“The only chance of saving any of this race, will be by taking their children, at a very early age, and educating them in our habits, in a situation removed from the contagion of Indian pursuits.”
– William Tudor in Letters on the Eastern States, 1821
“How smooth must be the language of the whites, when they can make right look like wrong, and wrong like right.”
– Black Hawk, Sauk, 1800s
Over the course of U.S. history, one of the most intransigent battles in the fight for equality and justice for people of color has been in access to quality, culturally relevant education.
For many people of color, education – far from being a tool for uplift – was a bludgeon, designed to strip culture, difference, language from non-white children and to “civilize” them with the master narrative of U.S. history. For Native people, this calculated cultural genocide was done with force, as Native children were taken from their families and sent to government boarding schools designed to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
For about 100 years, ending formally in the 1930s but continuing until the ’70s, Native boarding schools used coercion and often abuse to force children to lose their connection to their languages, cultural traditions and families. As an elder, Lone Wolf, Blackfeet, recalled in the 1890s, “School wasn’t for me when I was a kid. I tried three of them and they were all bad. The first time was when I was about 8 years old. The soldiers came and rounded up as many of the Blackfeet children as they could. The government decided that we were to get the White Man’s education by force.
“It was very cold that day when we were loaded into the wagons. None of us wanted to go and our parents didn’t want to let us go. Oh, we cried for this was the first time we were to be separated from our parents. … Nobody waved as the wagons, escorted by the soldiers, took us toward the school at Fort Shaw. Once (we got to the boarding school) our belongings were taken from us, even the little medicine bags our mothers had given to us to protect us from harm. Everything was placed in a heap and set afire.
“Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man. I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge caught him by the shirt and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar bone was broken. The boy’s father, an old warrior, came to the school. He told the instructor that among his people, children were never punished by striking them.”
Is it any surprise, then, that with the legacy of this oppressive system, Native students continue to be at the greatest risk of dropping out of school? The 2001 McDowell Report on Alaska Native and Native education says, “American Indian and Alaska Native students are considered the most at-risk for failing to complete high school and college…Whatever the reasons for leaving school, dropout rates are symptomatic of the failure of an educational system that refuses to accept cultural differences as a strength rather than a weakness.”
To help address the persistent impact on Native students and communities, a number of new initiatives have emerged. We look at two, Antioch University’s Early College Initiative and the Northwest Indian College. These efforts aim to reverse the pattern of lack of culturally appropriate education, lack of Native educators and consequent lack of interest and commitment from students. Just over the past two years, dropout rates for Native students in the Early College program at Ferndale High School near the Lummi Reservation decreased from 69 percent to 16 percent. Test scores are also up, both demonstrating the potential for positive intervention in what could seem an intractable situation.