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Native American Reserves and Education- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian



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

Emaan Shahab





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10 Comments


Shamsa Kanwal
Shamsa Kanwal
Dec 01, 2023

While your analysis of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" effectively highlights the systemic issues plaguing Native American communities, I find myself wondering about the broader societal implications. How can a nation that prides itself on equality and opportunity allow such stark disparities in education to persist for Native American students? Your exploration of the impact on individuals like Arnold Spirit underscores the urgent need for legislative change, but what broader cultural shifts are necessary to break the cycle of marginalization? Additionally, while organizations like The Red Road offer hope, how can grassroots efforts be amplified and supported to ensure lasting change? These questions prompt reflection on not just the educational system's shortcomings but also the collective responsibility…

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You've asked some really good questions Shamsa, some which I will admit I don't have the answer to! I think it is important to acknowledge that no matter how liberal and equality-centered the U.S. presents itself to be, it is in many cases the very opposite. Their marginalization of the Native American goes as far back to Colombus himself, and is thus in many ways engrained into their society. The Native is uncultured and illiterate, and even if they try to achieve modern levels of education we will stamp them down and drown them in the cesspool filled with ghosts of the past and disenfranchisement. I think it is this very cultural shift that needs to be made, America needs…

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So interesting!The stark portrayal of underfunded schools on reservations, using outdated textbooks from previous generations, reflects a systemic issue that perpetuates cycles of disadvantage and deprivation. While organizations like The Red Road offer hope for positive change, the urgent need for legislative reforms at both the federal and congressional levels is evident. Education must be prioritized to break the cycles of inequality and provide fair opportunities for marginalized societies. This is again something that we can apply to Pakistan also, where so much talented is left un-nurtured

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Precisely! Pakistani public schools face many of the same issues, especially when it comes to lack of funding and decrepit infrastructures. We, too, have kept many communities, like the Sheedis, on the cusps of society, preventing them from getting any social leverage through education or allowing them to improve the state of their lives.

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Thank you for highlighting the experiences and the psychological impact that one goes through in such situations. Your blog also reminded me of the "power and empowerment" reading, especially the part where it is mentioned that position, might and force are also forms of power. This also reminded me of the concept of power over, The reading also mentions that having power involves taking it from someone else and then using it to dominate and prevent others from gaining it. The reading also mentioned that those who control resources and decision making have power over those without, and I can see that in your blog and I can see how education could be related to that, with the case of…

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Very true! It is unfortunate how many times education has been used as a method by those in power to keep the other down. This very book then becomes a testament to the stories of so many Native Americans who have been wronged thousands of times over by the American government.

Also, interesting fact, this book was banned multiple times over in America, schools were banned from teaching it, and libraries could not have it either! It really shows you the kind of anxieties those in power have when the are shown the mirror of their crimes.

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Your write up about Native Americans, especially Arnold Spirit, shows how their schools don't have enough resources, and the government has, at times, tried to erase their culture through education. The sad part is that these problems lead to a cycle of struggles, affecting generations.

You're right to point out that Native American students face lower graduation rates and fewer opportunities for college. Your mention of groups like The Red Road gives hope for change.

How do you think we can make sure Native American students get a fair shot at education?

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I think legislative change, like the kind the Red Road is attempting, is the best shot there is to ensure that the problem of marginalization is cut off at the root and to allow the Native American society to start prospering. However, this change will only come about when there are mass demonstrations and people force their leaders to take notice of this issue. I'd say social media movements that then translate into in-person protests have functioned very well in gathering support and pressurizing change from the government.

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I loved reading this!! And for sure, I am adding this book to my reading list. Education should be liberating, but in the case of native Americans, it was used against them to oppress them and eradicate their identity. Well, this all is very new to me, but it reminded me of our class discussion on madrassahs, too, how some madrassahs under extremist rule would instigate violence in the minds of young children; it also deprives them of their true identity and eradicates their beliefs. I do not know if it makes much sense or not.

Furthermore, it also reminded me of Freire's words, "when education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor".

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I am so glad you're going to read this book! It's a fantastic read. I do get the connection you are drawing- when one is systematically deprived of their rights, the chances of them supporting more radical solutions becomes much greater, and it fosters an intrinsic hate against those in power, something that is not easily remedied. We could imagine that like the few extremist madrassas, if any other religious leader began preaching revenge and radicalism in the reserves, people would not need much convincing to join in behind them.

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