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This article appeared on pages 14-15 in the November 2006 issue of Native American Review (formally Indian Education Today) published by the Native American Journalists Foundation. It ceased publication in December 2006.

Guns, Germs, Steel, and Education

Jon Reyhner, Northern Arizona University

In his 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Desmond attempts to answer the question he was asked by a New Guinea Native, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo [technological things like guns, cars, etc.] and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"

The old answer to that question was that "white" people were higher up on an evolutionary scale than people of color and were just smarter. Desmond digs much deeper beyond this simplistic and racist answer to show that people in the Eurasian continent were luckier in that they lived among more plants and animals that could be farmed and domesticated than people in Africa, Australia, and the Americas.

In the once "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East, herders first displaced hunter-gatherers and then farmers displaced herders. Herding, then farming, allowed for denser populations. Farmers could raise enough food to feed both themselves and a governmental structure that included standing armies. Usually, larger groups could conquer smaller groups and expand their territories and thus there was a progression in many places from bands, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to states. Farming groups that could support armies and develop better weapons could conquer smaller non-farming groups as well as neighboring farming groups.

As chiefdoms and then states became more complex, they developed irrigation systems to grow more crops and writing systems to keep track of the taxes placed on the farmers by the rulers. Better farming tools were developed as well as more deadly weapons.

In Eurasia domesticated crops tended to spread east and west in areas with similar climates along with the more complex societies they supported, but not north and south into the arctic and tropics where these crops could not grow.

Added to this mix of development was the fact that farmers who kept their domesticated animals in or near their houses got diseases from them like smallpox and over the centuries developed some immunity to them. When the descendents of these farmers brought these diseases to the Americas, millions of Native people, who had no such resistance, died.

Europeans are not the originators of most of the early innovations in farming that allowed complex states to develop, but they were learners who adopted what they saw as advancements. American Indians are learners too. The raising of corn spread from tribe to tribe in the areas it could grow, and the Plains Indians quickly adopted horses for Buffalo hunting when they became available. Navajos and Pueblos adopted sheep herding, and Sequoyah developed a writing system for Cherokee when he saw the advantages of writing.

New Guineans, American Indians, and other Indigenous have had to adapt, as did the Germanic tribes and other European Natives before them, to changing conditions in order to survive and prosper. The schooling offered by the U.S. Government to Indians through most of our history was intended to help them adapt, but the call for total assimilation and giving up totally tribal identity was too much, especially in a racist environment that often did not accept people of color as equals even when they were well educated.

In response to that rejection by "whites" of people of color, sometimes those people reject the "white man's" education. Considering how much "white" Europeans learned from people in the Middle East and Asia (we still use Arabic numerals and speak a language classified as Indo-European), it is self-defeating to reject the advantages of education that has given white people so much "cargo." However, anyone who becomes truly educated knows that they must be selective in what "cargo" they accept. Accepting drugs, alcohol, the values of much of the television and movies our children watch, as well as many other negative aspects of mainstream "white civilization" are just as destructive as rejecting all the learning that has allowed educated people to live longer healthier lives. We all need to be selective in what we learn from others, "taking the good and leaving the bad."

Carl Sauer wrote Man in Nature in 1939, and the Turtle Island Foundation reprinted it in 1975 for use in Indian schools. The notes to the second Turtle Island edition for parents and teachers states, "Carl Sauer was no easy romantic. His enthusiasm s for Native America had nothing at all to do with jade bracelets, eagles' feathers, or any number of the forms of conventional Indian tourist art. For thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans these first Americans had tended our lands with great respect, and Carl Sauer respected them for the wisdom and good sense they employed in the administration of this bountiful task."

As Carl Sauer concluded in his classic geography book Man in Nature, "Being civilized means first of all learning how to make good use of the things nature provides. It means thinking of new and better ways of living. It means learning to know more and more all the time. And so we think that as we have studied how...Indians learned the ways of living more and more skillfully, we have learned how mankind has worked its way toward becoming more and more civilized."

We also need to learn from the mistakes of the past. The "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East is no longer as fertile as it once was as its hills were deforested for firewood, land overgrazed, and good soils eroded away. Today we are faced with the effects of climate change resulting from global warming, and it will take all the education we can get to reverse the effects of this disastrous change.

John, Collier, who was the United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs while Sauer was writing his book, concluded in his memoirs titled From Every Zenith that, "Assimilation, not into our culture but into modern life, and preservation and intensification of heritage are not hostile choices, excluding one another, but are interdependent through and through.... It is the ancient tribal, village, communal organization which must conquer the modern world."

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