Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
January 29, 2000 - Issue 02

Tribal Customs Play Role in Way Indian Kids Learn
BySusan Whitney Deseret News special writer

After years of teaching on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, Robert Rhodes decided to write a book for Anglos, teachers like himself. In "Nurturing Learning in Native American Students," he explains why cultural values must be taken into account. Cultural values are "the prerequisites, the assumptions, the scaffolding of thought processes."

Rhodes says schools generally subscribe to Anglo values. Example: Knowledge belongs to anyone who is willing to work for it and Be inquisitive! Anglos encourage their children to ask questions when they don't understand.

Navajos and other Native Americans also value knowledge. However, they believe knowledge carries with it a burden of responsibility. Rhodes says Navajos and Hopis believe that people who use knowledge for self-aggrandizement should not be allowed access to it, which is one of the reasons they object to non-tribal members performing ceremonies outside the tribe. Medicine men use knowledge for the good of the tribe; others may not.
In that culture, Rhodes says, children are initiated into knowledge at various stages in their lives, with ceremonies. Some knowledge is restricted. Death, kachinas, skinwalkers are not discussed with children.

In Navajo and Hopi cultures, if you don't understand something, then you are obviously an outsider and not permitted to know, he says. On the other hand, offering assistance is a cultural imperative in many tribes.

From what he's seen, Rhodes says, Navajo and Hopi children feel more comfortable in small groups, helping each other, rather than in a large classroom where they're expected to raise their hands and question the teacher.

In many traditional homes, school is for book work and home is for real life. While Navajos and Hopis people respect wisdom, they are quick to realize that school does not necessarily provide it, Rhodes says. Parents encourage their children to do well in school because they know their children need to be able to compete for jobs. But they also know that public school is more likely to destroy their culture rather than preserve it.

Cultural differences in values

Drawing on his years of teaching on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, Robert Rhodes made a list of the differences between Native American values and Anglo values differences that have a direct impact on how children learn.


Native American home

Inquisitiveness is good You will find out when it is time
Accept new information Accept known information
Competition is good Cooperation is good
History and facts are vital Mythology is as important as history
Independence is good The group is good
Time is linear Time is circular
Work is 8-5, office Work is any time, any place
Money is good Helping is good
Offer advice Don't tell other people what to do
Don't just sit there/Do Wait until you understand something
School/work is paramount Family is paramount
Learn from books Learn from people
Control children Allow children to learn on their own
Talk first Keep silent
Make your point Avoid confrontation
Brag Play down your abilities
Only adults can care for children Older children can care for younger
Be future-oriented Deny planning
Vote to decide Decide by group consensus

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