It is no secret that Native American populations are extremely marginalized in the United States, beginning from Christopher Columbus landing on the 'new land,' declaring the native people savages, and initiating a regulated system of deprivation to take away their lands and rights. Along with horrific measures to reduce their populations (such as by taking away their children and releasing deadly diseases among them), Native American tribes were forced into reservations, which were closed-off pieces of land with bare minimum facilities and very little opportunity of escape.
It is the story of a teenage boy from one such reserve that sheds light on the inequality of education given to children in these regions, effectively sentencing them to minimum wage jobs and no opportunity for upward mobility. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, we are introduced to Arnold Spirit, a teenage boy trying to survive in a stunted and violent society, one which is doubly harsh on him because of his physical disability. Though Arnold, we learn about the Native American society, one which is riddled by alcoholism, historical grief, and extremely high rates of suicide, homicide, accidental death, and domestic violence. We learn about how personally these things affect him, from his father's drinking to his sister's death due to an accidental fire, and how his identity is ripped between two worlds- the reserve and the very white outside world.
Schools in the reserve are extremely underfunded, so much so that Arnold's school still uses the same books that his parents studied from in their youth:
"My school and my tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from. That is absolutely the saddest thing in the world. And let me tell you, that old, old, old decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?" (Chapter 4)
It is not just that schools are underfunded, the state and local governments actively deprive Native American children from receiving a proper education. This not only prevents them from living a better life, but condemns them to the same patterns of destructive behavior that plague every individual in the reserve. Carried out over a long period of time, these patterns destroy a way of living and the culture of Native American tribes. Mr. P, Arnold's teacher in school, admits to doing as much in the past:
"... We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We were trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture." (Chapter 5)
Everyone in Arnold's life is affected from this mentality of educators- so many of his friends drop out of school because it has no practical value; his parents, both smart with university degrees, cannot get decent jobs and are pushed back into menial labor; and his sister, who even Mr. P admits to having so much potential, eventually gives up on her dreams. Though Mary wanted to become a professional writer, she realizes quite soon that no matter how hard she worked, she would still not be able to escape from the decrepit reserve. She stops writing and becomes a recluse, hiding away from soc-
iety and her family until one day she runs away, marrying a Flathead Indian and moving with him to Montana. While in some ways Mary continues to follow her dream (living out the romance story she always wanted to write), her tragic end brings forth the viciously circular nature of life Native Indians suffer though. Living in a trailer, Mary and her husband had thrown a party, after which they passed out drunk, not realizing that a guest had left a hot plate on in the trailer, leading to their death. Without any opportunity for a better life, Mary hopelessly falls into the same system of alcoholism, never able to realize her true potential as a writer.
Through Arnold's story, we realize just how important education is for a community, how detrimental it can be for generations to be deprived of it, and how it can be weaponized by those in power to eradicate a culture and keep them tamped down. While every other major ethnic group in America has seen educational progress, Native American advancement has remained relatively flat, and the gap between them and their white peers has widened. Natives who attend Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools fare even worse than those attending other public schools. BIE schools have a deficient curriculum to properly teach the Native language and culture because they are run by the federal government rather than the tribe, they lack skilled teachers, lack proper funding and technology (60% of Native schools lag behind 21st century standards), and school buildings are in extreme states of disrepair. Only 70% of Native students graduate from high school, compared to the national average of 82%. In BIE schools, graduation rates are alarmingly low- only 53%. Of those who graduate high school, only 17% attend college, and 13% of Native Americans hold college degrees.
While there is hope for change and improvement through organizations such as The Red Road, which strives to close the achievement gap between Native American communities and the general population, there is a need to bring about drastic legislative change at both a federal and congressional level. Education needs to become a priority for countries like the U.S. to allow its marginalized societies to have fair opportunities and improve the quality of their lives.
Education and Conflict