Keeping the American Indian Education Truths Alive

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Since Osama bin Laden was killed nearly one month ago, many details about the mission have been unveiled. One particular story, which brings awareness to the “inappropriateness” of coding Osama bin Laden as “Geronimo,”[1] is a relevant and current reminder to the prevalence American Indians have as a thread of our nation.

In this way, it is important to be cognizant of American Indians, not only their revered historical figures from the past; but also their cultural traditions which struggle to be maintained and their hopes of responding to these ongoing issues today. In observing and aspiring to fully understand these issues from an education lens, it is important to not forget the past that has in part led to today’s state of American Indian education.

Currently, there are 565 federally recognized American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. [2] While the Cherokee and Navajo nations contain the majority of American Indian citizens, the myriad other tribes hold their own distinct traditional and cultural markers.  American Indian adolescents “make up only 1% of the total youth population [but] they account for 2% of the total juvenile population being held in custody and 3% of juvenile status offenders in custody.” [3] In 2003, 15 percent of Native youths 16- to 24-years old had not completed high school or earned a G.E.D. credential. This rate was more than twice the rate for white youths (6 percent), four times that of Asian American/Pacific Islanders (AA/PI) (4 percent) and about the same as Black youths. Only Hispanic students dropped out at rates higher than AI/AN students.

American Indian students attend public schools, private schools, schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), and tribal schools.  In the 2005–06 school year, 644,000 public elementary and secondary school students, or about 1 percent of all public school students, were American Indian or Alaska Native.  Similarly, about 1 percent of all private school students were American Indian or Alaska Native. [4] About 8 percent of American Indian students attend schools funded by the BIE.

The BIE, despite accounting for serving only a small portion of American Indian students, carries strong cultural significance. The U.S. Department of the Interior website provides a useful history of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the establishment of the BIE whose mission aims to provide quality education opportunities through life in accordance with a tribe’s needs for cultural and economic well-being in order to maintain the diversity of American Indian and Alaska Native villages as distinct cultural and governmental entities:

There have been three major legislative actions that restructured the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with regard to educating American Indians since the Snyder Act of 1921: First, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 introduced the teaching of Indian history and culture in BIA schools (until then it had been Federal policy to acculturate and assimilate Indian people by eradicating their tribal cultures through a boarding school system). Second, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (P.L. 93-638) gave authority to federally recognized tribes to contract with the BIA for the operation of Bureau-funded schools and to determine education programs suitable for their children. The Education Amendments Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-561) and further technical amendments (P.L. 98-511, 99-99, and 100-297) provided funds directly to tribally operated schools, empowered Indian school boards, permitted local hiring of teachers and staff, and established a direct line of authority between the Education Director and the AS-IA. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110) brought additional requirements to the schools by holding them accountable for improving their students’ academic performance with the U.S. Department of Education supplemental program funds they receive through the Bureau.

Farther before the establishment of these various acts, with the installation of these boarding schools, came a very contrary notion. The founder of these schools, Richard Pratt, believed that “all the Indian there is in the [American Indian] race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” As a result, American Indians were assimilated away from their traditions using methods that have haunted them since.

Although schools have complied towards transforming this past structure into a more positive experience for American Indian students, perpetual stereotypes and myths about American Indians are persistent.

Common stereotypes are: “that American Indians are drunks, get free money from the government, are made wealthy from casino revenue…or, that Indians are at one with nature, deeply religious and wise in the ways of spirituality” [5]. In relation to these stereotypes, are myths of the American Indian.

Some examples:

1. They prefer to be called Native Americans.

2. They are given special privileges.

3. They are a dying race.

4. They are easily identifiable.

5. They all live on a reservation.

6. They are born knowing their culture and heritage.

7. They feel honored by mascots. [6] The American Indian Sports Team Mascots website addresses this controversy; as does the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and Media.

Suggestions to overcoming these common but misguided perceptions are to provide counterexamples that lead to knowing American Indian culture in a more positive light. This will not only allow us to interact with American Indians more appropriately, but it also will allow American Indian students to learn in a more comfortable school environment.

Going directly to the source is another way to debunk these common misconceptions. That is why collaboration and consultation with American Indian officials and individuals is often a priority recommendation for reforming education to better serve American Indians. These officials know, after all, that it is their young students that will pave the way in assuring authentic perceptions of their [diverse groups of] people:

“We must prepare them for active and equal participation in the global market. We must prepare them to be citizens in the 21st century. We must prepare them to be positive, involved members of our communities. And, most importantly, we must prepare them to be the future leaders of our governments. There is no more vital resource to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.” [7]

In the National Congress of American Indians’ summit last December, one of the recommendations was that states should be “required to enter into collaborative agreements with tribes.” [7] This, they believe will create a more welcoming and positive environment for American Indian students in which they will be more likely to thrive.

To see more American Indian led policy recommendations, go here.

[1]The Buffalo Post. 2011 Use of Geronimo Code name to be Discussed on Capitol Hill. Retrieved from

[2]Bureau of Indian Affairs,

[3] Mmari, K., Blum R., Shone-Teufel N., What Increases Risk and Protection from Delinquent Behaviors Among American Indian Youth? Findings from Three Tribal Communities, 2009,Youth & Society, Volume 41 Number 3,  March 2010 pg 382-413.

[4] Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 2008. Status and Trends in the Education of American Indians and Alaskan Natives: 2008.

[5] Fleming, Walter C. (2006, November). Myths and Stereotypes About Native Americans. Phi Deltan Kappan, 88, 213-216.

[6] Ibid.

[7] National Congress of American Indians and National Indian Education Association. National Priorities for Indian Education. Retrieved from

[8] National Congress of American Indians, 2010 Education: 2010

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