The Colonization of Education
In a previous editorial I discussed how self-determination continues the colonization of Native peoples in the United States. This discussion will focus exclusively on the path with which the United States uses to colonize, thereby promoting the assimilation of Native peoples. This path is education.
The United States and its predecessors have used education in a variety of contexts to colonize the Indigenous peoples of this continent. Whether through a formal or a more informal means, education has been an effective tool to preserve American values. There were educational provisions in federal policies such as the Indian Removal Act and the General Allotment Act. These provisions became more purposely defined as war, torture, slavery, and other forms of physical cruelty that were deemed uncivilized. This is not to say that physical exploitation did not accompany the emotional and psychological abuse encountered by Native children during the boarding school era, but it may not have been explicitly condoned or legitimized through endorsed government policy.
Policies toward Natives in general have alternated between assimilationist (General Allotment Act) and segregationist (Indian Removal Act), but education has been versatile enough to be used in both types of policies. By 1887, when allotment became official policy of the United States, education became a way of dealing with the “Indian Problem.” Until the last couple of decades, this was done in a strictly disciplinary environment with emphasis on learning the life ways of dominant culture.
Even now, education seeks to colonize through three general goals: to perpetuate the culture of dominant society, to build capacity, and to provide technical training. These goals have been determined by many scholars to be characteristic of educational curriculum and programming, but it is worth noting that there are a variety of ways in which to attain those goals; this is where many states, municipalities, and tribal communities differ. Regardless, the three general goals discussed are widespread across the United States.
The first goal of education is to perpetuate the culture of dominant society. The dominant culture in a society refers to the established values, language(s), beliefs, religion(s), and customs. Typically controlled by the majority, dominant cultures are infused into economic and social institutions, with the educational system foremost among them. In this way, education perpetuates the values of dominant society. If the dominant society also is a colonizer, as is the case with the United States, then “to the victor go the spoils” and that includes the histories and stories memorialized.
The second goal of education is to build capacity within communities, throughout the state and across the nation. Capacity building is concerned with better understanding barriers that impede people, governments, and other institutions from attaining their goals while enhancing abilities that will allow them to achieve both quantifiable and sustainable results. Education is the foundation on which capacity is built, and the institution supports priorities and worldviews of dominant culture.
The third goal of education concerns the training of future generations of Americans. This is, perhaps, the most recognizable and understood goal of education. Whereas it is related to the other two, this goal focuses heavily upon the development of technical skills that better enable the American workforce to become strong. This aspect is perceived to be most relatable to employment and, therefore, the strengthening of the American economy.
To this end, the current educational system in the United States still promotes the colonization of Native peoples. Although this is something many of us have thought about or have known, an important process in overcoming the barriers erected by this institution is acknowledging that the American education primarily is concerned with those three general goals: the perpetuation of American culture, building capacity in American communities and institutions, and providing technical training to operate within the American economy.
Despite all of this, to perpetuate our own peoples and cultures, we must learn to function under the current establishment. This will be no easy feat. We must call upon the warrior within each of us to balance on the fine line between giving into contemporary colonization and sustaining our traditional cultures. Adapting to live within the American institution is not defeat. We merely are calling upon the resilience that has kept our peoples alive through a great variety of trials and tribulations.
Education is the best tool to resist colonization. There is a growing trend among teachers and educational researchers who advocate teaching through more culturally relevant and interdisciplinary methods. Some of these approaches will be discussed in a forthcoming editorial on decolonizing education.
Nichlas Emmons is a Program Officer at the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and an adjunct faculty in the Department of Environment and Society at Utah State University. Nichlas researches Native American natural resource management and Native land acquisition.
Editor’s Note: The views expressed are those of Nichlas Emmons and not those of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation or Utah State University.