This article summarizes the past and present of Native American education. It begins with a brief demographic description of the American Indian population, and gives the essential facts about tribal education at present. The article gives a concise history of government policy toward Native Americans from the early 1800's up to the present, examines the basic issues in tribal education today, explores cultural issues between Native Americans and mainstream American society, and describes a current movement in tribal education toward requiring that the assessment and evaluation of tribal education include criteria that is socially and culturally relevant to Native American education.
Keywords Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); Cultural relevance; Indian Child Welfare Act; Indian Reorganization Act (IRA); Meriam Report; National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); National Indian Education Association (NIEA); No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act; Reservation; Tribal schools; Tribal colleges; Urban Indian Relocation Program
Snapshot of Current Native American Demographics
According to the 2010 U.S. census, 5.2 million people identified as at least part American Indian or Alaska Native; of this population, 2.9 million identified only as American Indian or Alaska Native. In January 2012 the Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a news release affirming that there are 566 Native American Indian Tribes recognized by and eligible to receive services from by the United State Bureau of Indian Affairs.The largest nations and tribes are: Cherokee, 819,105 (up from 729,533 as reported in the U.S. Census, 2004-1005) members; Navajo, 332,129 (up from 298,197) members; Choctaw, 195,764 (up from 158,774) members; Chippewa, 170,742 (up from 149,669) members; and Sioux, 170,110 (up from 153,360) members (U.S. Census, 2010; U.S. Census, 2004-2005).
Between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Native American population grew almost twice as fast as that of the total U.S. population, with a 18% increase for Native Americans versus 9.7% for the U.S. population as a whole. According to the 2010 census, 78% of persons identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native lived outside of tribal areas such as reservations. Of the 4.6 million people living in tribal areas, 3.5 million (or 77%) did not identify as Native American. Native Americans as a group are younger and poorer than the average for the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011, the median age for native Americans was 31 years, as compared to 37 years for the U.S. population as a whole. The median household income for Native Americans was $35,192 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau, and 30% of Native Americans live in poverty; in comparison, the median household income for the U.S. as a whole was $50,502, with 16% of the population living in poverty.
Facts on Native American Education
According to the Bureau of Indian Education, in the 2010-2011 school year, 49,152 students were enrolled in Bureau of Indian Education Schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in the U.S. public school system for the 2010-2011 school year, there were 378,000 American Indian/Alaska Native students enrolled; this is 7% of the total public school population. The number of Native Americans/Alaska natives reported enrolled in public school by the National Center for Educational Statistics is lower than in previous years because of a change in data collection procedures: in 2010-2011, only students who were American Indian/Alaska Native (not mixed race) were counted.
The federal agency responsible for overseeing Native American education, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), allocates $3,075 annually for each student. This should be compared to U.S. public schools where there is an average allocation / expenditure of $6,400 per student.
The school achievement of Native American students lags behind that of the general U.S. population in many aspects, according to the National Indian Education Association. For instance, only 82% of Native Americans age 18 to 24 years have completed high school, as compared to 94% of White Americans and 90% of all Americans. In addition, the average freshman graduation rate in 2009-2010, meaning the percentage of entering freshmen who received a high school diploma within four years was 69% for Native Americans, as compared to 83% for White students and 78% for all students. Native American students were also disadvantaged by poverty, and by attending high-poverty schools: according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, in 2011, one third of Native American students lived bellowed the poverty threshold, and 31% attended high-poverty schools; in comparison, only 12% of White students were living in poverty in 2011, and only 6% attended a high-poverty school.
According to a 2012 report, Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study by the National Center for Education Statistics, Native American students also lag behind the general U.S. population in higher education achievement. In 2011, only 10% of female and 14% of male Native American students exceeded the college readiness score in English, mathematics, reading, and science on the ACT, as compared to 22% of females and 28% of males in the entire high school population. In 2010, only 33% of female and 24% of male Native Americans age 18 to 24 were enrolled in college or graduate school, as compared to 47% of females and 39% of males in the entire population. Of students who enrolled in a four-year institution of higher education in 2004, only 41% of female and 37% of male Native Americans completed a bachelor's degree within 6 years, as compared to 61% of females and 56% of males in the population as a whole.
A Concise History of U.S. Government Policies Regarding Native Americans
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) - also referred to as the "Office of Indian Affairs" or the "Indian Office" until 1947 - is one of the oldest agencies within the U.S. government; it was established by the U.S. secretary of war, John C. Calhoun, in 1824. The BIA was originally under the auspices of the U.S. War Department, and during this period there were a lot of forced tribal relocations. Congress transferred the BIA to the newly created Department of the Interior in 1849 (Henson, 1996, p 10-11).
In the 1840's, after being moved from their traditional lands, the Choctaw and the Cherokee operated successful schools with complete tribal autonomy, and were teaching students in both Native languages and in English. At that time, the Cherokee population was about 90% literate in its own language, and their English literacy rate was higher than the non-Native populations in Texas or Arkansas. There were more than 200 schools and academies, and graduates often went on to study at colleges in the East (Williams, 2006, p 9).
During the 1880's, the BIA took over the tribal schools. This period is often referred to as the "assimilation era," in which the BIA's presence on reservations - and overall BIA administration of reservations - increased significantly. "Indian agents became responsible for operating the schools, overseeing justice, distributing supplies, leasing contracts, etc. By 1900, BIA representatives had in effect, become the tribal governments of the reservations" (Henson, 1996, p 12).
In this period, federal policy created boarding schools that forcibly separated the children from their families. In 1885, there were 114 American Indian boarding schools with a total attendance of about 6,000 students. On reservations throughout the U.S., there were also 86 day schools which did permit students to remain living with their families. However, the mandatory system of boarding schools held 75% of the Native American students, and by 1895 the number of boarding schools grew to 157, with about 15,000 students attending, and the number of day schools increased to 125, with about 3,000 students attending. The educational decline of Native Americans may have been related to the federal government's attempt to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture as the expense of supporting Indian culture that had thrived long before White men ever came to North America. Watras (2004) writes that during this fifty year period of assimilation (from 1875 to 1928) the schools for Native Americans promoted … "education for extinction" (Watras, 2004, p. 82).
In 1928, Hubert Work (then U.S. Secretary of the Interior), commissioned a comprehensive study that came to be known as the Meriam Report. The study detailed the living conditions of Native Americans, and the findings justified the report's demand that the U.S. government deal with the educational needs of Native Americans. The report concluded that "the real choice before the government is between doing a mediocre job and thereby piling up for the future serious problems in poverty, disease, and crime, or spending more for an acceptable social and educational program" (Williams, 2006, p 12).
The Meriam Report issued some very disturbing news: most Native Americans were extremely poor, they were not at all adjusted or connected to the larger American society, they suffered much more from diseases than did the general population, and they could not earn money to alleviate their problems. The report said that the federal government had contributed to the poor health of the Indians by providing inadequate food, and supplying housing that was appallingly unsanitary (Watras, 2004, p. 83).
In January 1934, John Collier, who was appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs by Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, began a campaign to obtain passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Submitted as the Wheeler-Howard Act, this act was the basis of what came to be known as the "Indian New Deal" because it was designed to radically change the situation for Native Americans. Although Collier could not win congressional backing for his most extreme proposals, Congress did pass the Indian Reorganization Act, and the IRA dramatically changed federal policy by allowing tribal self-government and consolidating individual land allotments back into tribal hands. The IRA managed to improve conditions for Native Americans and, from 1929 to 1945, Native American education policy attempted to support traditional Indian culture; the directors of education in the office of Indian affairs turned the schools toward the principles of progressive education (Watras, 2004, p. 83).
But the era of progressive education ended in 1949 when the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, chaired by former U.S. President Herbert Hoover, recommended that the Bureau of Indian Affairs adopt as its aim the integration of Native Americans into mainstream American society (Watras, 2004, p. 99); by 1950, the federal government had reversed the direction of its policies, and many of the progressive innovations in Native American schools disappeared (Watras, 2004, p. 101).
The BIA also created the Urban Indian...
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