American Indian Education KnowledgeBase

The American Indian Education KnowledgeBase is an online resource to aid education professionals in their efforts to improve the education of American Indian students and close the achievement gap American Indian students have faced in public, Bureau of Indian Education, and other schools.

Task 1: Understand the Concept of Tribal Sovereignty

Guideline: Educators will understand the concept of tribal sovereignty today and the role of tribal governments in education of their tribal citizens.

Overview: The concept of sovereignty for Indian nations centers on the fact that they are self-governing nations as recognized by the U.S. Constitution. Historically, tribes controlled their own affairs before the U.S. Government entered into formal treaties and eventually assigned many of them to reservations overseen by appointed Indian Agents whose power was enforced by the U.S. Army. With the passage of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, the U.S. Government recognized the rights of Indian tribes to self-government, and President Richard Nixon reaffirmed this right with his 1970 message to Congress on Indian self-determination.

Based on the U.S. Constitution, treaties, and Supreme Court decisions, Indian nations have a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. Government, and are largely independent of state governments. The U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs represents the U.S. Government in its work with Indian nations.

American Civics Project: Sovereignty or Dependency?

This 4-5 day lesson for middle and high school classrooms introduces students to the historical roots of federal Indian policy and tribal sovereignty. It is designed to fit within a history unit about westward expansion during the 19th Century. It is divided into two parts, each of which is two days in length, but can be expanded by additional information as noted below in the lesson plan.

Sovereignty in Education: Creating Culturally-Based Charter Schools in Native Communities - A NIEA Handbook (2018)

The National Indian Education Association (NIEA), a national nonprofit dedicated to strengthening Native education, released this 2018 handbook entitled “Sovereignty in Education: Creating Culturally-Based Charter Schools in Native Communities.” For nonprofit organizations working within Native communities and those considering starting charter schools, this handbook provides several key insights to understanding the unique landscape within Native communities in a way that respects their cultural heritage as well as their sovereignty.

Doctrine of Discovery VIDEO

This 2015 video is part of 8 short, testimonial films on the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois.) The Iroquois are embarking on an historic project about the 500-year history of the Iroquois, their relationship with Europe and America. The Iroquois prophesies that, if heard, this project can help navigate the oncoming changes due to climate change. With Chief Oren Lyons, Sid Hill, and Iroquois testimony, it creates the space for the Iroquois to tell their story as they strive to uphold the traditions and the legacy of their people while also protecting the central tenets of the Iroquois people and their relationship and care for the Earth. 

Vine Deloria Jr. - Securing Native American Religious Freedom: The Need for Federal Law Reform (VIDEO)

In this March 1992 video, Vine Deloria, Jr., Professor, University of Colorado at Boulder "Two recent Supreme Court decisions have created a crisis in religious freedom for Native Americans. These cases held that the first amendment does not protect tribal religious practices and referred the issue of protecting Native worship to Congress. In the view of many legal experts, the court's exclusion of traditional Indian worship from the first amendment also seriously weakened religious liberty for all Americans.  

Indian Pride 102 Video : Treaties & Sovereignty

This video, published online in January 2011, features a TV episode of Indian Pride featuring,"Tribal Governments—Is Sovereignty Fact or Fiction?" This episode also showcases the unique lifestyles of North America’s 560 Indian Nations. Each episode of Indian Pride includes a mini-documentary, an in-studio discussion, and performances of historical, cultural, and original presentations.

Sovereign Rights, Sovereign People (VIDEO)

This video explores the sovereign rights of Native Americans.

American Indian Tribal Sovereignty Primer

This American Indian Tribal Sovereignty Primer summarizes the legal basis for tribal sovereignty. A person unfamiliar with the basis for tribal sovereignty will find it most helpful.  Download PDF

INDIAN AFFAIRS: Laws and Treaties

This Oklahoma State University website lists United States treaties with American Indian governments.

Myths and Realities Of Tribal Sovereignty: The Law and Economics Of Indian Self-Rule

Authors of this 2004 paper state the last three decades have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of the American Indian nations in the United States as a direct result from the exercise of American Indian self-government - sovereignty - by the more than 560 federally-recognized tribes in the United States.  In this 2004 study, legal and economic dimensions of current perceptions of debates are explored over the nature and extent of tribal self-rule in the United States. The objective is to clarify, address, and illuminate key threads of thought and assumption that pervades accurately, or inaccurately, by distinguishing between myth and reality within the public policy arena. Download PDF

Nenabozho's Smart Berries: Rethinking Tribal Sovereignty

Professor Wenona Singel, in her paper Indian Tribes and Human Rights Accountability, makes a compelling argument for reforming conventional understandings of tribal sovereignty to "reflect the transformative international law principle that all sovereigns are externally accountable for human rights violations."   Singel proposes the development of an inter-tribal human rights regime that includes the formation of an inter-tribal treaty recognizing tribal human rights obligations, and outlining capacities to enforce human rights. Often, this "rights-based discourse clouds and limits our understandings and applications of tribal sovereignty."

President Nixon's 1970 Message to Congress

This link is to President Nixon's 1970 message to Congress. in this message, he set forth a "new direction of Indian policy aimed at Indian self-determination and condemned forced termination and proposed recommendations for specific action."

Rethinking Tribal Sovereignty

Dr. Vine Deloria Jr. in his keynote address presented his viewpoint on tribal sovereignty at the Sovereignty Forum sponsored by the American Indian Policy Center on May 26, 1995. This summary presents his three part view on the subject.

The Great Indian Wars 1540 to 1890 (VIDEO)

This video, published online in 2015, features 'The Great Indian Wars' from 1540 to 1890.

Tribal Nations: The Story of Federal Indian Law (2006 Documentary)

This 2006 documentary video, narrated by Jimmy Fall, tells the story of Federal Indian Law, and was also the Winner of a 2006 Telly Award!

Tribal Sovereignty: History and the Law - Native American Caucus

This Native American Caucus website focuses on the History and Laws of American Indian Tribal Sovereignty. The website shares how tribal governments are the oldest governments in existence in the Western Hemisphere and, at a time when European governments were authoritarian and hierarchical, traditional tribal governments were based upon principles of democracy, equality, freedom, and respect. This website also offers American Indian resources for history, resolutions, sovereignty, and suggested reading.

Chief Oren Lyons on Doctrine of Discovery (VIDEO)

In this 2010 video, Chief Oren Lyons reveals how the Doctrine of Discovery came about in 1493 after Columbus's return to Europe and how it was inserted into U.S. policy. Chief Lyons gave this talk to Humboldt State University students on Columbus Day.

Sovereignty and Indian Education

Authored by Melody McCoy this 2005 resource reviews federal laws, policies, and reports related to tribal sovereignty over Indian education.

Tribal Sovereignty: The Right to Self-Rule (VIDEO)

This video, which was published online February 21, 2010, provides an excerpt of a longer educational DVD produced to answer frequently asked questions about American Indian tribal governments and the roots of Tribal Sovereignty.

Understanding Native American Sovereignty (VIDEO)

This 2016 video, published by the Sycuan Tribe features a review of Native American Sovereignty.

What is Tribal Sovereignty? (VIDEO)

This Myskoke Media News video, published online February 21, 2017, asks the question, “What is Tribal Sovereignty?”, and answers with a basic introduction to Tribal Sovereignty.

Original Tribal Land Map

This 2014 National Public Radio (NPR) resource features a map of the Original Indian Tribal Lands, (designed by Aaron Carapella, a self-taught mapmaker in Warner, Oklahoma with NPR article that shows Native American tribes' locations before first contact with Europeans), written in Indian Nation locations and names superimposed over of the map of the United States of America.  This map shows where Indian Tribal lands of the Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, Shawnee, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Sioux, Pawnee, Ute, Navajo, Apache, and Paiute were originally located before Europeans "discovered" America.

The Backstory on Standing Rock, the Federal Government, and Tribal Sovereignty

This Grist 2016 article by Aura Bogado features the Standing Rock Sioux Nation's movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.


Element 1: Foundations and Current Status of American Indian Education

Purpose: To ensure educators, in support of American Indian students, understand the historical principles which guides the academic journey of these students, the challenges and barriers which impacts these efforts, and current trends and research which are the basis for Indian education programs today.

Educators will:

  1. Understand the concept of tribal sovereignty and the relationship between Indian tribes, states, and the federal government's Bureau of Indian Education.
  2. Understand past efforts to assimilate Indians through English-only assimilationist schooling and the opposition Indians may show to efforts at forced assimilation.
  3. Know the lasting effects of the Indian New Deal of the 1930s on American Indian education.
  4. Understand the effects of the Red Power Movement, Indian Self-Determination, and United Nations human rights declarations on American Indians and American Indian education.

Activity 1: Understand the History of American Indian Education

American Indian tribes negotiated a multiplicity of treaties with the U.S. government, which then imposed upon them a number of laws and policies to promote the educational development of American Indian children.

Activity 2: Understand the Current Laws, Funding, and Academic Resources for American Indian Students

The federal government has responded to treaty provisions enacted between tribal governments and the United States which required educational support for American Indian children by developing and implementing educational programs in response to the federal trust responsibility of the U.S. Government.  The following Tasks will outline that response to treaty obligations.

Element 2: American Indian Cultures

Purpose: Educators will increase awareness and understanding of the breadth and scope of cultural diversity that exists among American Indian tribal communities, as well as shared values and traditions of American Indian people.

Educators will understand:

  1. What makes someone an American Indian, and what is a tribal nation today?
  2. What is an extended family?
  3. What is the significance of traditional American Indian values, such as humility, interconnectedness, and reciprocity?
  4. What should all Americans know about American Indians?

Activity 1: Understand Tribal and Family Structures

Educators will understand the process of federal recognition of tribes, tribal enrollment, and treaty making that has impacted American Indian tribal people since the founding of the United States. Educators will also learn about the structure and the importance of American Indian tribes, clans, bands, and extended families to American Indians.

Activity 2: Understand American Indian Traditional Tribal Values

Educators will understand and respect the importance of cultural values and traditional concepts which help to shape the mindset of American Indian children and their families.  Educators will understand the complex challenges faced by American Indian children in today’s classroom as a result of conflicting value systems.

Element 3: Understanding Your School and Community

Purpose: Assessing American Indian students’ academic performance and developing culturally-based education approaches in collaboration with local tribes, Indian organizations and Native communities are essential for improved educational opportunities.  Educators should:

  • Examine current American Indian achievement assessments, attendance, dropout and graduation rates;
  • Collaborate with tribes and Native communities, and;
  • Collaborate with national American Indian organizations and the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

Activity 1: Take a Snapshot of Your School and Community


Activity 2: Work with and Involve Community and Parents

Element 4: Integrate American Indian History, Language, and Culture into School Curriculum

Purpose: Research indicates that it is important to affirm students’ identity and one reason for the academic achievement gap that American Indian students face is that a one-size-fits-all national curriculum represented in textbooks fails to give positive recognition to American Indian histories and cultures. 

Activity 1: Create an American Indian Curriculum

It is important for American Indian and Alaska Native students to have the standard state and national curriculums they are exposed to in school be supplemented with curriculum that reflects their background and the community that they live in.

Activity 2: Teaching Indigenous Languages

Too often, an English-only policy in American schools has suppressed American Indian languages and cultures. The Native American Languages Act passed by U.S. Congress, and signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, enforces United States Policy to support, preserve, and protect American Indian languages. Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act  Act of 2006 The 2007 United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has given further support to that goal. Today, Indigenous peoples are working through Indigenous language immersion schools to revitalize their languages and cultures.


Element 5: Explore Schools Serving American Indian Students

Purpose: Charter and immersion schools are offering American Indians more flexibility in working to improve the education of their children by affording American Indian communities more power to shape the schooling their children receive.


Activity 1: The Role and impact of American Indian Charter and Magnet Schools

Learn about charter and immersion schools and how they can provide alternatives to public, Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, and tribally controlled schools, allowing American Indian communities to provide more culturally appropriate education for their children.


Activity 2: Discover how Tribal Operated Schools and Indian Charter Schools Relate to One Another

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) and mainstream public schools have not been successful in bringing up the average test scores and graduation rates of American Indian students to national averages. Learn how Tribally Operated and Indian Charter Schools are providing alternatives that show promise in improving the academic and life success of American Indian students.


Element 6: Use Culturally Responsive Teaching Methodologies

Purpose: Research suggests one reason for the achievement gap faced by American Indian students is cultural conflicts between American Indian homes and schools. Accordingly, teachers should be prepared to meet the needs of American Indian and other Indigenous students, including using culturally responsive teaching methodologies that incorporate American Indian learning styles, avoiding biased teaching and stereotypes, and addressing the needs of gifted education and other special needs students.

Activity 1: Prepare Educators to Teach American Indian Students

One-size-fits-all educational reforms, despite being somewhat “evidence based”, have left behind many American Indian students. Learn how adjusting teaching methods and materials to fit American Indian students’ cultural and experiential backgrounds can make them more engaged learners and improve their academic performance.