American Indian Education — A Native Perspective
One of the most challenging tasks before Native American communities and the schools that serve them includes the creation of an educational system that enables young Native American children to develop the intellectual, physical, and spiritual skills required to live happy, meaningful, contributing, and well adjusted lives as adults.
A necessary prerequisite to meeting that goal is to create a school culture that supports the language and cultural base of the Native community served by the school. The development of a youngster’s language skills; levels of social, cultural, and personal maturity (inter-personal skills); and a youngster’s early experiences all help promote identity, motivation, and the general well-being of young children.
American Indian Education
One of the few exceptions to the direct involvement of the federal government in education is that of American Indians. The federal administration of Indian schools reflects the special relationship between the government and the semi-sovereign tribes of American Indian and Native Alaskan peoples that is embodied in both laws and treaties.
The first exposure of American Indians to formal schooling often came through missionaries and church schools, where the emphasis was less upon academic instruction than religious conversion and becoming westernized in manner and dress. As the frontier moved west in the 19th century, many of these church-run schools were gradually replaced by those operated by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The policy of these schools was to assimilate American Indians into the mainstream by forcibly stripping them of their tribal culture. Many Indians were educated in boarding schools, often far from home, where they had their hair cut and their native clothes replaced and they were forbidden to speak their own languages. The most prominent of these boarding schools was the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania.
A 1928 report spotlighting failures and abuses in Indian education led to reforms and increased financial aid known as the Indian New Deal. Later, the civil rights movement sparked a parallel Indian rights movement. Over decades, the federal government reversed policy and established an educational system that seeks to provide modern skills and knowledge while preserving the traditions and culture of Native American peoples.
Today the Bureau of Indian Education administers 184 elementary and secondary schools, along with 24 colleges. These schools are located on 63 reservations in 23 states across the United States, serving approximately 60,000 students who represent 238 different tribes. More than 90% of Indian students attend public schools.
American Indian Education Overview
American Indians and Alaska Natives are subjected to some of the worst possible social and economic conditions among the American people. Census 2000 data shows that 25.7% of American Indians and Alaskan Natives live below the federal poverty line, more than twice the rate of the total U.S. population of 12.4%.  American Indians and Alaskan Natives also have disproportionately high rates of violence and suicide, especially in tribal communities.
Education is the strongest way to ensure inter-generational cycles of social and economic problems are changed for the better. Indian education has been a responsibility of the federal government, a part of the obligation owed to members of sovereign tribal nations. Known as the Indian Trust Doctrine, this law was created in exchange for taking away tribal lands from Indian peoples.
Historically, Indian education policies have resulted in traumatic experiences for families. Beginning in 1870, the federal government initiated off-reservation schools. Parents were pressured and coerced into sending their children away to these schools under threat of withholding necessities to survive. Often, children were hunted down and physically transported against their will. Once at the schools, they were isolated for years and not permitted to see their families. They could not wear their own clothing, speak their own languages, practice customs, or retain their own names. This was called the Indian Boarding School Era.
Indians in K-12 Education: 333,346 American Indians live in California, more than any other state. Moreover, California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS) data indicates that there are more than 51,000 American Indian students in K-12 schools.  Census 2000 data also reports that only 71% of American Indians and Alaska Natives age 25 and older had at least a high school education, compared with 80% of the total population. .
Indian Enrollment in Education: Nationally, only about 15% of American Indian 12th graders who are likely to attend college actually earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years. Only 11% of the American Indian and Alaskan Native population had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 24% of the total population. This has a significant effect on the state of tribal communities because these students are the only future of their tribal communities. Their education must be applied to fill occupational needs for the growing tribal communities, ranging from doctors to economic development consultants.
The rise of tribal business ventures in California highlights the urgent need for educated tribal populations. As the current generation of American Indian youth age, they will have to fill leadership positions within their communities to continue the tradition of self-determination and self-governance. These youth must be prepared to take over tribal business ventures, take responsibilty to administer their tribal governments, or take a leadership position outside of their tribal communities to pursue a bright future.
 Ogunwole, Stella U.. We the People: American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the United States. Census 2000 Special Reports. Feb 2006.  California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS). California Department of Education. Ogunwole, Stella U., We the People: American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the United States. Census 2000 Special Reports, Feb 2006.  “Box-checkers” are applicants who check the “American Indian” box on their application in hopes that they will receive some sort of benefit, but skews the actual numbers to over-inflate the reality of education data. Neither the UC nor CSU verifies these students as American Indian.