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Why Is American Indian Art Good for Children?

James Bequette
School of Education
Stanford University
June 2003

Multicultural education has been one response to increase cultural awareness and diversity in American schools. But multicultural arts education too often ignores American Indians' distinct cultural identities and traditional tribal art forms. I believe authentic arts experiences stimulate Native students to exercise cognitive reasoning and intuition as they recognize their own lives and cultures more clearly. To test this assumption, I am currently studying one California school district's efforts over a three-year period to construct culturally authentic arts curriculum in collaboration with a local Indian tribe.

Earlier studies found American Indian children experience more success when Native language and cultural programs are added to the existing public school curriculum. Other researchers argue that this type of bicultural learning strengthens students' pride in being "Indian," which in turn increases academic achievement, decreases drop out rates, and improves school attendance and personal behavior.

Prior research has not considered whether authentic American Indian arts activities that help Native students acquire knowledge of the history, experiences, and contribution of their ancestors to the collective cultural heritage of the United States, actually increase Indian children's school success. Therefore, my research is driven by three key questions: Can traditional learning about arts and crafts, singing, dancing, drumming, and storytelling be considered an integral component of the Native language and cultural programs earlier studies credit with improving American Indian school success? Can the inclusion of traditional arts activities in a bicultural school curriculum change the attitudes, beliefs, and values of teachers, students, and Indian parents? Can the cultural differences that exist between dominant culture schools and Indian communities, a problem I observed firsthand as a teacher, be lessened by including traditional arts activities in the school curriculum?

The site for my research study is a small, 400-student school district that serves a large Indian reservation where nine different tribes now live. I chose that location after learning the district was awarded a model arts program grant by the California Arts Council and the California Department of Education to develop arts curricula that incorporate traditional Indian arts activities. Not coincidentally, the K-12 schools I am investigating in my study are the ones in which I taught art for fifteen years. My onsite fieldwork just began and will continue throughout the summer and fall of 2003. Data sources for this research study include interviews with teachers, students, parents, Indian artists, and observations in classrooms of the ten teachers who participated in the arts program. I am looking carefully for residue of the district's culturally authentic arts curriculum in elementary and high school classrooms. After analyzing archives from this arts program, I learned the schools in my study invited American Indian artists into the classroom to teach traditional beading and basket making crafts and other art forms to the children. A committee of teachers also began developing an arts curriculum that adheres to California visual and performing arts standards, yet infuses Native arts content and activities into music, drama, and visual arts lessons at all grade levels.

My findings are tentative, but I believe compelling. Teachers, administrators, and parents interviewed to date generally report a lessening in the cultural gap that exists between the European American-style schools and the numerically dominant American Indian community. Interviews also reveal that over the course of this model arts project's funding cycle, which ended two years ago, efforts to continue developing culturally authentic arts curricula may have been compromised by administrators' who reallocated school minutes once used for teaching arts classes to test preparation drills for state mandated standardized testing.

Knowing that generations of Indigenous peoples battled for the survival of their culture and tribal identity in the classrooms of American schools, I am optimistic that additional data, when collected, will help corroborate my assumption that culturally authentic arts education holds promise for increasing American Indian visibility in the school curriculum. In time, I may also report that increased school success is a byproduct of that process. When schools give Native peoples the time and respect their culture's artistic heritage deserve all students will learn American Indians are alive and thriving in the twenty-first century, and that Native cultures, languages, values, religions, music, and art continue to survive in this country.