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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 17, 2001 - Issue 49


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Tribal Schools Prevent 'Culture Cleansing'


 art D. Morriseau Children Seeking Peace and Understanding


At one time students were punished for using their native languages


ONEIDA - Take a peek into a typical high school classroom. While the color of the faces may be different, the styles, of clothing, hair, slang, will largely be the same.

Ninety percent of Native American students attend non-Indian schools, public or private, where culturally-aware teaching is lacking. Many believe the loss of traditional native knowledge and language is intimately related to the problems of high dropout rates and poor academic achievement - the achievement gap.

"It's all tied up with identity and cultural dissonance," said Rosemary Christenson, professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin and an Ojibwa Indian. "The effects of that cultural dissonance are widespread and continue to grow."

The Oneida Nation's Youth Education Services division Friday held its third annual conference on maintaining partnerships between the tribe and area schools.

"We started the conference so that educators and administrators from the local school districts could learn and share knowledge that will help them close this achievement gap, particularly among minority students," said Anita Barber, director of the Youth Education Services division. "There are also a lot of 'new theories' being brought out - theories and ideas that really are just old ideas that were never implemented."

In 1969, the Kennedy Report to the U.S. Senate, named for the late president who recognized the deterioration of education for Native Americans, declared the education of Native Americans "a national tragedy" and called for more tribal involvement in schools.

The report criticized the government's policy on Indian education, which up until that point promoted a type of culture cleansing where students were forcibly removed from their families and taken to boarding schools where they were stripped of their native dress and often beaten for speaking their own languages.

In 1972, the Indian Education Act, Title IV, provided funds for Native American education programs, and also sought the involvement of parents in both public and reservation schools.

J.P. Leary, a consultant for the American Indian Studies Program at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, said that the Kennedy Report really did nothing more than regurgitate a lot of the information provided in the "Merriam Report" 40 years earlier.

"That report made the argument for bilingual and bicultural education in 1920, just as the Kennedy Report did in 1969," he said. "The Merriam Report called for the elimination of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) course of study because it stressed only white cultural values."

Leary also said that improvements have been made. For example, Wisconsin is one of only three states to require that teachers are trained in cultural issues.

Some of the ideas that are being presented now as an option for bicultural education are, Leary said, old ideas and traditional practices that are being reintroduced as brain research shows that learning styles vary.

"I hope that we will actually implement some of these things now that there is 'scientific' proof of their worth," Leary said.

Carol Cornelius, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said that she has found in her teaching that many times students from other cultures, particularly foreign students, are proficient at learning the material, but don't do well on multiple choice exams.

"They are used to having to explain the reasoning behind the answer," she said. "This makes oral or essay exams a much better choice for them. So I now give my students the option of taking either the multiple choice or the essay exam."

Cornelius said that there are many times when she has a "cross-cultural moment," and that she has learned to recognize when she is caught up in one.

"When the Oneida talk about identity, we are talking about our name, our clan, that type of thing," she said. "But when I talk to someone who is not Native American, they usually want to know my job or how many degrees I have. We value different parts of our identity. And that's important to recognize."

Cornelius related the story about a time when she was asked to speak at university in front of a prestigious group of academicians. An elder came into the room, and Cornelius noticed that no one got up to help her to a seat, so she immediately left her speech at the podium, walked the elder to a seat in the front row and then had some younger audience members retrieve the older woman some coffee.

"Because that is what you do," she said. "You make sure the older people have everything they need first."

It is experiences and traditions like these, Cornelius said, that not only be beneficial in a typical public school class, but welcome. "By taking some of these 'old ideas' and making them new again," Leary said. "Hopefully the next report that comes out will show some improvement and the dropout rates won't be as bad as they have been."


     Maps by Travel

Wisconsin Indian Education Association
Promoting education and educationally related opportunities
for American Indian people in Wisconsin.

Changes in American Indian Education: A Historical Retrospective for Educators in the United States. ERIC Digest
THE BRIEF RETROSPECTIVE in this Digest should interest all American educators concerned with such enduring issues as equity and equality of educational opportunity, local autonomy, community involvement, curriculum development, and the relationship of cultural values to the way schooling is conducted in general.

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Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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