ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING 3: INDIVIDUAL DIVERSITY
There is great diversity among individual American Indians as identity is developed, defined and redefined by entities, organizations and people. A continuum of Indian identity, unique to each individual, ranges from assimilated to traditional. There is no generic American Indian. There are 2.3 million American Indians/Alaskan Natives, according to U.S. Census estimates for 1997. They represent only roughly one percent of the U.S. population.
Identity is an issue with which human beings struggle throughout their lifetime. Questions of “Who am I?” and “How do I fit in?” are universal questions of the human condition. Historically, schools have been places for students to explore their identities. However, when the culture of students’ homes and communities is not evident in school, finding a way to belong within that system is more difficult and can lead to frustration. Educators need to ensure that each student has an opportunity to feel included in the classroom either through materials or pedagogical practices.
Even larger issues of “Who is an Indian/Tribal Member?” exist among Indian people themselves. The federal, state and tribal governments may all have their own definitions for who is a member. As a general principle, an Indian is a person who is of some degree Indian blood and is recognized as an Indian by a tribe/village and/or the United States. There exists no universally accepted rule for establishing a person's identity as an Indian because the criteria for tribal membership differ from one tribe to the next. To determine a particular tribe's criteria, one must contact that tribe directly. For its own purposes, the Bureau of the Census counts anyone an Indian who declares to be such.
Amidst all of these issues, educators must remember that Indian students come to school with a variety of backgrounds. There are those who show characteristics of tribal ways of being and belief and those who show themselves to be tribally affiliated, yet do not have what some people might regard as American Indian behavior and appearance. They have differences of skin color, dress, and behavior; and there may be deeper and subtler differences of values and of ways of being and learning.
What is important is that all humans be allowed feelings of integrity and pride connected with who they are and with whom they identify in order to help them develop the self-esteem and self-confidence that will enhance their learning.
“There is no single American Indian learning style, nor is there a group of several styles of learning that fits all American Indians, either as individuals or tribal groups … Teachers should recognize various learning styles and adapt their teaching methods to individual learners. At the same time teachers should build on and expand the individual student’s approaches to learning.” (Cleary and Peacock 154) However, recognizing that teachers must use a variety of teaching methods to meet individual learning styles does not mean that culture doesn’t influence learning styles. The differences in the cultures of home and school certainly impact the teaching/learning process. Classrooms need to integrate culture into the curriculum to blur the boundaries between home and school. Schools need to become a part of, rather than separate from, the communities in which they serve.