The Earth as Mother

Education in the International Decade
of Indigenous Peoples:

Bringing education back into the mainstream
of Indigenous Peoples' lives

By Raymundo Rovillos

They wanted us to go to school

And to turn the pages of books...

Why learn the language of books

When the forest speaks to you?

One cannot eat books,

And pens and pencils are poor weapons

To kill the deer of the mountains

And the grunting boar...1

This poem aptly illustrates one of the issues raised by Indigenous Peoples against the system of education that was imposed on them by colonial and neo-colonial powers. It is a biting indictment of an educational system that is perceived as unsuitable to their needs.

Indeed, Indigenous Peoples in many parts of the world identify education as a crucial factor in the historical process of their marginalization. The process started at the onset of western colonization and was carried over by nation-states after decolonization.

A Handmaiden of Assimilation

In their attempt to consolidate colonial power, and later, nation-states, the ruling elite imposed a policy of assimilation -- nay westernization. This policy was implemented by missionaries and schools that they set up in Indigenous communities. This resulted in the virtual obliteration of most of the Indigenous Peoples’ way of life -- their cultural practices, traditions, arts, languages.2 Some elements of their culture, those that were deemed acceptable to the "moral" (i.e., western, Christian and patriarchal) standards of the colonizers and ruling elite, were integrated into the dominant national culture.

But because national cultures are often defined by the westernized elite, Indigenous Peoples’ cultures are considered the "other" culture: quaint and backward. In the name of nation--building, national culture was homogenized, and ethnic identities were eradicated.

The responses of Indigenous Peoples to assimilation were varied. Some of them, especially the educated elite, gave in to the assimilationist project. For example, in the case of the Igorots in the Cordillera, Northern Philippines:

The American educational system was imposed so successfully that the people’s minds were conquered so thoroughly they ceased to call it their own, in truth and honesty. It led to the loss of their cultural identity, so much so that many Igorots have become ashamed of calling themselves by their tribal names.3
Yet, the cultural identity of Indigenous Peoples was never totally erased. Like the "unpacified" masses of Igorots, the Yaguas, one of the ethnic groups in the Peruvian lowlands, held on to their indigenous way of life. As Jean Pierrre Chaumeil (1984) wrote:
The permanence and extraordinary vitality of the system of indigenous values today shows clearly on the ideological plane the feeble impact of the numerous attempts at evangelization at Yagua.4

Sharon Helen Venne, Cree Nation, citizen of the Blood Tribe through marriage.

Rupert Hombers, San
Xguka Krisjan, San
Aaron Johannes, San.

Nancy Kireu, Maasai
Joseph Kilangin, Irian Jaya
Ragnhild Nystad, Sami
Line Skum, Sami,
Robert Muj, Maya.

Matriarchs of the Dineh Nation.

Being in community is a fundamental aspect of education for Indigenous Peoples (© WCC photo)

Persistent Inequalities

From the post-colonial period to the present, disparities in education persist. For example, the UNDP reports that in 1997, Indigenous children in Bolivia and Mexico received on average three years less education than non-Indigenous children. In Guatemala the majority of Indigenous People have no formal education -- only 40% are literate.5 In Hawaii, Indigenous Peoples have one of the lowest, if not the lowest, literacy rates, the worst health statistics, the highest amount of suicides, convicted felons, unwed mothers, and welfare recipients.6

Because of these conditions Indigenous Peoples perceive western--imposed educational systems as failures. They are required to get an education so they can be coequals with the non-Indigenous people. Yet in schools, they learn this is not so. They are taught to forget if not condemn their "pagan" and "barbarian" past. Their own histories of resistance are not highlighted; and their viable indigenous learning systems, ignored. Even so--called alternative education programmes have failed because they are not based on concrete conditions and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples.


The UN declaration of 1994-2004 as an International Decade of Indigenous Peoples was an auspicious move, as it triggered discussions and proposed resolutions on the various issues affecting Indigenous Peoples. Among others, it recognized the role of education in the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples, and identified concrete activities to correct past as well as present errors.

On February 29, 1996, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution which called on member states to:

Adopt measures, in cooperation with Indigenous People, to increase knowledge, starting at the elementary-school level and in accordance with the age and development of schoolchildren, concerning the history, traditions, culture and rights of Indigenous People, with special emphasis on the education of teachers at all levels, and adopt measures to restore indigenous place names.7
The assembly also encouraged Indigenous Peoples’ organizations to:
Establish and support indigenous schools and university-level institutions and collaborate with the relevant United Nations agencies; participate in the revision of school texts and the contents of programmes of study in order to eliminate discriminatory content and promote the development of indigenous cultures and, where appropriate, in indigenous languages and scripts, develop indigenous curricula for schools and research institutions.8
Perhaps one major achievement of the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples is the preparation and finalization of the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, a subgroup of the UN Human Rights Commission. The draft Declaration emphasizes, among other things, the right of Indigenous Peoples to an education that respects and revitalizes their cultural traditions and customs.9 It also recognizes the right of Indigenous children "to all levels and forms of education of the State, including the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions, providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.10

The UN Declaration bolstered earlier international agreements recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples, like the ILO Convention No. 169 adopted in June 1989. Articles 26 to 31 of the Convention provide that these peoples should have an opportunity to acquire education at all levels, at least on equal footing with the rest of the national community. These educational programmes and services should be adapted to address their special needs and should incorporate their histories, their knowledge and technologies, their value systems and their aspirations.11

It must be emphasized that these activities at the international level were made possible by pressures from Indigenous Peoples’ organizations. It must also be recognized that even before the declaration of the International Decade, there had been efforts at the grassroots level along the line of alternative indigenous education. What the Decade has done was to institutionalize and "mainstream" these initiatives at the community level up to national and international levels.

What follows is an attempt to identify the main characteristics of an alternative education as gleaned from the initiatives of Indigenous Peoples themselves.

Contours of an Indigenous Education

Long before western education was introduced among Indigenous Peoples, there already existed viable indigenous learning systems. Through these systems, children were taught livelihood and defense skills, the norms and mores of society, as well as their history and culture (e.g. myths, songs, dances, legends, etc.). Thus, education was in the mainstream of Indigenous Peoples’ day-to-day life. Education was relevant because it served the needs of Indigenous communities to survive, to be safe from enemy attacks, and to be in harmony with each other and with nature. Most of all, education mirrored and affirmed the distinct cultural identity of Indigenous Peoples.

Today, Indigenous Peoples want to revitalize these basic elements of their learning systems, while they learn new ideas and skills to survive in their rapidly changing environment.

Reclaiming Ethnic Identities

Realizing that their present educational systems continue to threaten the survival of indigenous culture and do not respond to the needs of Indigenous children, Indigenous Peoples both from the North and the South have undertaken local initiatives to reaffirm their identities through education.

In Hawaii, a group of young and innovative native educators have created the Kukulu Kuhana, a pilot project on the so-called "preferred education". This is an intensive cultural immersion project. It aims "to establish permanent educational settings throughout the Hawaiian islands where Indigenous People can learn how to function effectively in Hawaii today by gaining the ability to practice a traditional Hawaiian lifestyle, as well as skills necessary to become positive contributors to society..."12 Through a holistic approach, participants are daily exposed to Hawaiian language, functional Hawaiian arts, Hawaiian physical sciences, Hawaiian social studies, verbal and artistic expression, life skills, and health and physical education.13

Learning New Skills and Ideas

Current efforts in indigenous education are not inspired by sheer nativism. Recognizing that culture is not static but dynamic, Indigenous Peoples also want to learn "modern" sciences, but in the context of their own culture. This goal is clearly articulated by the Arhuacos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, the traditional territory of Arhuaca, Kogi and Malayo Indigenous communities:

"We the Arhuacos need to be educated and qualified, but we believe that this should be done in accordance with our beliefs and values. We want a bilingual education in Spanish and IKA* and would like the school to assist in teaching us about collaboration and mutual aid. That is, how to live out the egoism of one brother towards another, as our tradition dictates in accordance with our laws handed down by our father Serankua. We wish our children to learn the history of Colombia and the rest of the world, but they should also know our own history, which we possess from the early days of our creation... We also want our children to learn mathematics and all the branches of science that we need to know today, but always based on our own values and needs..."14
This statement reflects the desire of Indigenous Peoples to design an alternative indigenous education in their own terms and according to their own pace.

Speaking their own Language

Another theme that emerges from the practice of (alternative) indigenous education is the demand of Indigenous Peoples for the right to speak their own language, along with the lingua franca (bilingualism).

In Mexico, bilingual and bicultural programmes have been launched at the primary-school level. However, programmes can also be solely in Spanish, if the communities so decide. In addition, textbooks for Indigenous children have been written in various indigenous languages.15

In Guatemala, the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples between the Government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), signed in Mexico City on March 31, 1995, states that the government should:

"expand and promote intercultural bilingual education and place emphasis on the study and knowledge of indigenous languages at all educational levels,"16 and "recruit and train indigenous bilingual teachers and technical and administrative officials..."17
In Malaysia, the right to speak the mother tongue is still to be fought for. Indigenous Peoples and advocates accuse the national government of taking a regressive step when it signed into law the 1996 Education Act. Under this law, the right to learn the mother tongue or indigenous language "merely exists at the behest of the minister."18 Indigenous Peoples and advocates in Malaysia lament that this is a far cry from the 1957 Education Ordinance in which "one could say mother tongue education was a RIGHT of Malays in this country".19 They therefore call on the Malaysian government to amend the Education Act of 1996 to reflect the National Education Policy as originally stated in the Education Ordinance 1957 ensuring the use, teaching and development of the mother tongue of Malaysian ethnic communities.20

The Indigenous Peoples’ clamor to speak their own language is central to their assertion of their distinct identity. After all, "language is the soul of the indigenous people(s). It is linked to our cultural environment where the world of meanings is stored."21

Furthermore, the struggle to speak the mother tongue is at once political. It cannot be divorced from the struggle for self--determination and ancestral land and domain. For if the material bases of culture (i.e., land, people and resources) are gone, how else will language and all its artistic expressions flourish?

Taking Charge

Indigenous Peoples want to ensure that their children are not alienated from their cultural identity and indifferent from their struggles. Thus, they demand more direct involvement in the structure, process and content of education. The following demands resonate in various statements, manifestoes, agreements and laws by and for Indigenous Peoples:

The clamor for more direct participation in all levels and aspects of the educational system are valid. But there are limits to educational change. Substantive and meaningful participation in the educational system requires more fundamental changes in the political system of nation-states. Certainly the demands enumerated above cannot possibly happen in highly centralized, authoritarian regimes. This is unfortunate, but this also validates what Indigenous Peoples have been saying time and again: that a truly liberating and empowering indigenous education can only happen in the context of a self-determining and democratic society.

Prof. Raymundo D. Rovillos is a volunteer research coordinator of Tebtebba Foundation, Inc., Philippines

  1. Gilbert Perez in The Leader, Manila, November 1932, cited by Keesing and Keesing, Taming Philippine Headhunters, (California: Stanford University Press, 1934) pp. 260-61.
  2. Ku Kahakalau, Preferred Education: Learning from the Past to Survive in the Future, Hawai’i: Return to Nationhood, IWGIA Document 75, Copenhagen: New York Press, 1992), p. 218.
  3. Angelo L. and Aloma de los Reyes, Igorot: A People Who Daily Touch the Earth and the Sky, vol. 2, (Baguio City: Cordillera Schools Group, 1986) p. 56.
  4. Jean Pierre Chaumeil, Between Zoo and Slavery: The Yagua of Eastern Peru in their Present Situation, IWGIA Document 49 (Copenhagen: 1984), p. 35.
  5. UNDP, Human Development Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 43.
  6. Kahakalau, Ibid.
  7. General Assembly, United Nations, Programme of Activities for the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, Fiftieth Session, Agenda item 111. February 29, 1996.
  8. Ibid., p. 11.
  9. Article 12. Part III of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  10. Article 15. Part IV of the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigneous Peoples.
  11. Manuela Tomei and Lee Swepston, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples: A Guide to ILO Convention No. 169 (Geneva: International Labor Office: 1996), p. 24.
  12. Kahakalau, p. 221.
  13. Kahakalau, p. 220.
  14. Jean Pierre Chaumeil, IWGIA. 1984, p. 59.
  15. Manuela Tomei and Lee Swepston, Indigenous and Tribal Peoples: A Guide to ILO Convention No. 169, (Geneva, International Labour Office, July 1996) p. 25.
  16. Section G (d) of the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous People between the Government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria National Guatemalteca, downloaded from the electronic library.
  17. Section G (g) Ibid.
  18. Kua Sia Soong, ed. Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian Ethnic Minorities, (Selangor: Dong Jiao Zong Higher Leaning Center, 1998) p. 3.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., p. 146.
  21. Colin Nicholas, Orang Asli Language Loss: Problems & Prospects, Mother Tongue Education of Malaysian Ethnic Minorities, Kua Kia Soong, ed., p. 143.
  22. Statement of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) during the First National Meeting to Discuss Experiences in Indigenous Education," January 14-16, 1983.
  23. Section G-2 (b) of the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous People between the Government of Guatemala and the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), Mexico City, March 31, 1995, from United National, downloaded from the electronic library.
  24. Carmen Junqueira and Betty Mindlin, The Aripuana Park and the Polonoroeste Programme, IWGIA Document No. 59, (Copenhagen, July 1987), p. 76

Table of Contents // Editorial // Education in the International decade of Indigenous People // Two major headaches for Indigenous People // Harare and Indigenous Peoples // Land and spirituality in Africa // Land: Breaking bonds and cementing ties // Spirituality, land and land reform in South Africa // The case of the Maasai in Tanzania // Women and Land // Those who do not know the village they come from ... // What does being Indigenous mean? // Is five hundred and seven years too long for justice? // Indigenous Spirituality // Letter to the WCC member churches on the WTO // Concrete Proposals regarding the third Ministerial Round of the WTO

© 1999 world council of churches | remarks to webeditor