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Only A Teacher
Teachers Today
Ann Cook
Linda Darling Hammond
Dean Eastman
Aurora Fleming
Terri Grasso
Carolyn Lawrence
Tsianina Lomawaima
Frank McCourt
Lorraine Monroe
Tom Mooney
Brian Sheehy
Gerry Speca
Sandy Warner
Alex White


Interview With Tsianina Lomawaima
Tsianina Lomawaima is Professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona.

Q: What has the term Indian Education meant historically?

Well, I think when people talk about Indian education, they use this term "Indian Education," which has a very long history, colonial history, and I think it's important to specify that we're talking about colonial education for Indians because, until recently, Indian education has not meant Indian people educating their own: it's meant others. It's about a transformation of life, conversion to Christianity, whatever denomination, becoming civilized, and of course those two things in the colonial era were, were seen as the same thing, two sides of the same coin perhaps. Transforming people's lives and almost sometimes very secondary to that is what we might think of as education today -- reading, writing academic subjects. It was much more immersion in a completely new life style.

Q: What was the common perception of Native American societies by white people?

I think a very common European and then later American view of native societies was that they were deficient in many ways. The Anglo-American viewer did not see familiar social institutions, did not see familiar customs, did not see familiar architecture, agricultural technologies, food on the table, tables. And in not seeing familiar things, they could n't see what was there.

Q: What has changed in education of Native Americans in recent decades?

What's really dramatically changed, since World War II, I would say, is the number of options and choices that are available. And I think the choices that many Americans have taken for granted about education have only very recently become available to Indian people.

Q: Does it matter whether Native American students have Native American teachers?

I think it's fundamentally important to have native teachers in classrooms. It's also fundamentally important to have excellent teachers in classrooms. So this is not, you know, that's not a challenge that only native teachers, or only native schools or native children are up against. Native people believe in education and I think this is one of the most interesting continuities through our histories. Today, there are still many Native people who go into fields of education, but we're still in the situation of there's not enough to fill our classrooms.

Q: Many schools serving Native American students say that they have a dual objective: to prepare students to leave, and to prepare them to stay in their home communities. Why is that?

Certainly many native people have this commitment to serve their home communities. That's just a very fundamental reality and a very, it's a very real connection and link and it's emotional and familial and it's very deep and profound. So I think a lot of schools, tribal schools in particular, really have that at the kind of forefront of their agenda and at the forefront of their challenges. How do we best prepare our children for the life they choose and want to lead, including preparation if they want to go away from home for some period for higher education?

Q: You see a clash between certain broad American assumptions about education and certain Native American goals. What is it?

I think there's a lot of idealism in America about education, and Americans, I think, for a long time have had an inclination when faced with social problems to say, education's the answer. Schools can make a difference. Schools can make things better. We can educate our children to rise above racism, to achieve economic upward mobility, to provide a work force as America's economy changes. Whatever social challenges are, are there. And I think it's still true about America, and I think many Americans are very surprised when some of that idealism about education and schools is not necessarily shared by all Americans. And I think people may be surprised that some Native people would choose a segregated school, for instance, an all Native school, because segregation, oh, separating people, that's a bad thing. I mean, we worked so hard through the civil rights movement to overcome segregation. Integration was the ideal.

Q: In this climate of integration and multiculturalism, what are some misunderstandings that arise around Native Americans and their part in the multicultural mix?

Educators for instance, who are working very sincerely and working very hard to introduce multi-cultural curriculum, to develop multi-cultural curriculum in schools, are surprised when they go to a Native community, and say, "Share with us your knowledge," and are told perhaps in some cases, "No. It's not appropriate. It's ours. It belongs to us, and we don't maybe even share it." There are arenas of private knowledge. That surprises many American. "But, don't you want to share with us? Diversity is a strength of our nation and how will we know one another if we don't share?" Native people have a right to a different perspective on this.

Q: What are the challenges ahead for Native American education?

This era of choices is very recent. Native people are still working through a lot of the challenges, and a lot of the legacies, those historical legacies. Native people need to re-educate themselves. This is very important. Things are changing, but to keep pushing the envelope, we need to learn ourselves to recognize some of those legacies of what's gone before. It may be our ideas about schooling today are still being shaped by our parents, our grandparents, or our own experiences in boarding schools. There are certain possibilities we don't even see yet, about how might Native pedagogies be re-introduced into a setting, whether it's a classroom or some other setting. There's nothing simple about this.

Q: Many people have a vision of Native American culture as something that exists only in the past. How do you, as a teacher, deal with that?

How do we understand that resistance, the resistance of the non-native student who says, "I don't want to hear about tribal sovereignty, I don't want to hear about contemporary politics, I want to know about Indians. What kind of houses did they live in and how did they dress? And I want to know about their spiritual life." How do I work with my native students who want everyone in America to know that Indians are alive and well in the contemporary world and are intensely interested in politics, in law, in those processes that are so important to keeping our nations alive? You know, being a teacher goes way beyond working with some subject matter and trying to figure out a pedagogically-appropriate method to transfer some body of knowledge.

Q: What do you think Native American teachers want their students - Native American or not - to take away from American Indian studies?

We want people to learn something about native people, so we try to incorporate all these elements: knowledge, lifestyle -- or what some people call culture -- historic moments that were really important, and the knowledge that's embedded or encoded in Native American technologies and sciences, and to get people to see that as, you know, the product of very real intellectual achievement, and not just happenstance. And it's very interesting to see students really grapple or really struggle with these stories we use in appropriate ways, and in appropriate settings and in appropriate seasons, bits and pieces of particular tribal origin stories, creation stories, all that wealth of information in oral literature, in oral narrative.



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Tsianina Lomawaima
teacher