Diversity and Democracy

Indigenous Peoples' Issues as Global Education: Theory and Activism in the Classroom

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 Peaks.

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 environment?

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 and politically.

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.


Leonardo J. Alvarado is an assistant professor of applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University and a legal consultant for indigenous communities in Central America.

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