Indigenous People and Higher Education

Thursday June 28, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Native people have a long and difficult history with education in the US. All indigenous peoples have always had their own forms of education but European settlers failed to recognize indigenous education as either relevant or valuable. It differed from their own forms which were based on the written word, a concept Native people had no use for until their collision with European cultures. While Native people had their own forms of education and law, the European's failure to recognize them contributed to their views of Indians and Native Hawaiians as "savage" and "uncivilized."

The European project to forcibly assimilate indigenous populations into American culture led to the creation of boarding schools that were designed to disconnect them from their own cultures as they merged into white society. The half century long policy had profound effects on Native people which are still felt today through what has become known as inter-generational post traumatic stress. Native Americans have fought long and hard to reform the disastrous Indian education policy and one of the ways this has happened is through higher education with the creation of Native American Studies programs.

Native Studies programs have their roots in the ethnic studies movement of the civil rights era in the United States. As people of color began to organize politically in response to oppressive government policies, intellectuals were also pursuing academic frameworks within which conceptualizations of their realities could be formulated. For American Indians this initially began in anthropology programs where students were being taught from inherently racist canons of knowledge that portrayed their ancestors and cultures as morally, culturally, politically and spiritually inferior.

American Indians realized that they needed to take control over their own histories and educational processes. There is a genealogy of Native American scholars whose work has influenced today's world of Native studies and none of them are more important than Vine Deloria, Jr. Read more about this amazing man at my's site.


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