Retaining Cultural Identity With Indigenous Education

Regardless of your political leanings, it is generally agreed that the loss of culture and language are a sad potential outcome of a more globalized world. However, many of the forces that provoke loss of culture, such as increased access to technology and communication, urbanized jobs in the global market, and even universal education, are the very forces that promote human development and reduce poverty. 

For the nearly 40-50 million indigenous people in Latin America, the question is how to balance international development efforts to reduce poverty using these same channels and indigenous rights to maintain their language and traditional culture.

Specifically, access to education is a cornerstone for achieving any development measure. Following the United Nation´s Millennium Development Goals requirement for universal primary education, states are eager to meet a minimum level of literacy and graduation rates. However, in the pursuit of universal education, they risk universal homogenization.

This problem is particularly acute for minority indigenous cultures in Latin America, where the Spanish-speaking (or Portuguese-speaking) majority dominates the education system. This poses a threat to culture because students learn in Spanish from the start of their education, often with Latino teachers, and without regard for local history, language, and learning styles. In fact, indigenous cultures may hold a different world view altogether, marked by traditional medicine, collective land use, and respect for the natural environment, that is not represented in the curriculum. In this context, students start school lacking fluency in Spanish, and face higher repetition and dropout rates either as a cause of not understanding or lack of self-confidence.

One proposal that seeks to maintain culture and meet poverty reduction goals that is pursued top-down by state governments and bottom-up by grassroots activists in Latin America is the implementation of Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE). Presently, nearly all Latin American countries have IBE programs, but they struggle to increase coverage and improve the quality of education with adequately trained teachers and appropriate curricula. While not yet perfect, IBE is the best solution to closing the poverty gap because it empowers students and communities by recognizing the importance of native traditions and integrating them, along with the local language, into the classroom.

Whether IBE adequately preserves language and culture depends on the program´s goals and level of community participation. For top-down government programs, IBE often consists of cushioning the first years of a child´s education by integrating the native language into the curriculum with the dominant national language. These programs are rooted in achieving assimilation with the national culture, where the goal is to increase graduation rates and literacy in the dominant language without direct consideration for the possible side-effect of losing culture. On the other hand, grassroots programs (such as in Ecuador and Bolivia) include participation from indigenous NGO’s and educational councils to write curricula, thereby ensuring that their views and histories are represented accurately, sending a message to students that their culture and traditions are important.

However, in pursuit of full intercultural bilingual education, we cannot undermine the fact that culture evolves, and deciding which traditions are worth preserving is a struggle that societies face all over the world. Recognition of the value of local knowledge and language must be balanced with communities’ needs to engage in national politics and increase their share of economic earnings to reduce poverty and hunger. To that end, Latin American governments must accept responsibility to manage multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual societies. Increasingly, as a result of grass-roots efforts, changes are being made. Indigenous are seeking more political representation and demanding that their cultures be respected, rather than assimilated.

Only when the indigenous are permitted to address their own educational needs can we be assured that the diversity of knowledge and culture will continue into the future despite increased international integration. We also have the responsibility to incorporate a more dynamic understanding of development into our way of thinking. Indigenous communities and individuals have the right to choose the course of their development and decide what being a “developed” society consists of. This process starts with the classroom, which wields the greatest influence on youth, who, in turn, have the greatest impact on whether language is retained and which traditions are preserved.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons