Background briefing

Schooling and Tribal children

‘How can we be backward when we know how to protect the rainforest? How can we be primitive when our people live peacefully together in communities that are kind to each other, and that make us strong? How can we be stupid when our instinct is to protect, not destroy the environment?’

- Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami

Whilst its clear that education is a vital need of children everywhere, schooling – as experienced by many tribal children – can be more of a curse than a blessing. It is frequently used as a tool to separate indigenous children from their families, traditions and languages and helps the state to gain control over tribal peoples and their lands.

It does not have to be this way: appropriate tribal schooling exists – it is just far too rare.

Schools that don’t educate

Many tribal children report that their teachers look down on them because of their identity and teach them that their culture is ‘primitive’. Dongria Kondh children in India, for example, have reported that when they went to school they were made to adopt Hindu names, cut their hair and shed their distinctive jewellery.

Where schools teach only in national or regional languages, tribal children who have grown up using only their mother tongue are disadvantaged and often left behind academically.


Bushmen children.

‘The Bushman child is taken to school and will meet Tswana people. They can’t speak Setswana, they can’t understand and if they don’t answer the question in Setswana they are beaten and punished because they can’t speak Setswana and that’s why the Bushmen children are failing at school. So should we be proud of education? Should we lose our culture because of education which doesn’t bring any result?’
- Roy Sesana, Bushman, Botswana.

The quality of the teaching, the resources and the facilities of tribal children’s schools are often far below average. In India, a UNICEF report found that residential schools for tribal (Adivasi) children were ‘shockingly below the minimum standard of human dignity for any child.’ It notes cases of ‘rape and abuse of young girls and death by food poisoning in the hostels’ and reports of ‘rampant ill health.’ Worldwide, physical and sexual abuse in residential schools remain serious problems, leading to truancy, drop-outs, mental health problems and suicide.

Learning to be ‘backward’

Away from home for long periods in education facilities that consider them ‘backwards’, tribal children experience education that does not add to their language or knowledge. Instead it replaces their mother tongue with the regional language, replaces what they would have learnt from their elders with low-quality information learnt from poorly-trained teachers and replaces their sense of identity with a sense of shame.

One text book for children in the Indian state of Gujarat states, ‘even after independence [tribal people] are still backward and poor. Of course, their ignorance, illiteracy and blind faith are to be blamed for lack of progress because they still fail to realise the importance of education in life.’

‘Our children are stuck somewhere between a past they don’t understand and a future that won’t accept them and offers them nothing’
- Bonniface Alimankinni, Tiwi Islands.

‘Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.’ Article 15, UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.


An Innu child looks on.

‘[Many Innu kids] haven’t had the experiences in the country that give you the sense of who you are… So, I see kids today who seem to be trapped: they’ve got the worst of both worlds. All they’ve got is the [settled] experience and their schooling has been terrible.’
- Children, Youth and Family Services Worker, Canada

Education that doesn’t involve schools

Tribal people who have not been schooled are not uneducated. Growing up on their land, tribal children learn how to live well on their land, learning from their peers, parents and elders all that they need to be full members of their communities. The importance of this education is often completely missed or ignored and effectively denied by officials who draft policies that send children away to alien schools.

‘[The Jarawa’s] knowledge of indigenous plants, herbs, diseases, and creatures of the jungle is immense and needs no schooling. No one can really educate them further. It is we, who need to be educated because soon all this knowledge will evaporate, with the immanent danger of the extinction of the tribe.’
-Prof Anvita Abbi

Tribal communities know, understand, use and protect a vast number of species of plants and animals on their lands. The Mullu Kuruma of Kerala, India, for example, have been found to use at least 136 different plant species, just for medicinal use.

‘The things that I learned from my grandfather and father, [are more] useful and practical than things which others learn from the school.’
- Gunabandiya Uruwarige, Wanniyala Aetto chief

This knowledge and the complex systems of stories, taboos and rituals that surround it cannot be taught in externally-run schools. It is rapidly lost when children are separated from their lands and elders. The loss of this knowledge does not just devastate a tribe – it risks all our futures. Over 80% of the earth’s most biodiverse places are home to tribal peoples – the complex ways in which they care for their land have nurtured and protected that diversity.

‘The forest is like our mother; we have grown up in its lap. We know how to live by suckling at her breast. We know the name of each and every tree, shrub and herb; we know their uses. If we were made to live in a land without forests, then all this knowledge that we have cherished for generations will be useless and slowly we will forget it all.’
- Letter from Bava Mahalia of Jalsindhi village to chief minister of Madhya Pradesh regarding the damming of the Narmada

‘I guess one day the children will find out what they have gained and what they have lost from school. They will learn that they have lost more than they’ve gained … I would like to see more teaching of the Innu way of life. This is like an education and it is better. If a child knows about life in the country, that is like she or he finished university.’
- Innu community report, ‘Gathering Voices’

‘A real teacher is somebody that leads by example. Innu people tell stories at night lying down before going to sleep, everyone is telling stories…. You learn in the country, you see it, you feel it, you hear stories and that’s what makes you strong.’
- Apitet Andrew, Innu

Schools that work for tribal children

Schools for tribal children can be excellent: empowering the children and their communities and equipping them with the skills to protect their rights, nurture their lands and live healthy lives. Good schooling for tribal communities requires a fundamentally different approach which

  • Is based in tribal communities and fits to their calendars, enabling children to take part in ceremonies, harvesting and other vital parts of life in their community.
  • Is conducted primarily in the children’s mother-tongue, rooted in respect for the tribe and its elders and the knowledge that the children will need to be full members of their community.
  • Fully involves all the generations rather than dividing them: working with elders, parents and grandparents.

In practice: the Yanomami and the Enawene Nawe

Yanomami education

The Yanomami of Brazil established their own education programme in 1995 in order to protect their language, train Yanomami teachers and to teach Yanomami children and adults the skills and knowledge they need to protect their rights, their health and their lands. One of the main objectives of the programme is to enable the Yanomami to interact in a more equitable way with national society (including health teams, lawyers, government officials and NGOs) and to understand and to assert their rights.

Although the Yanomami have had to fight to maintain control over their education, they have managed to expand the programme to cover several villages, with trained Yanomami teachers. Learning is in their mother tongue and Portuguese and involves the whole community, in the community rather than sending children away to distant schools.


A Yanomami boy.

Enawene Nawe

The Enawene Nawe had their first sustained contact with ‘mainstream’ Brazilian society in the 1970s and have fought to protect their lands, language and self-sufficiency. When a road was built into their lands, bringing soya farmers, land prospectors and diseases, the Enawene Nawe needed to rapidly acquire new knowledge and skills. Before learning Portuguese, the Enawene Nawe first learned to read and write in their own language – which had not previously had a script.


Enawene Nawe father and son.

Unusually, the Enawene Nawe have managed to maintain control over education, rather than having government or missionary led schooling programmes imposed upon them. In Enawene Nawe society, many individuals have specific areas of expertise, which are learnt from elders and valued by the whole community. They have approached learning new languages and skills under the same system, and now have experts who teach literacy, which they have learned from a local NGO.

The learning of new skills did not focus on the children, but on all the community with the awareness that this learning needed to fit into and around all the other learning that goes on, from complex rituals to techniques of planting.

The Enawene Nawe incorporated learning about Western medicine in much the same way: health education was controlled by the community and taught in the open long houses, rather than in separate classrooms.

‘If you put children in uniform, feed them, educate them to make them economically viable you will deskill and de-culture them. Their knowledge of religious ceremonies which are fundamental to their culture and the skills they need to survive would all be lost.’
- Heggy Wyatt, anthropologist who has worked with the Enawene Nawe.

The Innu and the Tshikapisk Foundation

The Innu of Northern Canada suffered terribly when they were made to leave their lands and settle in a distant area. Innu children were first disconnected from the land and then from their families in abusive and repressive residential schools. Rates of suicide, substance abuse, obesity, violence and despair rocketed. The government provided school projects, shelters and solvent abuse centres to try to patch up these symptoms but did not address the root problems. The community has now started Innu-led approaches rooted in their history, culture and traditions.

A group of Innu hunting families established the Tshikapisk Foundation, which unites Innu youth and elders and reconnects them with the history of their people, the geography of their lands and the practical skills needed to live in the country. The project keeps Innu skills alive and strengthens a sense of Innu identity and the traditional connection of the Innu people to the lands, waters and animals around them.

The students have to work hard, walking up to 20 kilometres a day over extremely rugged terrain carrying heavy loads. They return to the communities healthier and stronger. Young Innu who are frequently regarded as ‘failures’ in the village on account of their lack of achievement in the school system, often perform well in the practical and social skills needed in the country. Petrol-sniffing youth who are taken out to the country return with vastly enhanced self-esteem and confidence. The benefits to individuals are enormous and the hope is that the project will help to strengthen and unite the whole community.

Learn more about:

* Yanomami
* Bushmen
* Innu
* Enawene Nawe

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