American Indian Identity
and No Child Left Behind
Jon Reyhner
No Child Left Behind Act 2001
Title VII, Sec. 7101. Statement of Policy
“It is the policy of the United States to fulfill the
Federal Government’s unique and continuing trust
relationship with and responsibility to the Indian
people for the education of Indian children. The
Federal Government will continue to work with
local educational agencies, ensuring that programs
that serve Indian children are of the highest quality
and provide for not only the basic elementary and
secondary educational needs, but also the unique
educational and culturally related academic needs
of these children.”
Alan Peshkin in Places of Memory: Whiteman's
Schools and Native American Communities
observed that students at Santa Fe Indian School
would participate with sustained effort and
enthusiasm in basketball, but “regrettably...saw
no academic counterpart to this stellar athletic
performance…. In class, students generally were
well-behaved and respectful. They were not
rude, loud, or disruptive. More often they were
indifferent.... Teachers could not get students to
work hard consistently, to turn in assignments,
to participate in class, or to take seriously...their
classroom performance.”
A History
Jon Reyhner
Jeanne Eder
Cultural Discontinuity
Peshkin writes, “imbued with the ideal of harmony in
their community life, Pueblo parents send their children to schools that promote cultural jangle.” The
sounds in the school aren’t discordant. The discordance is between what Pueblo communities teach their
young and what schools teach, and this discordance
goes far beyond just the matter of teaching Pueblo
languages in the home and English in schools. Schooling is necessary to become competent in the very world
that the Pueblos perceive as rejecting them”—school is
a place of “becoming white.”
Ethnocentrism & Assimilation
When he started teaching in 1899 on the Pine
Ridge Reservation, Albert Kneale found the
U.S. Government’s Indian Office “always went
on the assumption that any Indian custom was,
per se, objection-able, whereas the customs of
whites were the ways of civilization.” Indian
students “were taught to despise every custom
of their fore-fathers, including religion,
language, songs, dress, ideas, methods of
Navajo Students Upon Arrival at Carlisle
Navajo Students After Being “Civilized” at Carlisle
Ganado Mission School’s Entrance About 1950
An Indian Agent wrote in 1845 that, “It is not a
subject of astonishment that the education, the
civilization, and especially the glorious religion of
the white man, are held by [Indians] in so little
estimation. Our education appears to consist in
knowing how most effectually to cheat them; our
civilization in knowing how to pander to the worst
propensities of nature, and then beholding the
criminal and inhuman results with a cold indifference—a worse than heathen apathy; while our
religion is readily summed up in the consideration of
dollars and cents.”
Returned Students
The Superintendent of the Ponca Agency in
Oklahoma reported in 1917 the story of, “an old
Ponca Indian, now dead, once said that it takes
Chilocco [Boarding School] three years to make a
White man out of an Indian boy, but that when
the boy comes home and the tribe has a feast, it
takes but three days for the tribe to make the boy
an Indian again.”
Hopi Edmund Nequatewa’s grandfather told him to
learn the secrets of the white man's “black book.” He
went to Phoenix Indian School in 1899 where daily bible
classes were held. Back home in 1904, he told a
missionary, “The only thing you have done for these
people whom you have supposedly converted is to take
them out of one superstition and get them into
another.... You have been telling these people that if they
miss on Sunday and do not come to church, they are
condemned. Now is that not superstition?” He
concluded that no one “really knows what is going to
happen hereafter, but this has never been brought out
in any publication of any one church or denomination.”
Cultural Encapsulation
(Tribalism/Whiteman’s Shadow)
Deborah House who both took Navajo Studies
classes and taught at Diné College in the 1990s found
that “non-Navajo students (Anglo, Hispanic, and
others) were encouraged to disparage their own
upbringing and cultural experiences. Furthermore,
their language, literature, religion, family life, and
ethnic identities are routinely, and at times painfully,
denigrated and devalued by Navajo and non-Navajo
instructors, administrators, and other students.”
James Banks’ Stages
that an Ethnic
Minority Individual
or Group Can
Experience as They
Adjust to Living
Alongside an Ethnocentric Dominant
Ethnic Group
Stages That
New Native
Students Can
Place-Based &
Community-Based Education
Success in school and in life is related to people's
identity, how as a group and individually people are
viewed by others and how they see themselves.
Identity is not just a positive self-concept. It is
learning your place in the world with both humility
and strength. It is, in the words of Vine Deloria
(Standing Rock Sioux), “accepting the responsibility
to be a contributing member of a society.” It is
children as they grow up finding a “home in the
landscapes and ecologies they inhabit.”
We Are All Related
Amy Bergstrom, Linda Cleary and Thomas
Peacock in their 2003 study of Indian youth
titled The Seventh Generation found that
“Identity development from an Indigenous
perspective has less to do with striving for
individualism and more to do with establishing connections and understanding ourselves
in relation to all the things around us.”
“The Elders tell us that it is alright to feel angry
about stuff like this [e.g., the Sand Creek
massacre] and it is good.
However, in the end you must go down to the
river, offer a gift of tobacco to the Creator and
simply let the anger go ....
Otherwise the anger will poison your spirit…”
“Every Iñupiaq is responsible to all
other Iñupiat for the survival of our
cultural spirit, and the values and
traditions through which it survives.
Through our extended family, we retain,
teach, and live our Iñupiaq way.
With guidance and support from
Elders, we must teach our children
Iñupiaq values:”
Iñupiaq values
knowledge of language
respect for others
respect for elders
love for children
hard work
knowledge of family tree
avoidance of conflict
respect for nature
family roles
hunter success
domestic skills
responsibility to tribe
In 1920 John Collier observed the Taos Red Deer
Dance in which he found a power for living that, “If
our modern world should be able to recapture... the
earth’s natural resources and web of life would not be
irrevocably wasted within the twentieth century which
is the prospect now. True democracy, founded in
neighborhoods and reaching over the world, would
become the realized heaven on earth.... [Modern
society has] lost that passion and reverence for human
personality and for the web of life and the earth which
the American Indians have tended as a central sacred
Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from
1933-1945, concluded that, “Assimilation, not
into our culture but into modern life, and
preservation and intensification of heritage
are not hostile choices, excluding one
another, but are interdependent through and
through.... It is the ancient tribal, village,
communal organization which must conquer
the modern world.”
The Curse of Fry Bread
Powdered Eggs and Spam
Students who are not embedded in their
traditional values are only too likely in
modern America to pick up a culture of
consumerism, consumption, competition,
comparison, and conformity
Dr. Richard Littlebear writes that, “Even in our
rural areas, we are encountering gangs. Our youth
are apparently looking to urban gangs for those
things that will give them a sense of identity,
importance, and belongingness. It would be so nice
if they would but look to our own tribal
characteristics because we already have all the
things that our youth are apparently looking for
and finding in socially destructive gangs.”
“We have all the characteristics in our tribal
structures that will reaffirm the identities of our
youth. Gangs have distinctive colors, clothes,
music, heroes, symbols, rituals, and “turf”.... We
American Indian tribes have these too. We have
distinctive colors, clothes, music, heroes,
symbols, and rituals, and we need to teach our
children about the positive aspects of American
Indian life at an early age so they know who
they are. Perhaps in this way we can inoculate
them against the disease of gangs.”
“Another characteristic that really makes
a gang distinctive is the language they
speak. If we could transfer the young
people’s loyalty back to our own tribes
and families, we could restore the frayed
social fabric of our reservations. We need
to make our children see our languages
and cultures as viable and just as valuable
as anything they see on television, movies,
or videos.”
Foundations of Resilience
Iris HeavyRunner
Social Competence
Sense of Purpose
Cultural Flexibility
Spiritual Connectedness
Sense of Humor
Sense of Identity
Critical Thinking
Help Seeking
Adaptive Distancing
Task Mastery
One of the problems with transferring onesize-fits-all curriculums designed for mainstream schools promoted by the No Child Left
Behind Act to Indian schools is that incentives
they use may not work with Indian students
and/or may be culturally inappropriate. For
example, Lipka et al. in a study of Yup’ik
teachers rejected the profuse “bubbly” praise
promoted by outside teachers because
traditional Yup’iks believed “overly praising
will ruin a person.”
Yup'ik teachers also wanted to provide their
students with greater comprehensible input,
both in terms of language and content, based on
Yup'ik culture rather than to continue to use
the decontexualized curriculum from the
dominant culture that pervaded Alaskan village
schools. Yup'ik “children in the village were
raised to be self-reliant and have a great deal of
responsibility;” however, “in school, they
learned to look upon the teacher as an authority
figure who tells them what to do, when to do it,
and how to do it.”
Yup'ik teachers emphasized “establishing a
strong personal relationship with students,” in
contrast to the outsiders’ ideas that “good
teachers” were teachers who had the “ability to
impart content knowledge,” content designed to
replace the Yup'ik language and traditional
cultural knowledge and values. Thus both Yup'ik
teachers and students were faced with cultural
conflicts. Ethnographic studies, such as this one
by Jerry Lipka, are being ignored by the
Department of Education in looking at
educational programs that are supported by
“scientific research.”
Navajo Student Learning Style
Navajo Learners
- Observe
- Think [Reflect]
- Act
Anglo Learners
- Act
- Question
- Think [Reflect]
“In contrast with Anglo learners who typically want to
try something new, then question, and then think
about a learning, the preferred learning styles of
Navajo children is to observe first, think about the
learning, and then take action to try or practice a new
learning. This process is one that many new teachers
of Navajo students do not fully integrate into their
teaching.” —Dr. Joseph Martin
A Navajo elder told Dr. Parsons Yazzie, “You
are asking questions about the reasons that we
are moving out of our language, I know the
reason. The television is robbing our children
of language. It is not only at school that there
are teachings, teachings are around us and
from us there are also teachings. Our children
should not sit around the television. Those who
are mothers and fathers should have held their
children close to themselves and taught them
well, then our grandchildren would have
picked up our language.”
Dr. Parsons Yazzie found in her doctoral
research that, “Elder Navajos want to pass on
their knowledge and wisdom to the younger
generation. Originally, this was the older
people's responsibility. Today the younger
generation does not know the language and is
unable to accept the words of wisdom.” She
continues, “The use of the native tongue is like
therapy, specific native words express love and
caring. Knowing the language presents one with
a strong self-identity, a culture with which to
identify, and a sense of wellness.”
Dr. Richard Littlebear quotes an elder
“Cheyennes who are coming toward us are
being denied by us the right to acquire that
central aspect of what it means to be Cheyenne
because we are not teaching them to talk
Cheyenne. When they reach us, when they are
born, they are going to be relegated to being
mere husks, empty shells. They are going to
look Cheyenne, have Cheyenne parents but
they won't have the language which is going to
make them truly Cheyenne.”
Reading expert Richard Allington found in a
study that, “Exemplary teachers evaluated
student work based more on effort and improvement than simply on achievement status. This
focus meant that all students had a chance at
earning good grades, regardless of their
achievement levels. This creates an instructional
environment quite different from one where
grades are awarded based primarily on achievement status. In those cases, the high-achieving
students do not typically have to work very hard
to earn good grades.”
“Lower-achieving students often have no real
chance to earn a good grade regardless of their
effort or improvement. Achievement-based
grading–where the best performances get the
best grades–operates to foster classrooms where
no one works very hard. The higher-achieving
students don't have to put forth much effort to
rank well and the lower-achieving students soon
realize that even working hard doesn't produce
performances that compare well to those of
higher-achieving students. Hard work gets you a
C, if you are a lucky low-achiever, in an achievement-based grading scheme.”
Teachers responsive to their Indian
students’ needs are more successful than
those who slavishly teach from textbooks,
curriculums, and state standards that
almost never reflect the tribal heritage of
their students. It is long past time to
remember what Luther Standing Bear
declared in 1933 about young Indians
needing to be “doubly educated” so that
they learned “to appreciate both their
traditional life and modern life.”
Angela Willeto’s (1999) study of 451 Navajo
high school students from 11 different Navajo
schools confirms that students’ orientation
towards traditional culture, as measured by
participation in ritual activities and cultural
conventions as well as Navajo language use,
does not negatively effect these students’
academic performance. Thus “a difference
between the cultural values of the school and
child per se is not the essential reason for
Navajo children doing poorly at school.”
Should Schools Try to Boost Self-Esteem?
Beware of the Dark Side
•The self-esteem approach…is to skip over
the hard work of changing our actions and
instead just let us think we’re nicer.
•High self-esteem can mean confident and
secure—but it can also mean conceited,
arrogant, narcissistic, and egotistical.
•Self-esteem is mainly an outcome, not a
cause. (Self-efficacy)
•In practice, high self-esteem usually amounts to a
person thinking that he or she is better than other
people. If you think you're better than others, why
should you listen to them, be considerate, or keep still
when you want to do or say something?
•Bullies ‘do not suffer from poor self-esteem’….People
with high self-esteem are less willing than other to
heed advice, for obvious reasons.
•Far, far more Americans of all ages have accurate or
inflated views of themselves than underestimate
themselves. They don’t need boosting.
•…a whopping 25 percent claimed to be
in the top 1 percent! Similarly when
asked about ability to get along with
others, no students at all said they were
below average.
•There is one psychological trait that
schools could help instill and that is likely
to pay off much better than self-esteem.
That trait is self-control (including selfdiscipline).
•Donna Deyhle (1995) found that students
with a strong sense of identity could
overcome the structural inequalities in
American society and the discrimination
they faced as American Indians.
•Edward Hinkley (2001) concluded that
“the modern Navajo student has adapted to
school learning. However, it remains for the
Navajo to turn these more positive attitudes
to their advantage concerning school
John Ogbu's
Recommendations for Minority Communities
Teach children to separate attitudes and
behaviors that lead to academic success from
attitudes and behaviors that lead to a loss of
ethnic identity and culture or language.
Provide children with concrete evidence that its
members appreciate and value academic
success as much as they appreciate
achievements in sports, athletics, and
Teach each child to recognize and accept the
responsibility for their school adjustment and
academic performance.
The middle class minority community must
keep its ties with their ethnic community
versus seeing their success as “a ticket” out. If
they return, it should not be as
representatives of white society.
Recommendations for Educators
John Ogbu
•Minority students are not just culturally
different; they may have ‘oppositional identities’
•Study the history of your students’ ethnic groups
•Provide special counseling to separate school
success from ‘acting white’
•Facilitate ‘accommodation without assimilation’
Society needs to provide more job opportunities for
minority youth
A 2003 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report
noted that BIA schools spend half the amount that public
schools spend per student and that “the proposed 2004
budget…does not provide the necessary funding to meet
the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001
throughout the United States, but especially in Indian
Country.” The Commission noted that only 66% of Native
students graduated from high school as compared to 75%
of the general population and found that “dropout rates
among Native American students are high because, among
other reasons, their civil rights and cultural identities are
often at risk in the educational environment. Research
shows that Native American students experience difficulty
maintaining rapport with teachers and establishing
relationships with other students; feeling of isolation; 47
racist threats; and frequent suspension.”
The Commission noted that “community responsibility for and ownership of schools are crucial for
creating a positive learning environment that respects
students’ civil and educational rights. It concluded that ,
“as a group, Native American students are not afforded
educational opportunities equal to other American
students. They routinely face deteriorating school facilities,
underpaid teachers, weak curricula, discriminatory
treatment, and outdated learning tools. In addition, the
cultural histories and practices of Native students are
rarely incorporated in the learning environment. As a
result, achievement gaps persist with Native American
students scoring lower than any other racial/ethnic group
in basic levels of reading, math, and history. Native
American students are also less likely to graduate from 48
high school and more likely to drop out in earlier grades.”

Northern Arizona University