In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Education in a Global Context

  • Introduction
  • Philosophy, Theories, and Research Methodology
  • Government and Other Reports
  • Journals
  • Traditional Education
  • Histories
  • Schools
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Students and Teachers
  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Australia and New Zealand
  • Latin America
  • North America

Education Indigenous Education in a Global Context
Jon Reyhner, Navin Kumar Singh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0064


The term “indigenous,” when used with education, is generally recognized to refer to the first inhabitants of an area that was later colonized by another, more powerful, group of people who then forced their language and culture on the original inhabitants. In Australia and Canada, the term “Aboriginal” is still used; in Canada, “First Nations” is also popular; and in the United States, “Native American,” “American Indian,” “Alaska Native,” and “Native Hawaiian” are used to describe the country’s indigenous peoples. However, the term “indigenous” is becoming more popular globally. The colonial approach to education is related to the anthropological concept of ethnocentrism, where each ethnic group tends to think itself superior to other groups, and which propels more powerful, dominant groups to subordinate or demand the cultural assimilation of less powerful groups they conquer and colonize. The subordinate, indigenous group can be expected to adopt the religion, language, and customs of the dominant group, and schools are used to promote this conversion. However, ethnic minorities often resist forced assimilation. Much of the recent history of indigenous education globally has involved the conflict between efforts at decolonization, which was exemplified by the United Nations’ adoption in 2007 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and continued efforts to assimilate thousands of indigenous ethnic minority groups. The variety of these groups is indicated by the fact that it is estimated by linguists that there are over six thousand languages spoken across the globe today (though assimilationist education is lowering that number), and each language can represent a unique culture. Since European nations colonized much of the world in the last few centuries, they are usually the group imposing, through schools, their language and culture on indigenous peoples in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and the islands in the Pacific Ocean. However, China’s recent actions in Tibet also meet this definition, and the actions of Scandinavian countries in regard to the Sámi in their northern regions also qualify. The studies in this bibliography examine the educational issues worldwide that many indigenous people still face today as they attempt to hold on to their indigenous languages and cultures while seeking to reestablish self-government and gain economic success in an increasingly globalized and “flat” world.

Philosophy, Theories, and Research Methodology

Calls for decolonizing indigenous education are given impetus by the below-average academic performance and high dropout rates of indigenous students. In the past, nonindigenous peoples often attributed this poor performance to racial inferiority, but modern genetic testing shows that there are no genetic differences, beyond superficial ones like skin color, that can be used to separate the “races.” A second rationale for poor performance is “cultural deprivation,” which transfers indigenous inferiority from genetics to culture, and which characterizes indigenous cultures as less civilized. This rationale promotes assimilationist education so that schooling replaces the culture of the indigenous child with that of a dominant, often Euro-American, culture. The studies in the Histories section of this article document the failings of assimilationist education. Abidogun 2013 gives an overview of current thinking on indigenous education. The contributing authors to Ah Nee-Benham and Cooper 2000 examine the question of what philosophy should drive thinking about indigenous education, and Tuhiwai Smith 2012 examines how and by whom indigenous education should be researched. Huffman 2010 looks at recent research-based explanations for indigenous academic performance, starting with cultural discontinuity theory, where the culture of the teacher as well as the curriculum and instructional strategies used in schools may be in conflict with a child’s home culture. This explanation supports bilingual, bicultural education. Critical theorists maintain that indigenous children are provided an inferior education so that the dominant group can maintain its position of power and continue to exploit ethnic minorities as sources of cheap labor. A final explanation is found in poverty. This view holds that children of any “race” or ethnic group who live in poverty are denied the health care, nutrition, home literacy environment, and other factors they need for school success. Castagno and Brayboy 2008 provides an extensive review of research supporting the use of curriculum and instructional practices that build on the cultural and linguistic background of indigenous students. Many studies contrast “Western” linear thinking and knowledge with indigenous traditional circular and spiritual knowledge (e.g., Barnhardt and Kawagley 2005). Historically indigenous traditional knowledge has been devalued and ignored in schools in colonized lands. Deloria and Wildcat 2001 provides a strong argument for the continued importance of traditional Native values and ways of thinking for modern youth. Willeto 1999, a study of Navajo youth, demonstrates that students do not have to lose their native language and culture to be more academically successful, as assimilationist ideology maintains. Cajete 2015 argues for recovering indigenous traditional knowledge to create a sustainable future.

  • Abidogun, Jamaine. 2013. Education. In Native peoples of the world: An encyclopedia of groups, cultures, and contemporary issues. Vol. 3. Edited by Steven Danver, 728–731. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference.

    Overviews schooling as a method of colonial control, the impact of assimilation, indirect rule in some colonies, the past dismantling of indigenous education in some countries, and recent efforts at decolonization.

  • Ah Nee-Benham, Maenette Kape ʻahiokalani Padeken, and Joanne Elizabeth Cooper, eds. 2000. Indigenous education models for contemporary practice: In our mother’s voice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Fourteen indigenous educators share their ideas about education and interdisciplinary learning opportunities that involve the physical environment and building global community—which includes Native history, culture, language, and art—and which “fosters self-respect; cultural respect; and productive school, family, and community relationships” (p. 11).

  • Barnhardt, Ray, and A. Oscar Kawagley. 2005. Indigenous knowledge systems and Alaska Native ways of knowing. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 36:8–23.

    DOI: 10.1525/aeq.2005.36.1.008

    Illuminates the processes of learning that occur at the intersection of diverse worldviews and knowledge systems, drawing on experiences of Alaska Native ways of observing and relating to the world.

  • Cajete, Gregory A. 2015. Indigenous community: Rekindling the teachings of the seventh fire. St. Paul, MN: Living Justice Press.

    The ten chapters in this book describe community foundations of indigenous education, coming back from diaspora and loss of community, what is a healthy community, sustaining indigenous community, re-creating community leadership, and a vision of indigenous education. Cajete views Western ideas of development as not sustainable and not good indigenous communities.

  • Castagno, Angelina E., and Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy. 2008. Culturally responsive schooling for indigenous youth: A review of the literature. Review of Educational Research 78:941–993.

    DOI: 10.3102/0034654308323036

    A comprehensive review of the literature on culture-based education that finds much support for it but too little implementation. The authors view recent educational reform efforts by the US federal government as hurting rather than helping improve indigenous education.

  • Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Daniel R. Wildcat. 2001. Power and place: Indian education in America. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Resources.

    This collection of essays critiques the “Western worldview,” formal schooling as it is today, and modern American values generally. The authors argue for the strength of traditional indigenous/tribal values and a more holistic view of the world as a source of guidance to living a good life in the modern world.

  • Huffman, Terry. 2010. Theoretical perspectives on American Indian education: Taking a new look at academic success and the achievement gap. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.

    Examines the cultural discontinuity, structural inequality, interactionalist, and transculturation theories that seek to explain the academic performance of indigenous students. The concluding chapter examines emerging decolonization theories, including tribal critical race theory.

  • Tuhiwai Smith, L. 2012. Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. 2d ed. New York: Zed Books.

    Challenges “Western” approaches to research and calls for a new “decolonizing” agenda for indigenous research that has a more critical understanding of indigenous “others,” who have often been contrasted with nonindigenous people rather than valued on their own terms. Chronicles the transition from “Maori as the researched” to “Maori as the researcher.”

  • Willeto, Angela A. 1999. Navajo culture and family influences on academic success: Traditionalism is not a significant predictor of achievement among young Navajos. Journal of American Indian Education 38.2: 1–21.

    This study of 451 Navajo youth in eleven schools found that students who maintained their traditional language and culture were at least as successful in school as those who were more assimilated into the dominant English-speaking culture.

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