Whenever you talk about a concept that relates to a culture other than your own, you are treading on dangerous grounds. You may be accused of not knowing what you are talking about. With that in mind, I apologize if I happened to offend anyone. Before I mention a positive side to "Indian time," I want to relate my own observations.

Although I have heard the term "Indian time" used frequently during the time I’ve worked among the Native American culture, "Indian time" is often misunderstood or used in a derogatory way when mentioned by people belonging to the white population.

In checking with a colleague Charles Grolla, Ojibwe culture and language teacher in Cass Lake, he reminded me of a couple of things. "Indian time is more of a saying that implies 'that we will take as much time as needed to get something properly done,' outside of that understanding, non-traditional Ojibwe thinking people use it in the context of an excuse to be late when in reality Ojibwe are a very timely people who take it as disrespectful to be late for something."

Another factor from Grolla to consider is, "Ojibwe are poor and it is hard to find rides and shuffle kids around . . . several family members depend on one vehicle for many things throughout the day for many people and it is considered Indian time for them to get to where they need to be. . . "

When you study Native American history you learn that "time" had a different meaning and in order to answer the concept of "Indian time" you have to understand the culture and history of Native Americans. For example, how many clocks and watches do you think were in Native American dwellings around 1800? The answer would be zero. How about in the year 1900? The answer would still be close to zero. Why? Time was not an important concept.

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Time was pretty much based on four seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer. That was it. There were no deadlines, timelines, or schedules to follow based on time. There was a sunrise and a sunset and what happened in-between just happened without any schedule, appointments or deadlines. And, there was no daylight savings time.

Yes, wild rice had to be gathered at a certain time of the year as did sap from trees. There was a best time to hunt, fish and trap and to gather fruit and plants. All of this happened without a clock. Eight o'clock and 10 o'clock were irrelevant.

What was relevant was that from the beginning of time Native Americans had to work hard, extremely hard, just to survive. It was no tiptoe through the tulips, no piece of cake. There was no lackadaisical work standard that existed in the Native culture. To survive you had to get out of bed and do what you had to do to put food on the table. To say that "Indian time" represents a people who do not have a work ethic is a complete misunderstanding. The same can be said of the homesteaders and loggers who settled in this area and who also worked extremely hard to survive.

What's the positive side to "Indian time" that relates to schools and learning?

There was a debate in Bemidji regarding a four-period day and a six-period day. This debate has occurred in other communities in the United States ever since the one-room schoolhouses closed their doors. There is no substantial research to support either of the two when it comes to the best formula for student learning. There may be a few advantages of one over the other but we have schedules and periods largely because of tradition, better student control and organization.

When I was at Red Lake we had a seven-period day and three semesters. In terms of learning, it wasn’t any better than a six, eight or 10-period day. Actually, a better system for many students would be one where there are no periods or schedules or timelines and you could say it would be based on "Indian time" where time was not a deciding factor. What was important was just getting the job done.

Let's say a teacher assigns students to read "Treasure Island" and gives them two weeks to finish the book. At the end of the two weeks there is a test given to determine if the kids learned anything about the book. This is a great book, testing is fine and needed but what happens if one student finishes the book in one week? What happens if a handful of students need three weeks rather than two weeks? What happens if the bell rings when the students are really getting into a great discussion that will help those students who are struggling better understand the book?

It makes more sense to personalize time and learning. It doesn’t make any sense to treat every student as if they are the same and learn in the same way and expect them all to finish the same assignment on the same day and on the same page.

For those of you who maintain that we are all alike and should be treated the same, let me remind you that there is nothing so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals. I am not like anyone else nor are you. My wife, who has MS, is certainly not like anyone else and needs to be treated differently.

Some students including Native American students do just fine on a 4, 6 or 8 period day, as do white students. Others do not and the proof of this is the graduation rate. The question becomes, "What can we do to accommodate those students who do not do well?"

Certainly, to do more of the same would be foolhardy. The positive side of "Indian time" would have a system with more flexibility built into it. Why not try a system where there are no periods, no schedules, where learning is personalized and continuous? If a student wants to spend two hours painting a picture, why not? If students wish to practice reciting Spanish dialogues for half a day in preparation for a Spanish play, let them.

I don’t want to suggest that time is not important in our capitalistic society. As the saying goes, time means money. Schools should not be designed for the sole purpose of teaching students about deadlines and schedules and to either start or finish when the clock shows 10 o'clock. Schools are designed to facilitate the enjoyment of learning and whatever system works for students, that’s the system to use.

"Indian time" is not an acceptable term but used in context of the way students learn where time is flexible and learning is personalized, it can be a very good thing.

Riddle: Which is correct? The yoke of an egg is white or the yolk of an egg are white. (Answer: Neither, the yoke of an egg is yellow.) What is better -- a four, six, seven or eight period day? A better question is, "What is best for the learner?"


I have a hard time understanding why we don’t spend as much time helping 100% of our students graduate than we do in deciding how many fans to allow in to see a baseball game or in fixing pot holes in our streets.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.