Indigenous Peoples’ Issues as
Global Education: Theory and Activism in the Classroom
By Leonardo J. Alvarado, assistant professor
of applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University
and legal consultant for indigenous communities in Central
Leonardo J. Alvarado
In recent years the long-neglected demands of the world’s
indigenous peoples have garnered increased recognition.
The United Nations Human Rights Council recently approved
a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which
is still waiting to be approved by the General Assembly.
Bolivia elected Evo Morales as its first indigenous
president in 2005. Native American tribes in northern
Arizona went to court and have so far successfully delayed
the expansion of a ski resort on their sacred San Francisco
With the media coverage surrounding these and other
events, “indigenous issues” are becoming
more prominent topics of national and international
discussion. But what exactly are “indigenous issues”?
How can faculty members address these issues in an educational
Educating for Social Change
Educating about indigenous peoples is more than narrating
past events of colonization and genocide. It is discussing
living communities, in the U.S. and throughout the globe,
that have distinct cultures, languages, and forms of
social and political organization. Whether organized
as reservations, communities, or pueblos, indigenous
peoples demand a voice in national government and education.
Far from seeking full integration, they insist on respect
for their collective rights as a people, their continuing
spiritual and cultural connections to ancestral lands,
and their autonomy and self-determination. In response
to their voices, educational institutions have a responsibility
to properly inform the global community about the growing
worldwide indigenous movement.
Higher education has begun to change in this direction.
Many U.S. universities have established Native American
and indigenous studies programs, and more indigenous
students and faculty throughout the world are entering
universities. Indigenous faculty and students do not
often passively observe the indigenous issues covered
in the classroom. Due to their strong personal connections
to indigenous communities and issues, these faculty
and students are transforming indigenous studies into
a more socially active discipline. This social involvement
is a hallmark of the Applied Indigenous Studies Program
at Northern Arizona University where I teach.
Social Activism in the Classroom
Social activism begins in the classroom, where it is
first imperative to educate students about the continuing
threats to indigenous people’s cultures, physical
survival, and self-determination. Faculty members must
then frame class discussions to encourage students to
get involved and do something about those issues. This
is where university studies in law, environmental science,
or public health can improve conditions for indigenous
communities through civic engagement.
Students must consider the voices and writings of indigenous
peoples themselves. If possible, students should have
the opportunity to listen and speak respectfully with
indigenous community leaders about their perspectives
on their history and solutions to their current problems.
By fostering these conversations, interaction with indigenous
communities and organizations outside of the classroom
can also be a source of positive change.
As an instructor, I apply a model of classroom learning
and activism. In the classroom, I emphasize how laws
and policies have affected indigenous peoples in the
past and present. I also argue that indigenous traditional
knowledge and culture, combined with mainstream education,
can help revitalize indigenous nations economically
I also use a comparative approach to help my students
understand indigenous cultures in the U.S. Using real-life
examples taken from my human rights legal work in Central
America, I help my students, many of whom come from
Native American reservation communities, relate the
experiences of indigenous peoples in Central America
to their own contexts. I then encourage them to formulate
solutions to the problems they and other indigenous
peoples face as they try to protect their own cultures,
territories, or sacred sites.
Indigenous studies must combine classroom theory with
activism. Education can become a tool to further the
aims of community and tribal economic self-sufficiency,
sustainable development, and self-determination.