An Education That Respects Indigenous Peoples

In August of 2012 Annalisa Iadicicco and I travelled to a small Shapibo-Canibo village deep along the Ucayali River in the Amazon at the Brazilian-Peruvian border. We were accompanied by educators Geremia Iadicicco from Centro de Educación y Desarrollo Comunitario and Padre Carlos, a Fidei Donum priest living for over 30 years in that region of the jungle.

We arrived by permission of the village Chief to discuss the school they had built for their community and to meet with some of their teachers. Our local guide for the day had gone to college in a nearby town of Atalaya, 10 hours away by canoe. He had come back to his village to change the education being delivered there. He explained to us that he wanted to bring education to his people, but not to teach them our [Western] ways; he'd seen how we lived and didn't like it. He wanted to use education to improve their lives, not change their way of life. They live simply and want to continue living their way, education would give them strength, he said.

Our journey took us to the shantytown of Villa el Salvador outside Lima, then deep into the Peruvian jungle near the Brazilian border to meet with indigenous tribes and finally to Cuzco to work with child domestic servants known as trabajadoras del hogar. We traveled deeper into the heart of education than we could ever imagine, showing us the thin, fragile and often contested line that marks what a good and effective education consists of and the various shades of grey involved in delivering it. We began to understand the damage misguided attempts at education can wreak on a community.

"Do you think that bringing books from Spain, or from North America or another country to these kids and telling them: This is what you need to learn, helps them to identify their role? No, it simply confuses the situation," argued Geremia.

School policy in most countries assumes that all children should be educated in the same manner and conform to mainstream society. They seek assimilation and a shared common ground on issues of ethics, politics and economics. This often ignores the fact that indigenous people have their own traditions, knowledge, history and social issues going back thousands of years. An education out of context and delivered from a foreign point of view usually attempts to impose ideals and goals that are alien to people living outside of mainstream society. Many western organizations and missionaries believe that education is a way out of poverty and that the knowledge they bring is a gift to the less sophisticated. This colonial approach to education is ineffective precisely because it does not give weight to existing knowledge but rather sees it as something to erase for the sake of modernization.

The goal of education should not be to drive people to urban settings, thereby changing their value systems, cultural norms and traditions, but to use education to strengthen and uphold communities and give them the tools they need to manage and if necessary defend their way of life. Education should empower people to navigate a changing world effectively and successfully, to adapt to the extent necessary without sacrificing who they are as a people.

Education is circumstantial and environmental and cannot be delivered from the outside. It requires a grassroots effort that is geared to the specific problems challenging the community in question. We found that in most cases those communities seem to have their own ideas about what education should entail. Yet in many cases we have managed not to pay attention, instead choosing to implement education like a colonial directive, often damaging the delicate balance that exists in traditional societies. An education imported from far off cities or countries is often seen as intrusive, coercive and labeled as a tool of oppression. This serves to alienate the local population, increasing drop-out rates and backlash. We need to learn how to listen to people on the ground who are aware of the unique challenges facing their communities, and we need to address the problem as a whole.

Education can make a major difference in a person's life and in the path of a nation. I believe that if we educate one person we change a household, if we educate a dozen we change a community and if we educate a nation we change the world. It is time to revisit our intentions when it comes to education. Is it our place to decide what value system or aspirations a people should adopt? Is it for us to decide what society should look like in terms of its socio-economic structure? People have a right to live within their own cultural context and to demand equality. The true gifts of education are the freedom to live our lives according to the traditions and beliefs of our culture and the power to navigate and adapt to a changing world without surrendering who we are as people. Most people when given a choice want education, and use it to their benefit. Our goal for education must be to give people the tools they need to realize their own dreams and to protect their aspirations, not to urbanize, modernize and westernize.

Images and video from the project can be seen at: