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 (2)

Ben Gibson


Public Justice and Education in Indian Country (2)

By Ben Gibson

October 20, 2014

This article is the second installment in a series on education in Indian Country.


The first article in this series discussed how schools on Native American reservations struggle to meet just standards of education due to the distorted power dynamic between the federal government and local tribes. As a result, situations that are far more practically, historically, and culturally complex than the government acknowledges are met with improper and inadequate policies. In approaching Native education, there has been a persistent pattern of the federal government “speaking for” as opposed to “speaking with” the tribal communities. 

However, it is not primarily the duty of the broader Christian community to “speak for” Native communities either. Our first meaningful step in pursuing justice in Native education is to initiate active and thoughtful dialogue that educates us about constructive steps needing to be taken on reservations across the country. Richard Twiss, a Sicangu Lakota Christian theologian, describes the best disposition for this type of dialogue:

We want to serve the entire community, from youth to the elders, because that is how the community works. We want to ask the question, “How can a Christ-follower engage in loving conversation with those who differ religiously, culturally, and ideologically?

To that end, this article showcases the perspectives of two stakeholders from the reservation where I worked as a high school teacher. Norma Brown Bull and Tianna Christensen[1] offer their articulations of some of the themes they see at work within education in Indian country. While their voices are not intended to be representative of the entire Native community, they are helpful to this process of education through dialogue.



Ben Gibson: What do you see as some of the primary obstacles to providing quality education on the reservation?

Norma Brown Bull: On the reservation, we have an incredibly difficult time with consistency in the scheduling. There are so many things that pop up, affecting our daily lives. In the wasichu (white) world, school can happen normally because very few outside effects change the school day. However, on the reservation, weather, funerals, and other events come up that take away from the school day.

Tianna Christensen: Being a teenager, trying to figure out who we are is an obstacle itself, but on the reservation we also face problems like drug, alcohol, and abuse. We do not have things that schools off of the reservation have. We do not have the same opportunities. It is hard keeping teachers here because our location is so isolated.


BG: Are there ways in which Native education should look different from other systems of education in America?

NBB:  I expect my children to receive the same quality of education that any other child would receive, no matter where they are in the world. However, on the reservation we are all related to everybody. I try to help them all. Sometimes this means I am not even working with them on formal education. Instead, it is about meeting them where they are at and working them through the process of learning what they need in life.

TC: The way our culture is tied into our everyday education is what makes it different. Our culture is rich where I am from and I am very lucky to have a school that takes pride in that. On the reservation we are like a big family. Our culture is a part of our everyday lives. I am so comfortable with our culture that I take our values that I am taught and use them in the classroom. I believe that makes me stronger as an individual.


BG: What message would you like people off the reservation to hear about life and education on the reservation?

NBB: We do not live in tipis. But seriously, when people come to the reservation, they are frequently scared, because they do not know what they will find. But once they experience the togetherness, the family, and the care for one another, it becomes an incredible experience. It is something that many people say that they have never experienced before.

TC: Native Americans are strong people, we have been through the unthinkable and we are still here. Life on the reservation is a lot different from off of it, but my culture is very rich and I cherish that. Our education system tries its best to educate us. If I had a chance to go back and grow up off the reservation, I would not because it has made me a very strong person.

This brief snapshot from one reservation begins to illuminate important themes for Christians to understand. Themes of family, culture, and togetherness are pervasive; they are the very bedrock on which we can agree that education should be built. However, the challenges of education on the reservation are also unique, precluding a cookie cutter approach by the federal government.[2]

Successful dialogue is not necessarily defined by finding answers or arriving at agreement. We may disagree, we may not understand, or we may be at a loss for words. However, Richard Twiss reminds us that one of our roles as Christians in a pluralistic society is to “engage in loving conversation with those who differ religiously, culturally and ideologically” These conversations and learning experiences help us to understand how potential solutions can take shape. A good starting point in these conversations is to seek a shared vision of public justice and use that as the foundation for future solutions.

The final article in this series will explore potential areas for growth and ways to leverage pre-existing strengths in the pursuit of justice in Native education.


- 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.


[1] Norma Brown Bull is high school special educator. She is also a mother several students who have already gone through or are currently going through the educational system on the reservation. Tianna Christensen is a junior at a high school on the reservation. With two parents that have served in education and two younger siblings, Tianna is a gifted student who wants to pursue a college degree and eventually a PhD with the intent to return to the reservation. 

[2] The Center for Public Justice also speaks to this reality in its Guidelines for Political Community: “A sound and healthy republic is one in which government recognizes and protects by law the independent, non-political responsibilities that belong to the people – rather than trying to direct the exercise of all responsibilities and to satisfy all needs.”


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