Randall Akee: Integrate tribal knowledge into education systems

Students at the former Regina Indian Industrial School in Regina, Saskatchewan. Photo from RIIS Media Project / Facebook

Tribes can learn from the mistakes of the boarding and residential school era by emphasizing culture and identity in the education system, professor Randall Akee argues, citing research published by Donna Feir:
At first glance, the benefits of attending Indian boarding schools would appear to be a desirable outcome from a broader societal perspective: those who attended forced schooling were more likely to graduate high school, less likely to rely on government social welfare programs, and more likely to be employed. The costs, however, are quite large from a First Nations community and individual perspective. There is well-documented evidence of abuse, deprivation and death due to the harsh treatment and neglect of indigenous children in these boarding schools. For those who survived, there are continued costs. Feir notes, for instance, that all of the positive labor force and educational attainment results disappear for children who attended the Indian boarding schools during the era of extreme physical and sexual abuse.

Additionally, Feir investigates how boarding schools affect community connections and indigenous identity. Attending a boarding school reduces the likelihood that the tribal member will reside in their native community by 33% and reduces the likelihood of that same person participating in traditional cultural activities by 53%. Feir’s study reveals devastating effects on Native languages; attending an Indian boarding school reduces the likelihood of speaking one’s aboriginal language by 26%. All of these outcomes indicate a substantial negative effect on the cultural and social capital for aboriginal people in Canada.


These findings are quite disheartening for the generations that were subjected to the Indian boarding school system. The evidence, however, provides a compelling argument for envisioning a different kind of schooling purpose and curriculum for the future. Policy-makers and tribal leaders must take note of the influential role that education curriculum plays in tribal nation-building. The curriculum of the past was meant to assimilate indigenous youth; the curriculum of today (and the future) can depart from those assimilationist goals to revitalize healthy, economically thriving Native communities and nations. Tribal leaders should support indigenous educators and community members who are reclaiming their languages, histories and cultural traditions. Integrating tribal knowledge into education curriculum can lead to strong native nations and an empowered citizenry as the evidence from this most unlikely source suggests.

Get the Story:
Randall Akee: The Good(?) and Bad of Boarding Schools (Indian Country Today 3/3)

Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report:
Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future (June 2015)

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