Overview: The Indigenous Foundations of American Education
As soon as the first groups of Europeans began establishing outposts in the new world, they became learners as well as teachers. They and the Native Americans with whom they came in contact engaged in a process of cultural exchange that was educative in the broadest meaning of that term. Two “old worlds” had met, and the inhabitants of neither would be the same again.
The cultural roots from which old world and new world people had drawn their nourishment were, of course, markedly different. Although humans everywhere have the same fundamental needs and share many of the same basic hopes and fears, what was believed and valued by those who lived on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean differed markedly by the Age of Discovery. In the process of encounter, the beliefs and values of those separate worlds were shared and altered, but not in equal measure. European cultural traditions and values rather quickly became dominant, as confrontation and conquest soon followed initial contact.
This European dominance should not blind us to the fact that education had been happening for millennia in North America by the time small bands of Englishmen dropped anchor along the eastern coast of the continent in the early seventeenth century. It long antedated the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French explorers, missionaries, and traders who brought European learning, culture, religion, technologies, and diseases with them as they penetrated the vast American continent. Well-established societies and rich cultural legacies existed long before anyone “discovered” anyone else, as is dramatically exemplified by the great civilizations of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas.
Cultural Diversity in Pre-Columbian America
Until recent years, archaeological scholarship has held that the first inhabitants of the North American continent crossed over the Bering Land Bridge around 13,000 BC.
Today that notion is contested. The most current research findings suggest that Native Americans were here far longer and in greater numbers than previously thought. Archaeological digs in Chile over the past few years have yielded evidence of artifacts dating back more than 30,000 years. In 2003, archaeologists discovered ancient seeds from cultivated squashes in coastal Ecuador that may be older than any other agricultural remains thus far identified. It now appears that the Euroasians who traversed across the 55-mile-wide Bering corridor some 13,000 years ago may have constituted the most recent of three
such migrations. However far back in time “Native” American origins may be, before their encounter with Europeans some 500 years ago, these people shared the land only with the animals that were native to the Western Hemisphere or that, like
their own ancestors, had migrated from the steppes of Asia and Siberia before the last glacial melt turned the Bering Land Bridge into the Bering Strait.1
As the original Americans spread across the continent and southward into Central and South America, they developed a variety of indigenous societies. Some societies remained hunting-and-gathering communities, others evolved into large and complex agrarian settlements, and still others went back-and-forth between settled and nomadic life due to changes in climate, hunting conditions, or seasonal variation. During the period when English barons were securing limited rights under the terms of the Magna Carta (1215), the Cahokia federation was supporting a “city” with a population of some 16,000 inhabitants at the confluence of the Illinois, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers. Today, within sight of the Gateway Arch and skyscrapers of downtown St. Louis, Missouri, one can still walk to the top of Monk’s Mound, a terraced 100-foot-high ceremonial site that was the centerpiece of this Cahokian city that flourished five centuries before Columbus found his way to the new world. Other tribal groups left their mark with earthworks by the thousands spread from southern Canada and the Great Plains to the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. While most of these mounds took the form of rounded pyramids, some were sculpted into the shapes of gigantic birds, lizards, bears, and alligators with long tails. In southern Ohio the remains of a 1,330-foot earthen serpent are still visible.2
Other reminders of the communal achievements of some pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America attest to their survival skills and social sophistication. By the first half of the eleventh century, a people the Navajo called the Anasazi (“the ancient ones”) were building five-story stone houses, with 500 rooms each, into the walls of Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. Thirteen major housing complexes and several hundred smaller ones were constructed, linked by a complicated system of roads and irrigation canals. Granaries were erected to store surplus corn, and pottery and basket remains indicate artistic as well as utilitarian skilfulness. Two centuries later and 80 miles to the north, at Mesa Verde, Colorado, the Anasazi created another extensive network of stone dwellings, these built into a huge cave on a high cliff. Hand- and toe-holds dug into the cliff face provided the only means of entering and leaving the community dwelling area to farm or hunt on the mesa above or in the valley below.
Climatic changes that resulted in long periods of drought brought an end to these elaborate farming cultures of the Southwest just two or three centuries before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers. The Anasazi moved on in search of more arable land. Indigenous peoples in the Southwest became hunter-gatherers, adopting a nomadic lifestyle much like their distant kinsmen along the Eastern seaboard. When European colonists began arriving in North America, they had no comprehension of what the Native Americans had achieved in the interior. As one historian put it: “They saw not the great cities that once had been, but tribal societies with a subsistence economy, [people] living in wigwams and mud huts, and deserving, it seemed to them, the designation of savages.”3
Native Americans in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres had long endeavored to “make sense” of their world and to prepare themselves and their children for survival in that world and happiness in the next. In this respect they were no different from Europeans, Africans, Asians, and other peoples in distant parts of a largely uncharted world. The essentials of sense-making produced a variety of social and cultural arrangements as the widely scattered groups of Native Americans adapted to the varied requirements of life in the American wildernesses, deserts, and plains. Although they were indiscriminately called “Indians” (los Indios, les Indiens, die Indianer
) by the European invaders, the separate native societies revered their own special identities and cultures,
identifying only members of their own group as “the original people” or “the humans.” All others, even other native groups, were considered outsiders or nonentities.4
The hundreds of Native American tribes and scores of nations developed ways of living that in many respects were as distinctive as those that characterized various European ethnic and national groups similarly separated by barriers of terrain, language, and traditions. Among the native inhabitants of North America alone, for example, more than 160 language families, with 1,200 or more dialects, are known to have been spoken. Warfare and trade among native groups provided opportunities for the exchange of material goods as well as some aspects of nonmaterial culture, but basically, each group lived in a separate and insular world. Within this special world everyone spoke a common language and shared a common spiritual outlook, a common past, and a common set of customs. The young were taught what they needed to know in order to belong, that is, to be “human.”
Education among the Native Americans
Although education among the Native Americans differed in particulars from tribe to tribe, the basic elements were similar. Boys and girls had to master certain skills and gain specific understandings before they could be accepted as mature members of the tribal society. We might place these skills into two categories: knowledge of the land, and knowledge of tribal traditions. Native children would learn the tribe’s accrued knowledge of the land and its resources, and children would learn the cultural traditions of their group. Both landscape and cultural learning were acquired in a variety of ways. Much could be learned osmotically, simply by living in the tribe and picking up through daily life the knowledge needed to flourish. Much was imparted deliberately as well, both by ritual and verbally, as older tribal members passed what they knew down to the younger generation.
Archaeological excavations of native dwellings during the Pleistocene (ice age) era over 12,000 years ago have revealed that native groups possessed intricate and accurate knowledge of their environment. At Broken Mammoth in Alaska’s Tanana River, for example, evidence remains of consumption of a remarkable variety of plants and animals despite Arctic conditions. As archaeologist David Meltzer has noted, “No one has ever found a plant native to North America with any medicinal value not known to and used by American Indians.” The knowledge required to find, harvest, and prepare these foods was considerable. Native cultures were remarkably adept at passing this knowledge from one generation to the next for thousands of years.5
Pre-European societies in North America were highly mobile, even after the introduction of agriculture. Decisions about when and where to move were typically made as a tribe. In this way everyone’s knowledge, especially that of elders who were living encyclopedias of landscape learning, could be brought together.6
Mobility of goods and of technologies was also widespread. Archaeologists studying every time period of pre-contact history have found consistent and pervasive evidence of the dramatic mobility of goods across North America.7
For example, once a novel stone-chipping technique was invented to create hunting weapons that archaeologists nowadays call Clovis points, the evidence is clear that this technology spread rapidly across the continent.8
People too were highly mobile, as tribes regularly took captives during war to replace members killed or taken by other tribes. All of this exchange in goods and persons, all the trade,
the inter-tribal gaming, the seasonal rendezvous events where tribes across a wide region would come together to hunt and feast, and even the frequent warfare—all of this contributed to a culture of exchange of information about the land and its resources from tribe to tribe and from generation to generation.9
Survival was of course the main reason for landscape learning. For many boys, survival depended on their abilities as hunters and warriors. A Jesuit priest in the eighteenth century observed that Abenaki boys began practicing with bows and arrows as soon as they began to walk, and by the age of 10 or 12, “they do not fail to kill the bird at which they shoot.”10
Hunting skills alone, however, were hardly sufficient for survival. Adaptations dictated by place of dwelling—coastal, inland forest, plains, or desert—as well as seasonal and ecological changes meant that, in some groups, skill in agriculture; fishing; gathering edibles from fields, forests, and waterways; and making implements for all of these activities became essential knowledge. Moreover, food, regardless of how it was obtained, had to be preserved and prepared; shelter and clothing had to be provided. In all indigenous societies, subsistence alone required that the young be well instructed in the ways of their elders. Tribal languages themselves were often conduits of this knowledge, as names for the months or seasons frequently encoded landscape knowledge. Northern hunter-gatherers, for example, tended to name the months of the year after the animal that was abundant at that time, while their agrarian neighbors to the south frequently named months according to the relevant corn-based activity. Place names too were freighted with landscape knowledge. A nearby island, for example, might be called by Algonkian Indians something like Azioquoneset
, which literally means, “the small island where we get pitch.” Indians, writes historian Richard Cronon, “used ecological labels to describe how the land could be used.”11
But language was about much more than knowledge of the natural world.
Spiritual lessons were no less critical to survival than manual and physical skills. Native youth had to learn of the spirits that governed the world and of the accustomed ways of living in harmony and balance with all living things. Among some groups, such as the Cherokee, daily personal prayers and rituals were an essential part of life. Festivals and rites closely linked to the agricultural seasons, hunts, and special events of life and death were integral aspects of existence and education among all Native Americans.
Acknowledging a “creative force” in all things, native cultural groups typically did not separate the spiritual from the material, the natural from the supernatural, or the human from the animal. Illustrative of the closeness of the spiritual world to the world of physical existence was the practice among the Iroquois, Otos, and Omaha, among others, of cutting a hole in the moccasins of infants on the cradleboard, lest they be enticed back to the spirit world by an unseen spirit following the mother on the forest path. The hole would inform the messenger from the spirit world that the child could not accompany him because his moccasins were worn out.12
Native American children learned of the essentials of life by being exposed from infancy to the shared wisdom and heritage of their group. Down through the generations, children were surrounded by concentric circles of people who served as teachers. The immediate family was most important, but members of the extended family and the entire tribe also played significant roles in perpetuating traditions and directing the footsteps of ...