently. (Rules for Indian Schools, 1898, p. 25) A book first published in 1890 edited by Nicholas Murray Butler spoke against the military and anti-Indian culture aspects of Indian schools as well as the "unintelligent warfare against the Indian idiom" (1910, p. 942). In 1915, the Secretary to the United States Board of Indian Commissioners declared that "Canada has not made the mistake that we have often made, of attempting to destroy the native Indian languages and arts. . . . In no instance has the government laid the axe at the root of Indian languages" (Abbott, 1915, p. 27).

Lack of specialized training for teachers of Indian students

Thus government policy vacillated on the language issue, but without dedicated teachers a policy advocating the use of Indian languages would make little difference. Appointments in the Indian Bureau were often political rather than educational decisions. Mrs. Horace Mann wrote in Sarah Winnemucca's (Paiute) autobiography,

Salaries are paid teachers year after year, who sit in the school-rooms . . . and read dime novels, and the children play around, and learn nothing from them, except some few hymns by rote, which when visitors come they sing, without understanding one word of it. (Hopkins, 1883, p. 52, emphasis in original) A long time inspector of Indian schools reported to the Board of Indian Commissioners at their 19th annual conference with the representatives of Indian missions that, "the Indian Bureau has been made the dumping-ground for the sweeping of the political party that is in power" (Annual Report, 1889, p. 139). In an 1891 Education Review article, Elaine Goodale, soon to be the wife of Charles Eastman (Sioux), criticized education in Indian schools declaring that "Four fifths, if not nine tenths, of the work done is purely mechanical drill. . . . The child reads by rote, he memorizes the combinations in arithmetic, he copies letters and forms, he imitates the actions of his teacher" (1891, p. 58). The same year the Dakota Mission's Word Carrier reprinted an article from The School Journal declaring the "chief difference between English-speaking and Indian children [is] the need of grinding, drilling, and driving English into them" and commenting on the "deadness" of Indian classrooms (North, 1891, p. 35).

The assassination of a president and the continued barrage of criticism led to civil service reform, which was introduced to Indian schools in the 1890s. However, the Civil Service Examination in the 1890s, like the National Teachers Examination today, tested for general knowledge rather than for competencies specific to the job applied for. Estelle Brown (1952) took the Civil Service Examination around 1901 expecting "to be tested on my fitness to teach children of a savage race to whom the word education was unknown and who were without knowledge of a written language. No such test was given" (p. 48). She had expected questions on tribal history and reservation conditions; she was not even told the tribe she was to teach. In effect, the Civil Service Examination, like the Pre-Professional Skills Test, National Teachers Examination, and state teacher competency tests of today, was designed, at best, for teachers of mainstream students. This cultural bias excluded many potential Indian teachers as well as a few "incompetent" white teachers while letting through teachers with little or no knowledge of Indians and Indian education. Low government salaries plus the isolation (from white communities) of many Indian schools, meant that the Indian Service was often the last resort for teachers who could not find employment elsewhere.

Luther Standing Bear (1928), a former Carlisle student and agency teacher from about 1884 to 1890, complained that the Civil Service examination was not necessary for primary teachers and that his students did better than the students of white teachers who got all their knowledge from books "but outside of that, they knew nothing." Standing Bear felt,

The Indian children should have been taught how to translate the Sioux tongue into English properly; but the English teachers only taught them the English language, like a bunch of parrots. While they could read all the words placed before them, they did not know the proper use of them; their meaning was a puzzle. (1928, p. 239) Albert H. Kneale (1950) remembered monotonous lessons at the turn of the century boarding school where he taught in Oklahoma: Few of the pupils had any desire to learn to read, for there was nothing to read in their homes nor in the camp; there seemed little incentive to learn English, for there was no opportunity to use it; there seemed to be nothing gained through knowing that "c-a-t" spells cat; arithmetic offered no attraction; not one was interested in knowing the name of the capital of New York. (pp. 52-53) When he started teaching in 1899, Kneale (1950) found "the Indian Bureau, at that time, went on the assumption that any Indian custom was, per se, objectionable, whereas the customs of whites were the ways of civilization" (p. 41). Estelle Brown replaced a kindergarten teacher in 1897 who took one look at the Crow Creek School and left. She found the Indian Service bureaucracy preoccupied with paperwork and staff morals rather than responsive to the first hand advice of their field workers or the Indians they were supposed to serve. "A knowledge of the pupils' home environment was not considered necessary since their education aimed to make that environment unsuitable to them" (Brown, 1952, p. 204). She never heard any of her fellow employees express a n interest in improving reservation conditions. Soon after she started teaching kindergarten at Crow Creek Indian School in South Dakota in 1897, another employee told her that "there ain't nobody here who could earn a living anywhere else. They're the only kind of people who ever come into this dirty Indian Service" (Brown, 1952, p. 43). Monotony and high rates of teacher turnover continue today, and teaching on reservations is usually not the first choice of non-Indian teachers who seldom have special t raining to work with Indian students (Deyhle, 1989; Office of Indian Education, 1988; Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969).

Twentieth Century criticism of Indian education

As boarding schools returned more and more students to reservations who seemed to blend back into the population rather than transform it, criticism of Indian education and especially boarding schools increased (Hoxie, 1984). Kluckhohn and Leighton reported that 95% of Navajo children "went home rather than to white communities, after leaving school, only to find themselves handicapped for taking part in Navajo life because they did not know the techniques and customs of their own people" (1962, p. 141). After World I, criticism of BIA. education increased. In 1923, John Collier, supported by the General Federation of Women's Clubs' Division of Indian Welfare, organized the American Indian Defense Association and, as its executive secretary, wrote a series of articles critical of the Indian Bureau. In an introductory heading to a 1923 Current History article on "America's Treatment of Her Indians," Collier (1923) declared that "the administration of Indian affairs [is] a national disgrace -- A policy designed to rob Indians of their property, destroy their culture and eventually exterminate them" (p. 771, emphasis in original). In Sunset Magazine he wrote, "The Indian problem embodies a world-wide problem, whether material civilization -- machinery and the dictates of machinery -- and selfish individualism shall dominate man or whether man shall dominate them, subordinate them and use them" (1923, p. 13).

In 1926 Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work asked the Institute for Government Research at John Hopkins University to investigate the governments treatment of Indians.. This study, carried on under the direction of Louis Meriam (1928), pointed out shocking conditions in boarding schools, recommended not sending elementary age children to boarding schools, and urged an increase in the number of day schools. It stated:

The philosophy underlying the establishment of Indian boarding schools, that the way to "civilize" the Indian is to take Indian children, even very young children, as completely as possible away from their home and family life, is at variance with modern views of education and social work, which regard the home and family as essential social institutions from which it is generally undesirable to uproot children. (p. 403) World War I and then the Great Depression caused considerable rethinking about whether the United States was progressing toward a future of wealth and plenty. After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), now led by John Collier, instituted an "Indian New Deal." More day schools were built on reservations allowing Indian children to go to school and remain within their home areas. For the first time, anthropologists were employed to improve BIA operations, some native language textbooks were written, and a greater emphasis was placed on teaching Indian cultures and languages in the classrooms of BIA schools (Reyhner & Eder, 1989).

The start of World War II wiped out most of the gains made in Indian education under Collier as Congress reduced funding for BIA projects. Many Indians served in the armed forces during that war; the most famous of these soldiers were the Navajo code talkers who served in the South Pacific. Using a code based on their native language, they provided a secure means of communication for the Marines on Pacific islands. The Japanese never broke this code.

By the end of the World War II, a conservative reaction set in to Collier's policies. The House Select Committee to Investigate Indian Affairs and Conditions criticized community day schools in 1944 saying day school students suffered the,

handicap of having to spend their out of school hours in tepees, in shacks with dirt floors and no windows, in tents, in wickiups, in hogans where English is never spoken . . . and where there is sometimes an active antagonism or an abysmal indifference to the virtues of education. (as quoted in Szasz, 1977, p. 109) The Committee found the answer to this problem to be the old off-reservation boarding schools. The use of Native languages in BIA schools decreased, but was not totally eliminated as under the old policy of the late Nineteenth Century. The 1951 BIA Manual stated, It is self-evident that the first step in any program of instruction must be to develop in the children the ability to speak, understand, and think in the English language. Every effort shall be made to provide activities and other forms of encouragement for children to use English in their daily association in the classroom, in the dormitories, and on the playgrounds. However, as language expression is essential to the development of thought, the use of native languages by Indian children may not be forbidden. In fact, it has been determined experimentally that the use of teacher-interpreters to clarify English meaning in the early grades greatly speeds up the acquisition of English. (as quote in Task Force, 1976, p. 122) The "final solution" Congress came up with for the Indian problem was to let the Indians become "free" by terminating their reservations. With termination, the federal trust status of the reservation would be ended and the tribe's land and other assets would be divided up and distributed to the tribal members. The typical reservation school of the termination era, Bureau, mission or public operated, has been described by Murray L. Wax: The situation almost appears colonial, or at the least caste-like: between Indian community and schools there is a strong social barrier, typified by the fences which surround the [school] compound. Parents rarely visit the schools; teachers rarely visit the homes; each side finds interaction with the other uncomfortable. (1971, p. 83) There was a minimum of parental participation in school management at the beginning of the 1960s. Since the 1930s, school boards had existed in some communities, but these boards, where they existed, were selected, not elected. They could only advise and lacked real power (Thompson, 1975). Ralph Nader testified before the Special Subcommittee on Indian Education that, In any school with Indian students, BIA or public, cultural conflict is inevitable. The student, bringing with him all the values, attitudes, and beliefs that constitute his "Indianness," is expected to subordinate that Indianness to the general American standards of the school. The fact that, he, the student, must do all the modifying, all the compromising, seems to say something to him about the relative value of his own culture as opposed to that of the school. . . .

It is estimated that for half of the Indians enrolled in Federal schools English is not the first language learned. Yet, when the child enters school, he is expected to function in a totally English-speaking environment. He muddles along in this educational void until he learns to assign meaning to the sounds the teacher makes. By the time he has begun to learn English, he has already fallen well behind in all the basic skill areas. In fact, it appears that his language handicap increases as he moves through school. And although it is no longer official BIA policy to discourage use of native languages, many reports in the hearings indicate the contrary in practice. (1969, p. 49)

The English-language books used in these schools reflected an all-white middle class culture, which had little relation to Indian life. The effect of these books could be devastating (e.g., Suina, 1988, p. 298). Over the years, through education, involvement with federal programs, and generally increased experience working with white America, a core of leadership was developing that could tell the federal government what American Indians wanted. This leadership was almost unanimous in opposing termination. The alternative put forward was self-determination; letting Indian people determine their own destiny through their tribal governments.

With the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education, "separate but equal" schools for Blacks were declared unconstitutional. The treatment of all minorities in the United States received increased attention in the 1960s. At the end of the decade there were two major studies of Indian education. The government funded a National Study of American Indian Education (Fuchs & Havighurst, 1972) and the Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education (Special Subcommittee on Indian Education, 1969) held hearings on Indian education across the nation. These studies helped lead to the passage of the Indian Education Act, Title IV of P.L. 92-318, in 1972 to provide funds for special programs for Indian children in reservation schools and, for the first time, urban Indian students. This law, as amended in 1975, required committees of Indian parents to be involved in the planning of these special programs, encouraged the establishment of community-run schools, and stressed culturally relevant and bilingual curriculum materials (Szasz, 1977).

The raised consciousness of some educators resulting from the renewed interest in culturally appropriate education is shown by what the director of the BIA's Office of Education Programs wrote in 1971,

Culture shock at any age can be a grueling ordeal. In a child it is heart-rending. What is encouraging about the new thrust of bilingual education for the Indian children who need it is that it will go a long way in making these children feel at home in their early classroom years. If these children are able to work in their own frame of reference, with their own familiar language and customs, there is every reason to hope that their early experience in school will be a happy and fruitful endeavor. (Hawkins, 1971, p. ii) In 1973 the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings on the Navajo Reservation that were reported in The Navajo Nation: An American Colony. The report concluded: Regardless of the school system they are in, Navajo students find themselves in an environment controlled and dominated by non-Indians. Most of the teachers and administrators in reservation schools are Anglo [white]. Public school boards of education are dominated by non-Indians and those few Indians who do serve wield little authority. Parent advisory boards are the BIA school equivalent of a board of education; while these are all Indian, their function is only advisory and they are essentially powerless.

Navajos, in fact, have been excluded from the decision-making process in these school systems. The result has been a variety of education policies unrelated to the Navajo community. The Navajo language and culture have been largely ignored in the curriculum offered to Navajo students. (United States, 1975, pp. 126-127)

The Commission found that only 188 of 2,800 teachers on the Navajo Reservation were Navajo. In 1973 a Navajo Arizona public school kindergarten teacher was reprimanded on her teacher evaluation for "on several occasions actually having taught 'Navajo Words' over the objection of the school's administration" (p. 205). Although her kindergarten students' dominant language was Navajo, Arizona law at that time required all instruction in public schools to be in English.

Many tribal leaders did not find schools, whether public or BIA, responsive to their demands for greater local control. In 1975 the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (Public Law 93-638) required the BIA to contract as many of its services to tribes as those tribes desired. The purpose of the Act was "to promote maximum Indian participation in the government and education of Indian people" and "to support the right of Indians to control their own educational activities" (Indian Education, 1982, p. 120).

An example of a successful 638 (self-determination) school operating today is Rock Point Community school in Arizona. Like Alfred L. Riggs' Santee Normal Training School, Rock Point Community School is not particularly representative of other schools of its time; however, Rock Point shows that bilingual/bicultural education can be successful for Native Americans. English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction began at Rock Point in 1960 and a maintenance bilingual education program began in 1967. The students at Rock Point, who begin reading instruction in Navajo and continue to receive instruction in Navajo as well as English through their school years, score better on English-language standardized tests than students in schools who receive all their instruction in English (Reyhner, 1990).


The rise of support for English-only instruction in this country is correlated with the rise and fall of the perceived threat to the "American way of life" by immigrants to this country and thus is a form of xenophobia. In the Nineteenth Century the imagined threat was from immigration of many Catholics from southern Europe and Ireland. The result for Indian education was the removal of government support for mission schools and an instructional emphasis on "Americanization." The teaching of Indian children fell into the hands of government employees who were selected through their ability to pass a general English language Civil Service examination rather than for any special knowledge of Indian education. These teachers were seldom encouraged to learn anything about their students' background and thus they remained alien to their students and the students' families. Vine Deloria, Jr.'s recently described these past European educational efforts as resembling,

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. (1990, p. 16) Today, the perceived threat is from increased immigration from Asia and Central and South America.

Before non-Indian Americans insist on "Americanizing" Native Americans with "English-Only" instruction today, we need to examine thoroughly why the Nineteenth Century effort of Atkins, Morgan, and others failed. Moreover, we need to reexamine traditional attitudes toward freedom and self-determination that Americans so strongly advocated recently for minorities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union while often ignoring these same basic human rights for America's indigenous minorities.

Non-Indian Americans need to respect Indian peoples rejection of the old assimilationist approach to Indian education that can be found in the recently passed educational policies of several tribes, including the Navajo (1985), the Northern Ute (1985), and the Pasqua Yaqui (1984). For example, Navajo Tribal leader Peterson Zah declared in the preface to the tribal education policies that,

We believe that an excellent education can produce achievement in the basic academic skills and skills required by modern technology and still educate young Navajo citizens in their language, history, government and culture. (Navajo Division of Education, 1985, p. vii) In seeking to preserve their cultural heritage, tribes are not rejecting the importance of English language instruction for their children. Former National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) Western District Representative, Dick Littlebear sees "our native languages nurturing our spirits and hearts and the English language as sustenance for our bodies" (1990, p. 8). William Leap (1982) could find no tribe that had let native language restoration outrank the importance of teaching English. American Indians are seeking to follow a bilingual "English Plus" philosophy that will preserve their heritages and will allow their children access to jobs in the White Man's world. The Native American Languages Act of 1990 is the American Indian's answer to the English-only movement, and the Act's bilingual/multicultural educational approach is supported by the dismal historical record of assimilationist approaches to Indian education in the United States.

Current nationwide educational reform movements tend to ignore linguistic and cultural issues and propose reforms that probably will hurt rather than help Indian education. For example, the effort to improve the quality of teachers by raising teacher certification standards is further reducing the relatively small number of Indians who become teachers. In addition, the current concern about common sense classroom issues such as "basic skills" and "time on task" found in school improvement programs such as the "Effective Schools" movement (Office of Indian Education Programs, 1988) usually fails to address the essential question of why students are unmotivated and uninterested in current classroom tasks. For example, Indian students report dropping out of school more because of boredom and because their teachers do not care about them rather than because of academic failure or problems with alcohol (Platero, 1986; Deyhle, 1989).

The present government policy of self-determination for Indian tribes fits well with the democratic and libertarian philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Policy makers and educators would be better advised to focus on promoting and testing instructional practices that have shown promise for Indian students because the practices allow for cultural variation and reinforce strengths of American Indian cultures. Attempts to repeat past government policies that called for wholesale replacement of Indian cultures with "American" culture that were tried in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries violate basic human rights, do not make educational sense, and hold little promise for success.


1This paper is a further development of ideas first presented in a chapter on the history of Indian education (Eder & Reyhner, 1988) and in A History of Indian Education (Reyhner & Eder, 1989), which was later expanded and published as American Indian Education: A History by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2004. I would like to thank the Newberry Library for providing me with a short-term fellowship during the summer of 1990 that allowed me to do much of the additional research on the history of the repression of American Indian languages that is included in this paper. A version of this paper was delivered at the annual meeting of the History of Education Society at Decatur, Georgia, on November 3, 1990, and excerpts are included in the author's Teaching American Indian Students (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).


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