Enlightened Education

In elementary school I remember learning about how missionaries brought religion to Native Americans.  The noble, white missionaries traveled in the newly discovered Americas to save the primitive indigenous peoples.  At the time I thought about how fortunate the Native peoples were to have been helped by these voyagers.  My views have changed.

Missionaries were the first to impose Euro-American forms of education on Native Americans.  The focus of missionary efforts was to change the Natives’ religion, a drastic change to tribal culture in and of itself.  Early missionary and government teachers assumed Native Americans had were uneducated individuals.  One may argue that Native American education was more sophisticated than the Eurocentric alternative at the time.  Native American education  typically included observation, participation, assimilation and experiential learning (Cajete, 2008).

Another example of Native American’s educational sophistication is their recognition of seven basic orientations (including the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west).  The other three orientations include the center, which is usually the community or village, and the “above” and “below.”  The below represents the universe, or earth and the above is the celestial or the universe we recognize as the cosmos (Cajete, 2008).

The orientations begin with the “centering place,” which contains the essence of everything that emanates from it.  East is the domain of the rising sun and the source of perfection and insight.  West is the domain of the setting sun and the source of social well-being in the community.  The South harbors plants, spiritual richness, and fertility of the earth.  North is the domain of animals, the unknown and the night.  Below is the domain of the earth mother and elements of earth, fire, water, air, and ether.  The above is the place of the Celestial Father, the great mystery and order of the cosmos (Cajete, 2008).  These orientations reflect the holistic learning and connection with and respect for nature in Native American education.

There is a great need today among Native Americans for science expertise to pursue self-determination in tribal resource management, health, and economic development.  It has been shown that Native American students continue to lag in science and math achievement when compared to their non-Native American counterparts.  According to Gregory Cajete (2008), one of the causes is that few schools serving Native Americans integrate cultural content (Cajete, 2008).

Cajete’s (2008) “Seven Orientations for the Development of Indigenous Science Education” is an insightful and practical approach for teaching science to Native Americans and represents an enlightened view of educating an indigenous people.  In addition, many of his educational recommendations would benefit all populations.

For his framework, Cajete (2008) presents a culturally-based approach that embraces Native American culture while adhering to the constructs of traditional Euro-American education (Cajete, 2008).  The framework is a skillful blending of two distinct pedagogies to serve a common need and many of the elements in these orientations would enhance standard science curricula.

To resist the assimilation of Native American students’ cultural orientation Cajete (2008) proposes “border crossings,” in which students cross into the subculture of Western science without abandoning their way of knowing.  The goal is enculturation with the teaching and learning of science being supportive of student’s cultural orientation.  One way to cross borders is for Native Americans to take on the role of anthropologists in order to learn Western science.  In this approach, students become “cultural tourists,” and teachers are the “tour guides” that help students navigate the borders of cultural knowledge between their own worlds and science (Cajete, 2008).

Cajete’s (2008) strategy for curriculum modeling is to teach the principles of science by first introducing students to the ways that these principles are communicated or used in Native American culture.  The aim is to demonstrate how these principles originated from creative thought processes and lead to an established commonality between the two cultural perspectives (Cajete, 2008).

Many years have passed since my elementary school study of missionaries’ quest to convert Native Americans to Christianity.  What I learned as a child was presented by and large from a Eurocentric perspective.  I feel I now have a better understanding of the clash of cultures and injustices forced upon Native Americans by their oppressors.  Cajete’s (2008) sensitive, thoughtful, and practical approach to science education creates a hopeful bridge between two cultures.


Cajete, G. (2008). Seven Orientations for the Development of Indigenous Science Education. In Handbook of critical and Indigenous methodologies (pp. 487–496).

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Phil Schlesinger

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