JOHN EGGERS COLUMN: Let’s correct a big mistake in teaching Native Americans

We need to remember the traditional teachings of Native Americans and use them as a starting point rather than trying to fit them into the curriculum wherever it seems convenient.

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John Eggers

I don’t remember who told me this story or where I read it, but it has to do with a Native American talking to one of the early pilgrims that came to America from England.

The pilgrim mistakenly thought “education” was lacking among Indigenous people, so he suggested that he be given six Indigenous youths so they could be given a “good” education.

The Native American said, “Why don’t you give me six of your youth, and we will give them a 'good' education.”

The boarding schools and the mission schools as well as traditional public schools made one huge mistake when it came to providing education for Native youth. The same mistake was made with African American and Latino youth.

There was an assumption and this assumption is still made today, that little if any, education existed among Native Americans prior to the coming of white people from Europe. Since Native Americans could not write and there were no books or schools, how could there possibly be any formal education?


Hence, the boarding schools and mission schools and public schools embarked upon an effort to “educate” Native youth without incorporating and ignoring any previous teachings by Native people.

Although I was not able to attend the recent Bemidji State gathering dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I was particularly interested in the comments of their featured speaker, Dante King.

To quote from the Pioneer, King said, “We have a school system that’s based upon the psychology of white children and people. If we’re trying to educate our children in that system, they are bound to fail. The very structure of the educational system itself is based upon a white model and therefore has a built-in failure mechanism for us one way or the other.”

It was the failure of the “white model” that gave rise to the Indian survival schools in the 1960s. For this reason, the Red Lake Four Winds alternative school existed. For this reason, the Pine Point Experimental School existed, as well as the creation of the new Red Lake Charter School.

All of these efforts and more were built upon the fact that we needed to take into account the teachings of Native American culture. The white model, to quote King, “has a built-in failure mechanism.”

We only have to look at the unacceptable low graduating rates for students of color to realize King and many others have an important message for educators and we need to listen.

What is the message?

Ojibwe history tells us about the migration west from the east coast following a prophecy that the Ojibwe would journey until they reached a place where food grew on water (wild rice). They found that place in north central Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin and Canada.


In this area, spring would be the time for maple sugaring, summer would be for gathering berries and other foods, fall would be for wild ricing, and winter would be for hunting and trapping as well as storytelling.

To survive, young people had to be taught all of the do’s and don’ts of living in each of the four seasons. If they were not taught, their survival would be in question. We know they were taught and taught well because Native Americans have survived for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Only with the coming of the white people did they have to change their ways, which was devastating to the culture and almost resulted in genocide.

What was done in education and continues to be done today is that we try to change the student to fit the school rather than change the school to fit the student. This not only happens with Native Americans but also with African Americans and with white students who are not finding success.

Good teaching takes into account where the student is. Why not take all of the teachings of Native Americans and use them as the starting point? Using the sugar bush camp as an example, think of the basic skills that could be taught.

Reading about trees. Writing stories about the sugar bush camp. Using numbers and math to measure and count. Incorporating history relating to the experiences of elders. Studying geography by looking at the lay of the land. Studying environmental issues through observation and caring for the trees, flora and fauna.

All of this and more could be part of the curriculum built around the sugar bush camp.

Do you think this would be more exciting than turning to the third chapter in a history or math book and answering questions?


Yes, today’s education is much better for almost everyone than it was decades ago but we are still faced with low graduation rates. Also, educators are trying to incorporate more Native studies into the curriculum, which is laudable.

We still, however, need to remember the traditional teachings of Native Americans and use them as a starting point as opposed to trying to fit them into the curriculum wherever it seems convenient or just on special days.

The question is, “What can we do to change the system so that it is more compatible with what Native students already know?” The answer to this question is, “A lot.”

Riddle: What word is always spelled wrong in the dictionary? (Answer: the word “wrong.” There is still time to right the wrongs in Native American education. The sooner we start, the better.)


I want to thank Walmart for placing 100% posters in their break room. Every little bit helps.

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

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