The “White” Education Debate

“We feel that this island is the only bargaining power that we have with the Federal Government… We are going to maintain our occupation until the island, which is rightfully ours, is formally granted to us. Otherwise they will forget us, the way they always have, but we will not be forgotten.” [1]


In 1969, a group of 79 Native Americans sailed to the Island of Alcatraz to stage an occupation drawing attention to the injustices of their treatment. [2] One of the biggest injustices the Native American protested was that they did not want their students leaving college “coming out white-oriented.” [3] The occupation of the island lasted a total of 19 months and nine days. The occupation experienced tumultuous obstacles including the lack of electricity, fire outbreaks, and a leadership crisis. When asked about the success of the occupations, Adam Fortunate Eagle a participant in the occupation, stands by his part of the protest saying, “ [it] served its purchase. Look at the gains Indians have made.” [4]


In contrast to the victory for Native American rights that Alcatraz brought during the 1960s, Sherman Alexie writes a semi-autobiographical account of his experiences growing up on a reservation in Washington State in the 1970s and 80s. Alexie’s portrayal of growing up Indian is in stark contrast to the proclaimed victory by previous generations, especially in terms of education. In one scene Alexie realizes that he is assigned the same geometry textbook as his mother while at school on his reservation. This realization, “hits [his] heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. [His] hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud.” [5]


Alexie determines that in order to have any hopes of escaping the perpetual cycles or reservation life and poverty he must attain education at a primarily white school. As an outsider Alexie struggles to fit in and succeed in his new school, as well as wrestle with the hostility coming from his own tribe for leaving the reservation. Many of those living on the reservation saw Alexie’s decision to transfer to a largely white school as an act of betrayal. “Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful.” [6]


The contrast between these two examples of Native American views on education is an interesting examination. One, views the submission and acceptance of white culture in education as an injustice. Something to be avoided at all costs. The other, looks towards a white education as a chance for opportunity and hope.


These experiences are within fifteen years of one another. Why do you believe there is such a stark contrast in their opinions and viewpoints on the issue of education?






[1] “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” in Great Documents in American Indian History, edited by Wayne Moquin (Da Capo, 1995), 379.


[2] “Alcatraz is not an Island,” PBS, accessed April 10, 2014,


[3] “Planning Grant Proposal to develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz, 377.


[4] “Alcatraz is not an Island.”


[5] Sheman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (New York: Little, Brown and Company), 31.


[6] Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, 131.


Image: “Group of Omaha boys in cadet uniforms, Carlisle Indian School, Pennsylvania, 1880.”

17 thoughts on “The “White” Education Debate

  1. Reading through Alexie, there is still a conflict of tribal–even Indian–identity against individual identity. “White” education may bring about some individual opportunities, but is it at a cost to a tribal belonging? Is there a community line that is difficult to cross, and how is it good and bad? I think the group at Alcatraz found an interesting way to stand on both sides of the line, however isolated they intended to be on the island.

    1. Interesting point, Patrick. I think there is fundamental difference too between how American culture views identity (how it should almost be something solely individualized- “we are all individuals”) while other cultural groups see personal identity as a part of the larger tribal/community/group identity. We Americans pride ourselves on individualization, while other cultures around the world look at it differently. It is a tricky thing to balance.

      1. Kahla, this point made me think of the question raised when we went to the Tenement Museum, of when immigrants become American, and what it means to be American. I think it’s a really nuanced topic and is difficult to determine in definitive terms and it means different things to different people. “Being American” takes on new meaning when considering Native Americans and their place in the nation.

  2. This is a really great comparison, Michelle. It seems that the differences between the two situations are somewhat complicated. Perhaps some of it has to do with the fact that there was a group of like minded individuals, who had the opportunity to go to college in the first place, to spark real change on Alcatraz, as opposed to the situation Alexie faced. While Alexie’s family was clearly supportive, there seemed to be no real push in his community and no example of success on the reservation for him to strive to emulate. I think that while Alexie wanted to get off the reservation, it was perhaps less because he wanted a “white” education, but rather a “good” education. His relationship with his friend Rowdy reveal his inner conflict.

  3. I think the difference between these two situations, for me, dealt with class. Had Arnold’s school been able to afford a quality education, I don’t think he would have been as apt to leave. “Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful.” This quote that you used in your blog post says to me that being white is equated with success. I think Patrick had a good point when mentioning a group mentality. So while the people on the Rez knew they were poor, at least they were all there and poor together. By going to the better school, it could maybe appear that Arnold values success and wealth in life over his own people. Why do the two have to be separate? I think the combination is what the Native Americans in the 60s were hoping for. They were asking for an education that did not strip them of their cultural heritage, but that education, due to class restrictions, ended up being sub-par.

  4. While it’s obviously a different beast, the idea that success = whiteness reminds me of the internet flame war (I refuse to even call it a discussion) that took place when Obama took office. Some pundits and armchair commentators questioned his authenticity as an African American, and even wondered whether he’s “black enough.” (,8599,1584736,00.html) It’s an identity issue that has proved dangerous time and again.

    I should also add that I’m not a huge fan of a lot of what the article I provided asserts. It’s mainly there for background info.

  5. In my opinion, I think Sherman Alexie made the decision to leave the reservation not to be white washed but to gain a better life where he would not end up like the other members of his tribe. He still had a sense of who he was and his social position going in to an all white school; he retained his cultural heritage, and was well on his way to attaining the better life he wanted. With the Native Americans at Alcatraz, they were fighting for the same, but did not want to loose their cultural heritage and be white washed. I think the difference here is that the white school at the time was the only option and hope Alexie had to become successful and make something of himself and Alcatraz realizes that white schools should not be the only option for Native Americans to gain schooling. Instead, they need schools of their own with a stronger academic base where they can retain their cultural heritage.

    1. What do you mean by “schools of their own”? All schools need to be more inclusive and open to people of all backgrounds and cultures. I think that should be accomplished without dividing people.

      1. I don’t think people should be divided, but I think that is one of the things the Native Americans at Alcatraz were arguing for- having schools of their own in addition to attending mainstream schools.

  6. Some Native American tribes also pushed for a “white education” in their youth. It wasn’t represented in Sherman Alexie’s book, but it did happen. These people realized they were being cheated because of their lack of understanding of the legal system and how they were expected to fight unfair laws that were passed. Some made the decision to fight the system internally, and they could only successfully do that by receiving a white education. In a way, these tribe members that received a white education were receiving it for their tribe to help better their tribe.

    1. Theoretically, the overall strength of a nation should be improved by providing acceptable education to all groups within that nation. However, when Native Americans have to get “white education” in order to have the skills necessary to work with local non-reservation communities and governmental agencies, there is a problem. I agree with Kahla that the mainstream American culture values the individual, but individuals still rely on support from a community they belong to. White students are generally not expected to de-emphasize the values learned while growing up in their communities in order to attend a better school (although economic means to attend a different school is still a problem). There are no easy solutions, but good educational opportunities for reservation schools should benefit our collective identity as a multicultural nation.

  7. This is something that I was thinking about throughout Alexie’s book. I think the real problem is the internalization of stereotypes about education. Everyone on in the reservation school–from the parents, to students, to teachers– internalized the idea that a quality education was only acceptable for white students. The equation of whiteness with a quality education is not unique to the Native American Reservation school system presented in Alexie’s book. Inner city schools are also plagued with low expectations and low standards that set students up for failure. The prescription offered by activists often centers around making these schools more like “white” schools. This idea is ludicrous. It perpetuates the idea that predominately white schools are always better than schools with populations that are predominately students of color. Instead we need to focus efforts on creating schools that embrace and encourage diversity and difference without seeking to “white wash” students.

  8. I think what’s interesting in this comparison is the difference in isolation. In Alexie’s case, the reservation was a means of forced segregation and in many ways served to isolate the people living there. In the case of Alcatraz, the occupants used isolation as way to prove a point and fight for a less “white-washed” education. I think place contributes to the difference in opinion within such a short time span between the Alcatraz occupation and Alexie’s own experience with white education. These two examples certainly highlight the disparities in education related to race and class, as the comments have shown. But they also show the different ways to protest injustice and fight for equality. Alexie’s works are read by kids in schools across the country, exposing younger generations to the injustices many people have experienced based on their race alone while the Alcatraz occupation was a direct challenge to the education system of the 1970s. I often wonder how we can achieve equality of education that is inclusive of a multi-cultural, and not solely white, narrative. It’s hard to think that 40 years after the Alcatraz protest we still have not achieved what was advocated, as Alexie shows.

    1. I have seen quite a few charter schools, in low income areas of NYC, who are changing their curriculum to embrace cultural and intellectual diversity. So something is occurring but it is not occurring at a national level, at least to my knowledge. So I do think it would be possible in the future to achieve equality of education that is inclusive of a multi-cultural narrative as you say. My only concern would be how long school on Indian Reservations would have to wait to get that kind of education that they have been wanting for a long time now.

      1. I think that’ll largely depend on what the Common Core does to history curriculums. It could require schools to have a more multicultural education, as my largely white suburban schools did. It could just as easily settle for requirements that mostly focus on Euro-Americans, in which case schools with a more multicultural focus will have to fight to keep it. I suspect that the Common Core will go in a multicultural direction, which is one good thing to say about it.

  9. Michelle, the following excerpt from the Planning Grant Proposal got me thinking: “We also plan to have our own library and archives to help us document the wrongs which have been done in this country and the wisdom that has been lost.” I thought of the connection between the cultural complex and an issue that came up in our last class discussion: empowerment through teaching history. Thoughts?

  10. I can’t help but wonder if all schools on reservations that are operating today are similar to the Spokane Indian Reservation described. A lot of schools struggle nowadays from lack of funding (leading to the cutting of programs and teachers and extra-curricular activities), which leads to less opportunities for students to try new things and be able to compete with students from bigger, wealthier schools for spots in colleges. But the added layer of a possible sub-par education in reservation schools creates a greater disadvantage for Native American students. Education is strongly valued and emphasized in this country, and yet there is still a difference between Native American schools and “white” schools, in 2014? When is it going to change?

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