“Poverty of the Spirit”: Education and Self-Determination in American Indian Communities


Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies Grades 11-12

Standard 1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.

Standard 2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.

Standard 4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.

Standard 9: Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


In this lesson, high school students will engage with secondary sources as well as Clyde Warrior’s speech, “We Are Not Free,” to consider the meanings of and connections between education, poverty and freedom within American Indian communities. By focusing on the history of American Indian education and guiding students through an analysis of related primary and secondary sources, this lesson will enable students to develop an understanding of the call for tribal self-determination by American Indian activists during the early years of the Red Power Movement.


This unit will teach students about the historical policies and experiences that contributed to the rise of the movement for self-determination in American Indian education. The unit is organized in a way that helps students to develop an understanding of a historical subject, to use that understanding to have a nuanced discussion of a primary document, and ultimately, to learn about current challenges within their historical context. Due to the nature of the primary document, the unit will also challenge students to thoughtfully reconsider their definitions of freedom, poverty, and education.

The lesson will be divided into three parts. The first day of the course will introduce students to the history of American Indian education and will encourage them to identify ways in which the education of American Indian children has changed or stayed the same over time. On the second day, students will use their knowledge of the history of American Indian education to participate in an informed discussion of Clyde Warrior’s speech, “We Are Not Free.” In this discussion, they will develop an understanding of the connection between education, self-determination, and well-being that was made by activists in the 1960s and 1970s. In the final part of the lesson, students will reflect upon the key problems that Warrior and other activists in the movement for greater educational tribal self-determination identified and will consider which problems still exist today. This exercise will help students place the challenges of the present within a historical context.

Essential Understanding:

The call for greater tribal ownership over American Indian education was driven, in large part, by the belief that rather than forced assimilation into the mainstream society, culturally relevant education and the freedom of communities to determine that education are at the heart of individual and community well-being.

Essential Questions:

  1. How has the education of American Indian children been used as a form of oppression? What effect has this education had on American Indian children and communities?
  2. What are some arguments for and against greater tribal control of American Indian education? Who has made these arguments and what have been their motivations?
  3. How does Warrior reframe poverty to argue for the self-determination of a poor community?
  4. What is the connection between education and poverty? What is the connection between education and freedom?


Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA): A federal agency within the Department of the Interior that was designed to handle matters related to American Indians, including education. The BIA, formerly known as the Office of Indian Affairs, was established in 1824.

Forced assimilation: A process in which a member of a minority group is forced to adopt the cultural, religious, and linguistic characteristics of the majority group. Education of American Indian children has often been used as a tool for forced assimilation.

Head Start Program: A federal program created in 1964 by the Office of Economic Opportunity that was designed to provide comprehensive early childhood education to low-income children.

National Indian Youth Council (NIYC): An organization founded in 1961 by American Indian college students and recent graduates to advocate for the protection of American Indian communities and their cultures. Clyde Warrior was a founding member of NIYC and later served as its president.1

Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO): a federal agency designed to administer most of the programs created as part of the War on Poverty.

Red Power Movement: A political and cultural movement that gained prominence in the 1960s and 1970s and was characterized by American Indian activism that sought greater rights, freedom to practice culture and tradition, and self-determination for American Indian communities. While the name of the movement was first coined by activist Vine Deloria Jr., the phrase “Red Power” first appeared on a banner on a NIYC car carrying Clyde Warrior and other members.1

(Tribal) Self-determination: A broad term that, when used in reference to American Indian communities, suggests they have greater economic and political independence, cultural freedom, power to determine leadership, and protected legal rights.1

War on Poverty: a series of policies introduced by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which were aimed at reducing the poverty rate.


Federal and church-run American Indian schools, which date back to the days of American colonization, have historically been used as a method of forced assimilation.2 European immigrants to North America often viewed assimilation as the only possible future for American Indians. If American Indian children were converted to Christianity and forbidden from practicing their culture, wearing traditional clothing or speaking their language, many thought they would quickly blend into mainstream American society. Therefore, church and state sponsored schools were initially created not only to teach American Indian children skills, but more importantly, to provide them with, as the former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas Hartley Crawford, phrased it in 1842, an “education in morals; [an] education in Christianity.”2

These structures of assimilation were formalized in mission schools and government-run boarding schools in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Federal boarding schools were established by the agency that would later become the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).3 Federal schools as well as church-run mission schools enforced the dominant culture, often forbid Indian languages, spiritual practices and dress, and sought total assimilation.2 While attendance was initially voluntary, by 1890, attendance became forced through coercion, practices of withdrawing supplies and rations from reservations, and in some cases, through threats of incarceration.3

Attending boarding schools, which, according to one teacher, taught children “to despise every custom of their forefathers,”2 led to cultural conflict for many American Indian children. When American Indian children returned to reservations from federally-run schools, they found themselves torn between their American Indian upbringing and the mainstream American education they had received.Children struggled to reintegrate into reservation life and often suffered from low self-esteem and a sense of isolation.3

Well into the 1960s, the idea that cultural assimilation was the only way to address the “Indian Problem” remained prominent. The phrase, the “Indian problem,” was often used to refer to the notion of a “culture of poverty,” or a culturally-specific cause for a poor standard of living.5 A report by a member of the Projects Development Staff in the Johnson administration, for example, blamed the high rates of poverty, disease and mortality that existed in American Indian communities on “anachronistic traditions and value systems” and recommended that “starting with the children in the schools” there should be a break from American Indian Culture.5 While this view was ultimately not adopted by the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty, it nevertheless represents the continued popularity of the idea of forced assimilation.

The structure of American Indian education did, however, go through significant changes in the 20th century. Heavy criticism of American Indian education led to an effort to phase out boarding schools, and some public schools became open to American Indian children through the Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934.2 In addition to structural changes, the twentieth century saw an increased call for greater American Indian control over education. This effort was intensified during the 1960s and 1970s, when American Indian activists demanded greater say in the use of  educational funds and began building some of their own schools.4

Educational reform was closely associated with the fight for greater tribal self-determination.1 Especially in light of the wave of independence movements around the world, many American Indian activists considered the fight for tribal self-determination, which included the fight for greater control over education, to be not only a basic right, but also an essential step towards improving the well-being of American Indian communities.5

Organizations, such as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC), which was founded in 1961 to protect American Indian communities and their cultures, were at the forefront of advocating for greater self-determination and cultural relevancy in American Indian education.1 Itself an organization of students and young people, NIYC conceived of a youth-driven movement that respected and valued American Indian traditions. 5

The educational experiences of leaders of the organization, like Clyde Warrior, influenced their views on self-determination and education. Warrior, who grew up on a Ponca reservation with a keen understanding of a connection to tradition,6 attended a public high school where he experienced racism and gained a better sense of how the educational system failed to serve the needs of American Indians. With the opinion that “it is a tribute to the human spirit that so many young Indians have survived our ‘educational’ institutions and are still whole human beings,”6 Warrior later became one of the most vocal advocates for more culturally relevant education, which he deemed to be central to the struggle for self-determination.1


Unseen Tears: The Native American Boarding School Experience in Western New York Part 1

“We Are Not Free” by Clyde Warrior (page 228)

Stories, Education Week: Native American Education

A Long Road Back to the ‘Rez’, Education Week: Native American Education


Day 1: On the first day of the unit, students will learn about the history of American Indian education from 19th and 20th century mission and government boarding schools to schools of the late 1960s. First, students will be asked to recount any knowledge they have about American Indian education. Next, the teacher will give a lecture describing the history of American Indian education. The lecture will begin by discussing the motivations behind the establishment of early schools. When mission schools and boarding schools are discussed, students will watch a short (10 minute) clip of a documentary that explores the experience of children in these schools. The lecture will then cover some of the changes in education made during the twentieth century prior to 1967, highlighting, in particular, the growing call for greater American Indian control of education. The lecture, including the video, is expected to take about 30 minutes of the class.

Next, students will read the article, “The Painful Legacy of Boarding Schools.” This should take no more than 10 minutes.

In the final 10 to 20 minutes of class, students will be encouraged to discuss:

  1. What constitutes an education? What is the purpose of obtaining an education?
  2. What does it mean to be “free”? Are education and freedom connected? If so, how?
  3. What does it mean to be “poor”? Are education and poverty connected? What about freedom and poverty?

These questions may be discussed using ideas from the lecture as well as students’ own experiences. Students will also be encouraged to consider the meanings of and connections between education, freedom, and poverty as they do their reading for the next class.

Homework: Students will read Clyde Warrior’s speech, “We Are Not Free.” They will be encouraged to pay attention to how Warrior presents the ideas of education, freedom, and poverty. Before the homework is distributed, unfamiliar terms in the reading (see Glossary) should be explained. The teacher should mention that, because high levels of poverty existed within American Indian communities, many programs developed through the War on Poverty were targeted towards American Indians.

Day 2: At the beginning of the second class, there will be a short lecture (10 minutes) providing students with background on the NIYC and Clyde Warrior. Students will then be asked to volunteer to read aloud sections of Warrior’s speech. After the entire speech is read aloud, students will talk with those sitting next to them about how Warrior presented the ideas of education, freedom, and poverty. After a few minutes, volunteers will be asked to share their ideas.

Next, students will discuss the reading as a class. They will be encouraged to discuss several questions, using examples from the document. These questions should be reordered, modified or omitted depending on the flow of conversation.

  1. How has the education of American Indian children affected individuals and communities over time? What problems does Warrior identify with the education of the early 20th century and the 1960s? What does he see as the cause of these problems?
  2. According to Warrior, why are American Indian communities poor? What does being poor mean as Warrior defines it?
  3. Warrior presents several problems in this speech. Does he offer any solutions? How does he make a case for his ideas?

The teacher will conclude by lecturing on the significance of this speech and Clyde Warrior’s life. The teacher should note that Warrior was an early activist of the Red Power Movement and, in the years following his death in 1968, his focus on education and self-determination was adopted by many other activists. These activists fought to make the education of American Indian children more culturally relevant, to improve teacher training, and to develop some of their own schools.2 Students should be reminded that the Red Power Movement occurred during a period of activism that included other movements they may be recognize, such as the Civil Rights movement.

Homework: Students will read one article from Education Week’s Native American Education series. The teacher should select an appropriate number of these stories or sections of these stories to assign so that each story is read by at least three students. Students will be asked to write a list of at least two key takeaways. They will also be encouraged to write down questions they have about the article or a topic discussed in the article.

Day 3: In the final part of the unit, students will begin by breaking into small groups based on the stories they each read. In these groups, students will compare their key takeaways and any questions they have. Each group will then be asked to present to the class a brief summary of the article they read, what they thought was important, and any questions they had.

After all groups have presented and any questions have been answered, students will watch the brief documentary, A Long Road Back to the ‘Rez.’ The teacher should note that the experiences of American Indians and the nations they belong to are diverse. While the history of American Indian nations share similarities, students should therefore not generalize the culture or experiences of one nation to all American Indians.

To conclude this unit, students will discuss which challenges are still faced by American Indian youth. They will also be asked to reflect upon the things they learned during the unit and to ask any remaining questions.

Additional Sources and Bibliography:

1 Paul McKenzie-Jones. Clyde Warrior: Tradition, Community, and Red Power. New Directions in Native American Studies Series. University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.

2Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

3 Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart and Lemyra M. DeBruyn (1998). “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 8, no. 2 (1998): 56-78.

4 Margaret Szasz. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination Since 1928. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

5 Daniel M. Cobb. Native Activism in Cold War America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008.

6 Paul McKenzie-Jones. “‘We Are Among the Poor, the Powerless, the Inexperienced and the Inarticulate’: Clyde Warrior’s Campaign for a ‘Greater Indian America.’” The American Indian Quarterly 34, no. 2 (2010): 224-257.

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