Magazine Feature

Nations Within

American Indian scholar Karen Gayton Swisher envisions effective education for all Indian children.

Karen Gayton Swisher is a professor of education and chair of the Teacher Education Department at Haskell Indian Nations University, an intertribal university in Lawrence, Ks., serving students of more than 150 tribes from approximately 40 states. She is senior editor of First American Firsts (a book documenting American Indian achievements in medicine, science and the arts), former editor of The Journal of American Indian Education, and author of numerous articles and book chapters.

Born, raised and educated on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, Dr. Swisher later worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) teaching the children of her classmates. She devotes her professional life to the improvement of schooling for American Indian and Alaskan Native children.

Swisher spoke by telephone from her office in Lawrence with Teaching Tolerance research fellow Rosa Hernández Sheets in December 1996.


At Haskell Indian Nations University, you and your faculty have created a model program to prepare Indian teachers to teach Indian children. How are you and your colleagues rethinking teacher education?

In the summer of 1993, a group of nationally known people in Indian education, both Native people and non-Native people, came together with Haskell faculty to develop a new teacher education program. We wanted to confront stark realities about the status of education for American Indians and Alaskan Natives. Low achievement, high rates of school-leaving, severe social problems like substance abuse and suicide -- these were the most compelling reasons for change.

A major goal was to incorporate within the teacher preparation curriculum aspects that we interpreted to be culturally appropriate for training Native teachers to teach Native children and all children. Haskell students would take specialized classes in Indian history, literature and philosophy, along with courses in human development, language acquisition and curriculum theory.

We expected that Haskell's program would be significantly different from what existed at other institutions. We tried during this symposium to break out of the boundaries and molds that we all found ourselves in. We agreed, for example, that our program would be based on sovereignty, self-determination and all the principles that give reason for "Indian education" to exist, as well as recent research in Indian education.


What is the historical significance of those principles, and how have they affected Indian education?

Sovereignty and self-determination, specifically, are grounded in the treaty-making process, the commerce clause [Article I, Section 8] of the Constitution and various other statutes. There are three kinds of sovereign power in this country: the federal, the state and the tribal. This is probably the most misunderstood concept in U.S. history!

Treaties with Indian tribes had as their primary goal the acquisition of land, but more than 100 treaties between 1794 and 1871 included provisions for the education of Indian children. The Indian nations trusted the U.S. to fulfill the promises given in exchange for land, but the educational practices that resulted are complex, contradictory and confusing.

From the beginning, formal education was used as a tool to transmit the European lifestyle to Indians. During the 1700s and 1800s, Indians were removed from their tribes and families and placed in distant schools to learn non-Indian ways. Boarding schools, which were started by missionaries in the 1600s, flourished when the government got involved.

Although the government saw boarding schools as a solution to the "Indian problem," the boarding school system itself became the problem. The true results were emotional and pyschological damage to our young children, tribal and family disorganization, the breakdown of tribal culture and language, and the alienation of Indian parents from the education of their children.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, educational practice shifted away from boarding schools to day schools. Federal policy expressed that it was desirable for Indian children to be educated with non-Indian children in public schools, in order to hasten assimilation. By 1920, there were more Indian children in public schools than in reservation or BIA schools.

The push for assimilation and threats of termination on the part of the federal government gave way in the 1960s to a policy of self-determination. This meant that within the framework of our political relationship with the federal government, Indian people were finally going to determine our own affairs, including the education of our children.


What is the state of that promise today?

According to the BIA, over 82 percent of Indian children attend public schools, 8 percent attend BIA schools, 3 percent attend tribal schools and 7 percent attend mission or private schools. Approximately one-fourth of all American Indians live on 278 federal and state reservations. It's not clear how many Indian teachers teach Indians, but evidence shows that 1 percent of all K-12 students are Indian, and 1 percent of all K-12 teachers are Indian.

It's difficult to make general statements about challenges in the various schools that exist on reservations -- they are very diverse in terms of culture, history, language, location and economic conditions. Many children on reservations, however, experience challenges similar to those of rural schoolchildren in general -- geographical distance, teacher turnover, lack of resources, limited access to technology. I believe that many children still experience lower expectations based on stereotypes. Many of our children are taught by teachers who don't understand their history, culture and language or care about them as individuals and as members of indigenous nations.


Some educators have labeled Indian children as "silent" or "resistant" learners. How do you address these stereotypes?

Knowledge about the learning styles of Indian children is important for all teachers, but it is essential for Indian teachers and for teachers of Indian children. You can make some generalizations about Indian children's learning styles from tribe to tribe: They seem to learn by observing carefully before performing a task; in their natural settings, they seem to learn experientially. That probably comes from the indigenous nature of Indian people. We all share some common experiences and similar cultural values.

The problem is that often educators do not take it to the next level -- knowing that learning style helps us understand groups of people, but it doesn't necessarily help us to understand individuals. We are still fighting the stereotyping that resulted in part from learning-style theory; for example, "Indian children are visual learners" or "Indian children are right-brain learners."

There is a tendency to assume that lack of participation is a type of dysfunction or deficit rather than an action taken by choice. Not to participate is seen as wrong because everything is measured from the norm, and anyone who is not operating within the norm is marginalized.

In every way, Indian children may behave like their non-Native peers, but they carry a blueprint of their culture in their head, and that is important. Educational anthropologist Susan Philips calls it the "Invisible Culture." For example, many individuals don't speak unless they have had time to think. It is a rejection of "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." This is deeply ingrained in Indian people -- if I'm going to say something, I should be accurate instead of blurting out whatever comes to mind. Words have power and should be respected.


What can non-Indian teachers in diverse settings do to teach Indian children more effectively?

I believe that a good teacher is a good teacher, period. If that good teacher is a Native person, it is an even better situation. Teachers need to have a macro understanding of the history of Indian education, as well as a micro understanding of the local context in which the school is located. As should be the case with any child, teachers need to realize that Native children come to school with a great deal of knowledge, and it is the teacher's responsibility to find out what the child knows and build upon it. Too many children are taught from a deficit rather than constructivist point of view.

Sometimes teachers expect urban Indian children to be like every other student in that room. They may look a little bit different, but they are dressed alike and they participate in the popular culture activities. But even Indian people who have lived in urban settings for generations maintain ties to the reservations.


You have urged Indian scholars to voice their own interpretations of Indian education and effective teaching practices. Why is this important?

There has been a great deal written about the history of Indian education by non-Indians. Some of this information is historically accurate and not offensive, and in some cases it is beautifully done. But what I think is missing from this scholarship is the passion from within and the authority to ask new questions that can only come from an Indian perspective. It is more than different ways of knowing; it is knowing that what we think has been grounded in the political and historical principles of sovereignty and self-determination.

The voices that can communicate this intergenerational meaning are missing from the non-Indian literature. How can an outsider really understand life on the reservations, the struggle for recognition, sovereignty, economic development and preservation of language and culture?

We must be less complacent and more aggressive when it comes to defining our field. The era characterized by the statement "People come among us and tell us they know what is best for us" is long gone. We have many scholars and educators committed to addressing the needs of our children.


How has the unique political and historical relationship between Indians and the U.S. government shaped contemporary Indian identity?

Of course, Indian children who have knowledge of Indian history and understand the historical and legal implications of "Indianness" are more confident. They are able to understand what has happened and reject mindsets of oppression, colonialism and assimilation that have existed in history.

I hear young people here at Haskell talking eloquently about why Indian people want to remain Indian. They are able to articulate so clearly an understanding of this unique political relationship that Indians have with the federal government and to state why they want to be who they are.

I think norms of success are increasingly being defined by Indian people. There are successful Indian people who maintain a dual-world experience. They are successful in whatever field they have chosen and as individuals in their respective tribal groups and communities. Young Indians are being mentored back, in some cases, to their cultural values and to the integrity that comes from those values.

Culturally based programs directed toward adolescents and younger children are everywhere. Adults are taking responsibility to maintain the cultures and languages. The whole tribal college movement is another powerful example. Tribal colleges are doing so much in reservation communities and beyond. They create successful environments for young people and build traditions for attending college.


What do you want teachers to understand about Indian cultures?

I think it is important to understand where people come from and let them define themselves instead of feeling that their existence has to be defined for them. We don't listen to people enough. At universities, we don't listen to those experts in the classroom -- our students -- to find out what their experiences are. In K-12 classrooms, we don't listen to parents. We don't listen to each other, either. That's an aspect of tolerance that we need to acquire -- not to be so quick to present our views to someone else, but to listen to find out what this person knows.

I think it is important to give credit to people as constructors of their own reality, to honor prior knowledge. Traditional knowledge seems to be very desirable at this time when we're nearing the end of the century -- those ancient teachings are still viable today. Against all odds, they have sustained cultures. These teachings can be meaningful to everyone who takes the time to learn and understand this group of people called indigenous.