Education International
Education International

Indigenous People - A question of life or death

published 18 May 2005 updated 18 May 2005

Living in widely differing environments with distinct cultures and languages, Indigenous Peoples, with only a handful of exceptions, are struggling for survival. Their languages, traditions, wisdom and knowledge have disappeared or have been eradicated. Of those that remain, many are, even now, on the very verge of extinction. For EI, there can be no sustainable development for Indigenous Peoples without quality Indigenous education.

“While we know the answers are within us, part of the solution involves organisations like Education International helping Indigenous Peoples to work with those who control and manage the resources and policies”, said Bill Tehuia Hamilton at the first regional forum* on Indigenous People organised by EI. Bill Tehuia Hamilton is Matua Takawaenga (Assistant Secretary Maori Education) of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI). For most Indigenous Peoples, education has been used as one of the tools in the destruction of their culture. It has been part of the process of assimilation, a process that has denied them the right to be Indigenous. Around the world, children from Indigenous communities feature at the bottom of indicators of the educational achievement. For these reasons, educators and EI member organisations have a special responsibility to support Indigenous Peoples in their determination to ensure the survival of their knowledge, languages, cultures and the success of their children in their own world and in the world beyond their communities. At the EI Regional Forums, Indigenous educators told the stories of the struggles of their peoples for survival and recognition in the education system. Ryoko Tahara, a Ainu representing the Japanese Teachers' Union (JTU), told the Asia-Pacific forum of the difficulties Ainu children face in schools, including discrimination and mistreatment. The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island; and of Sakhalin Island (Russian Federation) and the Kuril Islands (claimed by Japan and Russia).The 100,000 Ainu of Japan were denied any formal recognition until 1991. Yet their language is unique - it is linguistically unrelated to any other language. A report to the Japanese government in 1996 acknowledging their culture and “unique artistic nature” speaks of the destruction of the Ainu community and culture and the impact of discrimination and poverty. Ryoko Tahara highlighted the complete absence of Ainu history, language and culture in the official curriculum. The JTU has supported the campaign for recognition of the Ainu. Japan is not the only place that has failed to formally recognise its Indigenous Peoples. The EI North American/Caribbean Forum heard that on Saint Lucia and a number of other Caribbean islands, the Indigenous Peoples are regarded as almost extinct and no provision is made for the survival and support of the community, its language or culture. Children from the tiny Carib community of Saint Lucia are simply absorbed into the mainstream education system. On Dominica, where the Carib language has almost been lost, Carib teachers are beginning to organise themselves for the inclusion of Carib history, language and culture in the official curriculum as well as for greater Carib control over the education of their children. Damaging effects of forced assimilation In some countries, the long-term damaging effects of forced assimilation are finally being recognised. Royal Commissions in Australia and Canada have acknowledged the evil that was done to Aboriginal children by removing them from their families and putting them in boarding schools and, in some cases, having them fostered by non-Aboriginal families. The Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal People recently concluded that schooling continues to be an alienating experience for Aboriginal students. Indigenous Peoples of Canada include the Indian (First Nations), the Metis and the Inuit Peoples. According to the 1996 census, 799,010 individuals, approximately 3% of Canadians identified themselves as members of at least one Aboriginal group. Rita Bouvier, a Saskatchewan Metis representing the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF) explained that while some attention is given to First Nation and Inuit cultures, languages and histories, the same can not be said for the Metis. A recent study on child labour in a number of Latin American countries highlighted the vulnerability of children from Indigenous communities. This vulnerability was exacerbated by a lack of access to local schools that used the Indigenous language and which reflected Indigenous values, skills and knowledge in the curriculum. In Latin America, as elsewhere, there are nevertheless exciting examples of successful Indigenous education. All involve Indigenous initiatives and active participation in decision-making. While there is, of course, no one model appropriate for all, the key to success is that Indigenous Peoples are able to determine what is appropriate for them and their children and grandchildren. The challenge for EI member organisations is to make a space within their structures where Indigenous educators are welcomed as members, are able to participate through all levels of the organisation and, most importantly, are able to make decisions on issues relating to Indigenous education and be supported in those decisions by the organisation as a whole. Already a number of EI members have developed such structures and have reported the benefits that have flowed to the organisation as a whole. Rosslyn Noonan Human and Trade Union Rights Coordinator * EI regional forums for Indigenous educators were held before EI’s Asia-Pacific Regional Conference (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 1997), EI's Human Rights seminar (San Jose, Costa Rica, November 1997) and EI’s North American/Caribbean Regional Conference (St. Lucia, February 1998). This article first appeared in EI Magazine June 1998