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

Ben Gibson


By Ben Gibson

September 22, 2014


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


Before my first week of teaching high school math on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Ed Youngman Afraid of His Horses, a modern day chief and cultural leader within the school, told me “The children are sacred.” I still grapple with the significance of his statement, but I believe that such a belief is central to fulfilling broken treaties between the United States and tribes all across the country.

President Obama’s historic trip this past summer to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota provides us with an opportunity to explore one of the most important issues faced by reservations today: the education of Native American children. (John Oliver adeptly and humorously pointed out in his parody of the trip that mold removal, in fact, was not the primary issue at stake.) The language within most tribal schools does not revolve around broken treaties or violated sovereignties. Rather, it revolves around the present realities and hopes for the children on the reservation.

The language of sacredness as it is applied to children fundamentally aligns with the vision that we as Christians have for our children. The Center for Public Justice addresses this vision in its Guidelines for Education. Of particular import are the first two guidelines: (1) Parents bear primary responsibility for the nurture and education of their children. This fact is recognized in both American and international law; and (2) In justly exercising its responsibility to provide for the general welfare, government may – and indeed should – help parents meet their responsibilities. For most of American history, such assistance has included the funding of elementary and secondary education.

However, a troubling inversion has occurred within Indian Country. The government has assumed the primary role and responsibility for education while parents have been made secondary within the process. Although nominal power exists within school boards and parent committees, tribal schools remain essentially beholden to the federal government for decisions on curriculum, hiring practices, and funding and are often forced to implement policies and structures separated from the reality of practical pedagogy. For example, electronic standardized testing is mandated for schools lacking the proper technological resources to carry out the task, decisions on curriculum and staffing are functionally given to outside educational contractors hired to visit struggling schools for brief observations, and professional development for educators is mandated by the government but often provided by those stepping on to a reservation for the first time when they give the training.

This reality has created confusion within reservation school systems where some parents are advocating for their children’s education while others have begun to regard it as simply another government service (such as health care or food stamps). As long as the misguided role and efforts of the federal government persist within education in Indian Country, many of the secondary issues cannot effectively be resolved, such as lack of school choice, high teacher turnover rates, inadequate access to educational resources, and improper professional development. These issues, ones that most legislators and bureaucrats are focused on addressing, are mere symptoms of a larger issue within the relationship between the federal government and the tribes.

Since westward expansion into Native territory and the ensuing creation of treaties and the reservation system, the federal government has sustained a perverted power dynamic with the tribes. This dynamic has persisted in various forms to the present day and exists at the root of educational inequality on reservations. Tribal schools struggle to meet the guidelines suggested by the Center for Public Justice because of how the federal government exercises its role in Indian Country.

So how do we as Christians and faithful citizens respond? I would suggest starting with a process of education for those unfamiliar with these issues. We are responsible for enacting justice not only for our own children, but for all of God’s creation. Those crafted in the image of God—all of us—are bestowed with an indelible worth. Quality education is a right stemming from that worth, a right that belongs to all God’s sacred children. We should find out about reservations around us and what the needs and concerns are. We should resist indulging in sensationalist visions of poverty and despair (often many individuals’ only interaction with modern reservations), but rather engage in a life of faithful presence alongside Native brothers and sisters. Educating ourselves will lead to our informed and powerful advocacy alongside and on behalf of others.

Ed Youngman Afraid of His Horses passed away this summer. However, his legacy persists on the reservation. While living on the reservation, I heard a young woman give a speech on education being the “new buffalo.” This is no small claim for a Lakota-- the buffalo determined the Lakota’s movements, livelihood, and future. Education has become that new buffalo for Indian Country; we play a role in ensuring it does not become endangered.


- 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.”