American Indians Today/Contemporary education and culture

Contemporary education and culture


For more than 100 years the US government pursued a policy whose purpose has been to dissolve the structures of the tribal chief system and to assimilate the American Indian culture.

American Indian culture has been considered primitive, by the Westerns especially the European colonialists, in comparison to their more modern and advanced culture. A lot of measures had been taken to make this plan real, for example missionary work to convert the “wild pagans” to Christianity, bans on ritual dance, worship and Indian clothes, and the separation of the American Indian children from their tribes as soon as possible and their education in special boarding schools.

Education & tribal languages


All the customs, songs and myths of the American Indians have been passed on by oral tradition ever since, so (for the Europeans) the most effective method to destroy the Native culture was to deprive them of their language: Throughout the 19th century a lot of boarding schools had been founded (often held by Christian organizations), in which the American Indian children were taught in English and should adopt the European and Christian manners and customs. They were separated from their tribes and families for several years without any visits.

The reports about the teaching methods in this schools show that the daily life must have been a torture to the young American Indians. Talking in a tribal language and carrying on worship was harshly punished ( corporal and psychological punishment were considered normal), and the children generally were treated very badly: “He said that he got only one pair of shoes a year and was forced to wear them until they became too small, and his feet became crippled. He still [(today 55 years old -authoress)] has problems walking.” They had to work, too, for there was often no money for servants and they also became victims of psychological and sexual abuse, and so the American Indians have gotten to know the European culture from its darkest side.

These boarding schools existed until late in the 20th century (the last ones were closed in the 1980's and 90'sx), by that time the number of American Indians who were still speaking their Native language had begun to shrink by alarming proportions: for example among the Mohawk (a tribe of the six Iroquois Nations) only about 5% spoke the tribal language, mostly people older than 70 years.

In order to preserve the American Indian languages from dying out, the wish to set up schools where young American Indians should be taught by Native Americans or specially trained teachers, rather than by Whites, and get in touch with their culture again, became stronger: In the late 1960's the first American Indian survival schools had been opened and an alliance of education authorities under American Indian control been established. Today almost all the American Indian reservations run schools of their own, partly they offer language courses for adults, too, and there even are American Indian colleges and universities (e.g. Fort Peck Community College in Montana or the Haskell Indian Nations University Kansas). The latter enable the young American Indians to achieve a secondary education combined with their own cultural values, and during the last 20 years the number of American Indians enrolling for college or university has increased by 80%.

Most American Indians in reservations visit the new Native schools from childhood and many of those who are going to attend higher education leave the reservations to earn more money, which is of advantage for their big families in the reservations.

The lessons in which the Native American children are taught in their tribal language helped to protect 175 American Indian dialects and had the effect that about one third of the children over five years talk in their mother tongue at home (although it is estimated that only the 20 most spoken languages will exist throughout the 21st century).

In comparison to the past, all these developments mark important steps of independence and success, especially for the rural American Indians, because formal education is the basis for future professional success and now the Native American children are able to learn without having to leave their families and give up their Indian language and identity.

Culture & traditions


Another idea to assimilate the American Indians to European culture was to convert the “wild pagans” to Christianity so many missionaries had come to North America funded by the US government. Since the Europeans harshly punished any kind of resistance against their “civilization” programs (the boarding schools have also been used as a threat to put the Native American parents under pressure), the most American Indians obeyed the new laws, stopped talking their original language and gave up the majority of their customs.

But during the 20th century the suppression of American Indian culture became less strict and successively the American Indians returned to their culture and explored more modern mediums which had been unknown to them before: for example, several Native American newspapers have been published for the first time ( e.g. the magazine »Wassaja« (»smoke signal«) by the Cherokee (1916 /1926) and the “Navajo Times” (1943)).

In the 1970s a lot of American Indian radio stations had their first broadcasts, in the tribal language of course, and today many of them are on air for about twelve hours a day (for example KYUK, Alaska, and KTDB, New Mexico). New media like the Internet and motion pictures have been “discovered” by American Indians too, and a lot of tribes are presenting themselves on websites today. When the government officially removed the prohibition of the American Indian culture in 1990 (→ see Native American Languages Act & Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) a great revival of the American Indian culture took place:



Probably the best known American Indian sport is Lacrosse, a rough game played with sticks similar to butterfly nets, which originally took place when conflicts between tribes should be solved more or less peaceful and without armed force. It is still played by American Indians as well as Whites in sports clubs or in schools.

Contemporary music, literature and Art


Music was (just like among other peoples) a very important part of the traditional American Indian festivities and rituals because the Indians believed it to be the language of the spirits. The singing has often been accompanied by rhythmical instruments like drums, rattles and sometimes flutes and this simple composition is still popular, but mainly during tribal festivals like Powwows (see page 18), rather than in commercial music: There are musicians with American Indian ancestry also deserve credit. Performers like, for example, Robbie Robertson (a member of “The Band”), Tori Amos and CocoRosie often use modern sounds and instruments ( for example electronic instruments in the case of CocoRosie), combined with poetic lyrics inspired by their tribal history ( as in the song “Yo George” by Tori Amos).

I salute to you Commander ●  
and I sneeze ● 'Cause I have Now ● an Allergy ● 
To your policies it seems ● Where have we gone wrong America? ● Mr Lincoln we cannot seem ● to find you 
anywhere out of the millions ● from the deserts ● To the mountains ● Over prairies ● to the shores (…)
                   excerpt of lyrics of "Yo George" from the album American Doll posse by Tori Amos

In 1969 the first American Indian publishing house (“The Indian Historian Press”) has been founded and with its assistance ( but also published by other companies) books about and/or by Native Americans have been released. American Indian writers proved their well-known talent of storytelling by writing novels and essays, which are (partly) known and published outside the USA ( e.g. N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn, (Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1969)). Especially American Indian myths and fairy tales are very popular and therefore frequently edited anew.

In the American Indians' arts and crafts there exists a manifold variety of techniques and styles which some of the American Indian tribes have perfected: the tribes in the Southwestern area are still famous for their pottery, jewelry, weaving and basketry which attracts a lot of tourists to these reservations, and the descendent's of the Plains Indians are still working in embroidery and feathers.

But American Indians also take part in modern art such as abstract paintings and sculptures, which often deal with American Indian problems or concerns. Today Indian artwork has a special copyright label to prevent it from imitation.

Religion and rituals


As already mentioned American Indians had been forced to acquire Christianity, so many of them are baptized and still believe in the Christian God. Others are member of the so-called “Native-American-Church”, a denomination which is a kind of mixture of Christian values and Native American beliefs.

But the tribal pure religions (the Navajo for example believed in a goddess called “Changing Woman” and Plains Indians like the Algonquin or the Sioux believed in the natural power called “Manitu”/”Wakan”) have not disappeared: the myths and legends are still told and the religious dances and inter-tribal Powwows (modern dance festivals) are arranged several times a year all over the USA.

Many American Indians take part as competitive dancers, dressed in colorful extravagant regalia, others play traditional tunes and rhythms. These Powwows are a great attraction also to Whites, but they are no carnival or tourist entertainment, but a religious and cultural festivity with the purpose to strengthen the community spirit between the members of different tribes. Fortunately, the American Indians do not have to hide their culture any longer and they are free to pass on their heritage and traditions.