Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Public Justice and Education in Indian Country (3)

Ben Gibson


By Ben Gibson

November 24, 2014


[This article is the third installment in a series on education in Indian Country.]

The two previous articles in this series discussed the main challenges facing schools on Native American reservations and highlighted the perspectives of a Native teacher and student reflecting on the particular strengths and obstacles present in Indian education. These pieces were intended to provide a background and context for understanding the unique challenges of working toward public justice in Indian Country. In addressing potential solutions in this final piece, I hope to communicate two conjoined realities: solutions will not present themselves in quick fixes, yet the ingredients for constructive change are already present on reservations across the country.

In his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter proposes that Christians adopt the concept of “faithful presence” as the means of cultural and political influence. This posture is particularly productive for Christians in this context. As we work alongside Native Americans in the struggle for better education, Christians can exercise faithful presence at three levels: as individuals, in churches, and through broader institutions. This can provide a corrective to the buck-shot strategy often employed by the federal government. An influx of money through education and the implementation of Common Core Standards are not sufficient to undo the injustice in Indian Country. However, faithful presence over time can make significant gains in public justice goals.

Faithful presence as individuals happens in a number of ways. For my fellow teachers from the Pine Ridge Reservation, Alex and Dan, it means dedicating years of their life to service in the classroom on the reservation. For Kim, it means serving as a doctor in the Indian Health Services clinic while pastoring a local church on the weekends. For my own father, it has meant serving decades as an attorney in county government seeking to engage in thoughtful dialogue and negotiations with a neighboring reservation concerning local legal issues. The examples of faithful presence are many and diverse. While many of us may not live in proximity to one of these reservations, the beauty of faithful presence is the space it creates for creative imagination and strategic partnerships.

Therein we also find the unique capabilities of the church. Comprised of Native and non-Native believers whose unity can give perspective on our secondary allegiances, the church has the opportunity to faithfully serve within and alongside reservations across the country. Historically, the church has played a vital role in providing alternate education opportunities, such as Red Cloud Indian School (South Dakota) and Rehoboth Christian School (New Mexico). The church can also play an active role in supporting public schools through staffing after-school programs, creating scholarships, and cultivating and supporting the true center of education—the family network.

Find out if your denomination has a church on a reservation. If it does, look for ways you can serve that church. This is not restricted to brief mission trips, but can take the form of supplying pastors, congregants, time, money, and prayers. If your denomination does not have an active church presence on a reservation, be willing to ask why. The church has the capability to actively stand at the crossroads of individuals and institutions, of family and culture. To lose sight of its invaluable role within civil society would be devastating. 

The broader institutional level is the final place where we can practice faithful presence. While it is frequently the first place we turn, without the proper filters of faithful presence on the individual and ecclesial level, the actions of societal institutions can become rash and ill-informed. Faithful presence at the institutional level must build upon the work at the more basic levels. So many of the resources for sustainable change are already in place such as deep concern for family, culture, and community; however, the institutional decisions have been largely divorced from the first two levels of faithful presence.

For example, during my time on the reservation, I began to see that one of the challenges is not primarily a lack of resources for schools, but an inverted system of providing service without reciprocal training up for service. While the government provides funds to bring in teachers from outside the reservation, it has ignored the deep familial and cultural ties that make leaving the reservation and receiving further training and education hard for many students. One possible institutional solution would be to strengthen the tribal colleges already in place. Making local tribal colleges into four-year institutions that can provide educational training would allow for cultivating local teachers who provide more consistency, community knowledge, and cultural awareness.

This paradigm of faithful presence is not easy to exercise. We often believe that the most pressing social justice issues of the day exist across time zones, oceans, and language barriers when actually, they frequently exist next door. Hundreds of reservations across our country provide the opportunity for us to willingly engage in the daily rituals of faithful presence. Faithful presence requires patience, it experiences setbacks, and it calls forth sacrifice. Given the realities and challenges of education on the reservations, it is the necessary corrective to incomplete government action in Indian Country.


- Ben Gibson is a student in Yale Divinity School’s Masters of Religion program. He spent the past two years teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”