By Chris Caldwell
Judy Johnston has a goal for every Indian kid: A college degree.
Unfortunately, her vision may be difficult to achieve. With high dropout rates, unsupportive families and social stigmas, Native children have been considered the hardest racial group to educate, said Johnston, the director of G.E.D. education at Spokane's American Indian Community Center. Native students face an ever present threat of being inappropriately placed in special education courses due to cultural misunderstandings, Judy Johnston said.
Judy Johnston has tried to accomplish her goals of education in the broader Native community; she has also instilled a value of education in her family. Jenny Johnston is Judy Johnston's granddaughter and a senior Engineering Physics and Mathematics double major at Whitworth University. Growing up, she received support from her mother, grandmother and uncle.
"It was always a given that I would go to college," Jenny Johnston said. "My family really put a value on my education and they never had to push me."
She didn't have to face some of the educational speed bumps that other Native children have to deal with.
"Back in the 60s, our job was not to go to school," recalls Matilda Sampson, the Family Service Manager at Spokane's American Indian Community Center. "Our job was to take care of the family. We would get beat for not staying home."
Taking care of the home is the standard operation for thousands of Native students across the United States, Judy Johnston said. Native children are born and raised to be self-sufficient. A five-year-old in some Native homes will take care of household chores, younger siblings and themselves.
"So then they go into public schools and suddenly they're expected to raise their hand to go to the bathroom?" Judy Johnston asks sarcastically. "Most of these kids have only known independence."
Jenny Johnston grew up going to small private schools. From kindergarten through first grade, she attended a Montessori school. She graduated from Great Northern Elementary with a class of three students. Her high school graduating class consisted of 96 students from Upper Columbia Academy.
She believes her success can be attributed to the one-on-one attention that she received from her teachers. Jenny Johnston was able to receive help from teachers who knew her individual learning style and were able to adapt lesson plans to fit her needs.
Historical Attempts at Education
In the past, Native educators have not been as fluid with student lesson plans as they can be today. Teachers would use the, "force feeder" method when educating students. For this reason, the U.S. had a tough time educating strong willed Native children for almost a century.
On April 10, 1868, the U.S. Congress gave President Ulysses S. Grant $2 million to promote peace with the Native tribes. By the 1890s, education of Native Americans was an institutionalized concept within the government.
Thousands of Native children were sent to government owned and operated boarding schools. Pictures, books and diaries of their experiences can be found in libraries and Native American websites, including Amnesty Magazine, National Public Radio and the American Indian Museum.
Children dressed in rough sackcloth uniforms stand in large groups. Unhappy faces stare vacantly into the camera as clouds float lazily by in the sky. Leafless deciduous trees indicate the merciless presence of winter as children stand cold and uncomfortable in a large lawn. Separated into boys and girls, their expressions tell a story of cultural repression. Their grimaces express the extent of their beatings.
"Ironically, it seems that what has led to the destruction of Native American people began as an effort by some to save them," said Joan Johnston, Jenny's mother. Joan Johnston earned her master's degree from Gonzaga University and teaches in the Spokane School District.
Reading, writing and arithmetic were not the only subjects studied in these boarding schools. In order to civilize the Native population, Native students were forced to drop tribal ways, Joan Johnston said. Performing dances, engaging in activities and speaking in Native languages were strictly forbidden.
"I had to learn English in the first grade," Sophie Tonasket said. Tonasket is the Executive Director of the American Indian Community Center in Spokane. "My teacher would want to shake the pudding out of me for being dyslexic."
Children had to wear the same clothing and issues with sexual abuse existed in the boarding school that Sampson went to in Canada. She said it's no wonder Indians are turned off to education.
Going through boarding school was like revoking one's culture for many Native Americans. Native parents often refused to allow their children to receive an education for the sake of preserving their cultural norms. Many elders within the Native community have not received a high school diploma.
"We had a 70-year-old woman who just graduated from our G.E.D. program here at the Center," said Judy Johnston.
The woman was married at the age of 16, had kids and was threatened to be beaten if she got an American education. Times have certainly changed from the days of Native boarding schools, Judy Johnston said.
Striving to Engage in a World of Stigmas
Jenny Johnston has had a different educational experience. She has had to juggle gymnastics, the Spokane Regional Indian Tobacco Coalition and the responsibility of being the regional representative for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
She has also recently become involved with jingle dancing.
Although jingle dancing has only become part of Native culture within the last 100 years, competitions are often held at Pow Wows according to the American Indian Council of Mariposa County. The dance originated with the Ojibway Nation and was meant to scare away evil spirits. The jingles create a sound similar to the waves of the ocean as dancers prance about with eagle or hawk feathers in hand.
Jenny Johnston's dress took two years to complete. It is a combination of her Native and Asian heritage. Some 300 jingle cones are stitched to a modified pink brocade fabric dress.
"I have always been interested in Native American culture," she said. "In high school I didn't know too many Native kids. I kind of have to force myself to interact with others."
Jenny Johnston has given voice to one of many stigmas within the Native American culture: introvertedness. Often Native students are considered to be non-participatory in classroom settings. But this lack of participation could be a cultural thing, said Judy Johnston. Native children watch and learn in the classroom, but they practice and perfect at home.
"I like to get things down in my mind before I rush to do them," said Jenny Johnston. "I have always had to push myself to participate and I really don't like to raise my hand and be wrong."
Lack of participation is not the only stigma that faces the Native scholar population. Aptitude, poses another problem from Native learners. Natives are considered the hardest to educate for numerous reasons, Judy Johnston said. Native students are not recognized as understanding course concepts. It is assumed that Native students can't do math and it is assumed that they can't do science, she said. But teachers assume that all Native students can draw and that they all can write.
And who are the people giving instruction to Native children? Non-Native teachers, for the most part. Outsiders, people who are not aware of Native struggles, culture or educational challenges. The lack of Native American teachers and professors is a serious problem within the educational system, Sampson said.
"When I go to different schools I think, 'how many of these places give attention to Native students when they need it,'" she said. "If Natives get a cold shoulder, they are likely to give up."
Fortunately, Native-focused clubs and support groups exist on some campuses across the United States. Jenny Johnston is the president of the Four Directions club at Whitworth University and Matilda Sampson founded the club when she attended Whitworth in 2004.
The real question for Sampson is not one of how much help Natives receive from Natives, but rather how much help Natives receive from Non-Natives. A supportive community of people willing to understand is paramount to Native success in schools, she said.
"My experience has been very different from other Natives," said Jenny Johnson. "I have had a lot of one-on-one teaching and people have been sensitive to my learning style."
In the Spokane area, 9 percent of the adult population is without a high school diploma according the U.S. Census Bureau. Native Americans make up 11 percent of that total but comprise only one percent of the population. The goal for Native American community leaders is to get students back into the classroom, Judy Johnston said. Whether that ends up being a high school diploma or a G.E.D., victories need to be made at a base level.
Fixing these problems may not solve all of the educational issues for the Native population, Tonasket said. Different subcultures exist within the overarching Native culture that have their own individual needs.
The difference lies in location. Urban Natives have different educational concerns than their Reservation counterparts. Likewise, suburban and rural Native Americans have their own concerns.
School didn't even seem like a priority to Tonasket until she went back. But for other students like Jenny Johnston, going to school and attending college was a given.
"I think it would be nice if the U.S. could make their standards meetable for all students." Jenny Johnston said. "Instead they are unaware of cultural differences and they lump kids into special education programs."
Teachers do not exist in the quantity and quality to provide every student with one-on-one attention. Jenny Johnston's education was uncommon. If there were enough teachers who were sensitive to Native issues, the educational landscape of the U.S. would look different for Native students, Sampson said.
More sensitive teachers would provide greater coverage for all subcategories of Native groups. Greater coverage would allow more students the ability to escape remedial and special education. And it could keep more students from dropping out, Sampson said.
"It's my goal to see every Indian kid with a bachelor's degree," Judy Johnston said. "We just need to get the students through their high school years first."