Speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee.
The United States Government repeatedly promised education as part of the payment for taking the homelands of the People who orginally lived on this continent. This is recorded in treaties, which are binding by law. Because public education is considered the key to effective democratic citizenship, universal public education is an entitlement for all children in the United States. Today, a little more than a century since the Blackfeet were forced to change their ancient way of life, what is the evidence that they have received the payment due them or have become citizens educated for public participation? Most evaluations have been dismaying.
The answer is more than mixed, but I will not use statistics to make my case. Rather I offer as evidence my experience of nine years as a high school English teacher on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana: five years between 1961 and 1966; two years between 1971 and 1973; and, most specifically, two years between 1988 and 1990. During the first two periods, I taught high school English in Browning. In the third time span, I taught seven-through-twelve English in Heart Butte. Forty years is long enough to see students grow up, have families, and send their own children to school. Many of my original students have grandchildren.
When first I taught in 1961, half of all the Blackfeet students dropped out between the eighth grade and high school. During the four years of high school, another half dropped out. Very few went to college. Roughly the same is true today except that there are many more children, nearly all Blackfeet-identified or at least Indian-identified, and probably a higher proportion of them are middle-class, expecting to attend college. A few have succeeded very well, becoming M.D.’s and Ph.D’s.
The schools I am talking about are not the infamous government or religious boarding schools, but rather ordinary public schools governed by the county superintendent of schools and the local school board, which in my experience has always been substantially Blackfeet. Teachers have ranged from the brilliant to the appalling, with both extremes more likely to move on than the average plodder. Special programs abound. Administrators proliferate. Parents become more demanding. Young people still crave something to fill their emptiness.
Two vast and uncertain "paradigms" control the concept of "Indian education." Notoriously, our notion of what an "Indian" is has been polarized between the "natural nobleman" and the "drunken savage." Today the indigenous Peoples themselves claim the right to picture who they are. Yet the question remains open -- deeply factionalized by schisms within the native population. Is "Indian" identity a matter of blood quantum, tribal enrollment, governmental recognition of specific tribes, residence on a reservation, the ability to speak the tribal language, faith in an indigenous religious system, or solidarity with political activists? Is it a card you carry, a face you see in the mirror, or something deep in your heart?
Most non-Indian people have no awareness of these alternatives or their implications. Those who would like to see Native Americans disappear are hoping blood quantum will be definitive, in the belief that full-bloods will intermarry (dilute towards white, what else?) into oblivion. An increasingly common phenomenon is a full-blooded Indian whose ancestors are from enough different tribes that he or she cannot be enrolled in any one of them. No category includes them, though they are richly and deeply Indian.
The other paradigm is "public education." The concept has been thrown into question throughout the United States. We are unsure about everything from how to finance schools to what ought to be taught in them, much less how to define or guarantee achievement. There is a flight to private schools of various kinds for various reasons. But on the reservations -- just where it ought to be questioned-- "education" is taken for granted as a known entity. These small communities assume school to be just what it was in the 19th century: a dictator of “rightness.” Recent charter schools sponsored by religious denominations are even more centered on rightness, now including morality.
Until recently education has been frankly meant to assimilate, but now we are afraid to say so. The issue has remained submerged by adding token classes in relatively trivial ethnic phenomena, like games or foods, rather than examining the underlying assumptions of two cultural paradigms. The definitions of both "Indianness" and "education" are deeply intertwined, and yet often they are opposed. When that opposition happens, public education is still meant to eliminate Indianness.
My contribution here is mostly raw evidence and personal opinion. A few of my friends refuse to believe that some of these things really happened: they do not like their convictions challenged. Indeed, in spite of every effort to be honest, my interpretations must be tentative. I may have completely misinterpreted what happened. Some will be troubled by my adventures: certainly I am.
Alongside my own classroom adventures, I am able to supply tales from the late Thirties, when my former husband Bob Scriver taught in the Browning schools, and as far back as 1903, when Bob Scriver's father first arrived on the Blackfeet Reservation. There were no public schools then, but there were Indian schools provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by religious groups, who were convinced that part of assimilation was conversion to Christianity. Montana is still today one of the parts of the United States where American is usually assumed to mean the same thing as Christian.
In the end some of the insights here may be useful for the country at large. Reservations are intentional microcosms where the problem of drugs is being confronted with increasing success, where environmental issues have a sharply cutting edge, and where explosive population growth may turn out to be as much of a problem as the catastrophic population collapse was a century ago. Above all else, the reader should keep in mind that we are all connected. Nothing that is relevant to the Blackfeet is irrelevant to the rest of us.
Be warned that I am writing "against genre." Most books about Native Americans begin with the arrival of the Europeans at the east coast. I am calling up the Cretaceous Era on the huge inland now-dry seabed that is the American prairie. Most books about "Indian Education" are about elementary school students and ignore the tumultuous factors that arrive in the classroom after puberty. In fact, the dangerous side of the reservation itself is usually not mentioned when dealing with education. This is not a story about charming, docile, bright-eyed children, but questions about near-adults involved in violence, sex and drugs. I am not asking whether "Indians" should or should not be assimilated, but where planetary culture goes from here and how the Nizitahpi can become leaders in that new culture. The time of assimilation is gone. Now comes the time for innovation.
One more realization came to me slowly and painfully as I wrote. Although the invasion of the Americas by Europeans began five hundred years ago, the final devastation of the Blackfeet happened barely one hundred years ago, closer in history than the Civil War. The Blackfeet were not defeated in honorable battle, but wiped out by smallpox, starvation and massacre -- deliberately. No living people are actual survivors of the Baker Massacre or the Starvation Winter, but their children and grandchildren are still with us and remember hearing the stories from eyewitness accounts. European Americans have never really come to terms with their own culpability and Native Americans have only begun to release their rage and depression. It is a terrifying process on both sides, especially when connected to environmental devastation and religious issues. I would wish to broaden the consideration of trauma recovery to include the land itself, which once defined Native Americans and gave rise to their culture. I point to the urgency of the dilemma.
All Peoples on this planet are in the grip of time and change. None of us can go back. The question is how we can educate our children to go forward. None of them will go on alone, no matter who they are. No one is Other.