The Way Of the Elders and Great Civilizations: Reviving the Power of Tribal Education

Published by Andy Lai on


Within many different cultures, there are multiple ways that the culture teaches its own values to its citizens in order to turn them into people that are ready to engage with the world, whether it is from Asia or from the indigenous tribes in Africa, or even in the modern-day technologically advanced civilizations like Europe. However, out of all the civilizations that strive toward the best in creating moral human beings to meet the world’s needs and transform societal chaos into order, the indigenous cultures did the best. However, how does such culture manage to teach its people to become people of tolerance, acceptance, intimacy, passion, and power?

First, the tribe teaches its people to experience the world rather than just passively listen to the teachings of its values. Through experience and contemplation, the individual shall connect with the nature they are learning from, in ways that connect their actions and intentions.

Keywords: tribalism, indigenous, culture, psychology, education, initiation, contemplative, contemplative education, tribal education, learning


Throughout the history of Western education, one can find that the educational approaches and philosophies, from Montessori to Waldorf, to even Dewey, all play an important element in shaping the modern world and its people. However, the problem with each of the approaches is they address parts of the human development, or an aspect of it, but not its multifaceted totality. In looking through the whole human history, I found the education system of tribal cultures to be the most comprehensively complex but promising approach which fulfills the need of a modern human society and its members today. The reasons the tribal cultural education system is effective are: (1) it maximizes the use of relationships within the tribal system created by its members (the teacher or elder, students, parents, and other community members inside and outside the tribe); (2) it addresses and utilizes all the techniques found in Western cultures in aiming towards the goal of connecting the student to the world, and its realities, through the help and guidance of the teacher and the student’s surrounding community members (or networks); (3) it gives the student the totality of the learning experience through taking advantage of the surrounding environment the tribe lives in; and (4) it allows the contemplation of what is being learned by all members to be used as tools for reflection, like the arts and documented artifacts (eg. the use of animal bones in Europe around 10000 years ago as tools for oracles and consuming psychedelic plants). What are the elements the tribal education utilizes for education?


The first element of a successful teaching philosophy, I discovered, is the relationships between the student and the parties, consists of parents, teachers, and all community members within and without the tribe,  involved must be strong.In order for the student to succeed in absorbing the learning process and applying it for their own survival, it is crucial if

Teaching in tribal societies is performed by biologically related, caring, and deeply invested elders, one in one or in small groups [where] attachment-based apprenticeships, learning is interwoven with the behaviors and biochemistry of bonding. In tribal societies, teachers and students are bound together in affection, kinship, and mutual survival… Tribal teachers are also well aware that as they age, they become dependent on their students for sustenance and survival… students and teachers join together to gather food, solve physical and social problems, and defend the community against external attack. The curriculum is guided by the practical tasks of daily life and the evolving needs of the community. (Cozolino, “The Social Neuroscience of Education”, 9)

Why is this the best environment for students to learn within a natural environment by having a teacher that they are familiar with?  One sees the bonds each member established with his or her tribal members within the context of a larger organization benefits the first the community’s sense of belonging because members can identify with the most rather than being stuck with a concept that is more abstract than himself or herself (Cozolino, “The Social Neuroscience of Education”, 8) and second, if used in a tribal classroom, satisfies the student’s sense of familiarity with groups he or she knows throughout his or her childhood (which gives birth to collaboration and friendship within the student). When students have a person whom they can trust, they are more than likely to learn about the tribal way of life more easily than if one were to hire a teacher that is outside of the tribe.   Thus,  it enhances the students and the members chance of survival where the stakes are high on the member’s abilities to learn and navigate through nature’s resources. Looking externally for the teacher-student relationship, one can find how the learning relationship, when put within the context of survival where the students, teachers, and community members learn and collaborate with one another to the point everyone’s knowledge benefits from one another rather than one member receives the benefit, promotes the virtue of generosity and gift economy where one would not see in an industrial nation, where the norm is to  impart knowledge to all members with implications the members lack knowledge and needs to learn from experts who have “higher” knowledge.  

When one looks further into how the structure of the tribal education works, one sees how the sharing of information comes first through the process, according to Cajete’s model, of asking (where the students inquire about the teachings that nature or one of the tribal members within the community ask), seeking (where the students then learn about the subject), making, having (the students learn about the impact of the knowledge they are learning), sharing, celebrating, and being. (Roy et al, “An Indigenous Approach to Creating a Virtual Library of Education Resources”) Thus, this form of sharing information not only allows the student to cover information about spirituality, but also about ecology, environmentalism, psychology, and many other subjects (which are all taught by an elder and is taught within the context of the settings it is from) while allowing the students to make personal connections with the land, the tradition, and the knowledge the tribe gives to the students through an interconnected web of relations. (Labelle, “Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Curricula”)  Because of this, when the relationship is strong, the approaches and techniques one uses to facilitate the student’s learning process will become effective. Through establishing techniques which align with first the student-teacher relationship and the student’s inherent knowledge-base, the tribal education multiplies and amplifies the student’s learning experience by acknowledging the whole of the student’s human experience and maximizing their potential in every possible manner. If one were to aim towards connecting with students, how should the techniques be used when it comes to foster such emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual intelligence among the students in the tribal school?

The rule of thumb of using the technique in a teaching setting within a tribal nation is to ask the question “how does it encourage the learning process of the student within the context they are learning?” Given the definition of education as a tool where

[the teacher] practice both “child-centered” liberatory pedagogy and a socially responsive approach that awakens our liberated students to the realities of suffering, oppressions and violence. Free must not mean carefree. Self-directed learning must not mean self-contained. There is, surely a tension between these two goals or styles of education, a tension which breaks out into fierce resentment sometimes. Yet holism is not whole without holding this tension. Contradictions and paradox are inherent in the cosmos, and we cut ourselves off from wholeness when we seek to short-circuit this tension by elevating one dimension over the other. This, in fact, is precisely the function of ideology – to resolve the tensions and ambiguities of life through an arbitrary and often ruthless suppression of opposing perspectives. Holism is the remedy for ideology (Miller, “Education for a Culture of Peace”)

In addition, education, as a tool, “extends beyond techniques of negotiation and conflict resolution, beyond multicultural and anti-racist curricula, even beyond spiritual practice… and is a powerful tool for personal and cultural transformation,” (Miller, “Education for a Culture of Peace”), one can find how the tribal education is the perfect sense of such education because it extends beyond the need for a set curricula which the person must follow by age and skill but instead reinforces the idea that one will learn for life and never stop learning.  Thus, because of the fact that education is without limits, one should utilize all the tools that are created through both the ancient times and modern times to bring about transformation within the young children one teaches. In one example, if a child were to need organization and a place where they can scaffold their own learning abilities, then the environment should be organized to help the students learn and organize in ways that makes sense to them, like what one sees in a Montessori education since concentration is a part of helping the child attain the social and cognitive skills needed to function in a demanding and dangerous environment (Lillard, 102-106). When the child becomes active and under high stimulation by the surrounding environment, the child must have an education that tailored towards such need, like what one sees in a wilderness school. Thus, in a tribal education, everyone has a role to play in shaping their own and other’s education. Through having such diversity along with the sense of identity among the group, the tribe will become a thriving place for everyone where everyone’s learning abilities and skills contribute to the well-being of the society they live as the tribe support each individual within the tribe. Due to such freedom and leadership, the students become their own teachers as teachers give their students a chance to shape their own knowledge over time, through refining old knowledge, acquiring new skills, or other means of connecting oneself to knowledge.

After the students have time to learn in the classroom, they teach their younger siblings and students about what they learn, and engage with the outside world by applying their personal knowledge, it is then the students needs time to  grasp the totality of the concept he or she has learned and its contexts and application so that they can connect the concept in ways that are meaningful to them through various contemplative approaches that foster further curiosity and connection. Through such cultivation of connection, the students are initiating themselves into the mystery of nature as it unveils more knowledge the students have not known before. Dewey once stated

The primary ineluctable facts of the birth and death of each one of the constituent members in a social group determine the necessity of education. On one hand, there is the contrast between the immaturity of the new-born members of the group — its future sole representatives — and the maturity of the adult members who possess the knowledge and customs of the group. On the other hand, there is the necessity that these immature members be not merely physically preserved in adequate numbers, but that they be initiated into the interests, purposes, information, skill, and practices of the mature members: otherwise the group will cease its characteristic life. Even in a savage tribe, the achievements of adults are far beyond what the immature members would be capable of if left to themselves. With the growth of civilization, the gap between the original capacities of the immature and the standards and customs of the elders increases. Mere physical growing up, mere mastery of the bare necessities of subsistence will not suffice to reproduce the life of the group. Deliberate effort and the taking of thoughtful pains are required. Beings who are born not only unaware of, but quite indifferent to, the aims and habits of the social group have to be rendered cognizant of them and actively interested. Education, and education alone, spans the gap. (Dewey, “Democracy and Education”)

In one perspective, the experience the members have play a role in helping maintain the survival of the clan. Although this may create hierarchies and discrimination among the members about people whom have more skills than the people beneath them, I believe when the society is found by the foundation of compassion, the society itself will seek to bridge the gap between the inexperienced member and experienced members. Thus, this born the innate need for education where it first supposed to respect the inherent right for all members to be citizens of the society while allowing the member to experience his or her own innate being as they unfold their own learning journey. From another perspective, in Dewey’s point of view, one can find that knowledge one attains is through the experience of the manifestation and not through just the words the teachers spoke along with the students’ collaboration. It is through the students putting their sense of being into the situation the student will know not only the information given but also the connection it creates within the student. Thus, when such connection is needed to be established, one must allow it to be fully experienced through contemplation, such as meditation and journaling so that one can see the situation more clearly.

When the students have the chance to hear and understand the experience from the teacher and put their own being into the experience, the students will grow tremendously as human beings and will gain experiences in ways that one cannot find in a traditional public school setting. First, through relationships and teaching the concept within the environmental context they are in, the students will not only gain the security they need to learn but also the connections they can naturally observe through their own senses. Second, through using the tools given by ancestors and even by educational theorist with a clear vision in mind, the teachers and students can accelerate such connection through their personal knowledge of themselves and others. Lastly, through contemplation, the students and teachers can have the time to re-examine and rejuvenate the concept they have learned in ways that are meaningful to them so that the cycle of learning continues again in the future.

Reflecting on how and why the tribal education (1) creates and utilize the student’s relationship intimately to a degree the students feel safe and can seek refuge in the school; (2) utilizes all aspects of learning to benefit all community members involved; (3) respect and respond to the environment as part of the learning process; and (4) allow time for members to contemplate their own research, I see the main vision such education offers to postmodern mind is to first create members who can transformative themselves and the world and second leaders who are leading edges in responding to societal change and progression. Like ecosystems depending on one another for existence, through creating such members in society who is aligned with both their inherent nature and surrounding environment will society thrive as the Earth the society depends on thrives.When the human society seeks to destroy and compete against the “eco-society” it is in with the domination mindset, the “eco-society” not only withers but so does the human society itself withers. On a microscopic level, when each member learn to first see themselves as part of the greater whole while, at the same time, discovering their own identity within the whole, the member will see they are a part of the larger whole (which then leads the members to social responsibility for themselves and others) and co-leaders and creators (which leads the member to find ways to contribute according to what they can offer or the skill that calls out to them most).


So how does one apply the teachings of the tribal education towards the classroom? When the students desire to enter the classroom or the tribal school, the students must go through a preparation face within the school system,  where does student get accustomed to the tribal culture and the interactions between oneself and the tribe.  this can happen through preparation courses similar to the First year Seminar course at Naropa University, where the courses  seek to promote first awareness of diversity among the tribal members whom the students will be interacting with during their time at the school,  and second work ethics that pushes the students to contribute to the value of the tribe.  the first observing how the child or the student interact with the tribal members and his expression of his or her own self,  the elders then decide whether to take the further action of admitting the student or not or helping the student find other options best suited to the student’s interest and desires. When the child or student is admitted, the student then goes through a rite of passage or initiation. Brings them and the track together in the sense of intimacy.  Through such rituals,  the students can relate to the tribe better and are able to make meaningful connections as he or she goes through his or her Learning Journey.

Upon entering the classroom, the student then proceeds into seeking guidance on mapping his or her own learning journey,  either by designing courses that suit his or her needs or learn from a teacher that has the better experience in what he or she is learning.  First, the classroom will not be a traditional classroom one sees in a traditional school,  it’s dead, they will most likely be in the forest or any setting the students can relate to nature the most since it reduces the stress level the students have to endure in comparison to a traditional classroom.  second, the lesson plan will be based upon the environment that it is not within the context of and it search the survival of the tribal classroom. Thus, one can find that when you enter a tribal classroom that teaches about agriculture, one will find the students will be out working in the fields, gardening a forest garden, or even gathering edible foods.

However,  when the student is in the classroom,  he or she is learning the skills or knowledge that he or she is designed to learn.  the person who will ultimately challenge the student the most is their “tribal teachers” (almost equivalent to homeroom teachers or primary teachers that give emotional and intimate support to the students).  In being a “tribal teacher” until the student is ready to make independent choices, the tribal teacher’s role is to build the child connection towards the subject he or she is learning as one is growing with the child along with surviving with the child’s understanding of the world. It is through such intimate connection that allows the child to maximize their growing potential other than their connection with their parents.

When the child is finally ready to graduate from the tribal school, the student must first pass through an initiation test where they must survive with the knowledge they have learned in an environment that  put all their skills to good use, such as hunting a buffalo and try to feed the tribe or to survive in the wilderness with a small group of people for weeks.  in doing so, it teaches the child resiliency and other important skills that is not hot in the classroom.  once the child be able to survive through such tests  and have presented their knowledge to the  Council of Elders and other tribal members, the student is  been given a rite of passage where they become graduating students that are ready to leave the tribe and become an independent member that can not only be entrusted with the power to create his or her own tribe but also to teach others the ways of the original tribe. If the student, after their rites of passage, decided to stay to teach or to learn more, the tribe will continue on such process through its higher education where the students get to learn the mysteries of the knowledge they learned rather than to just apply what they learn towards their survival like  what they learned as young children.

In looking at both the education for minor tribal members and the education for an adult member,   people will notice that bold educational structures have a similarity:  the teacher and student exchange information through their learning process instead of only the teacher can transmit the information to their students.  it is through such intimate communication that allows the tribal education to thrive.


Cozolino, Louis J. The Social Neuroscience of Education. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Labelle, L. (2003). Integrating aboriginal perspectives into curricula: A resource for curriculum developers, teachers, and administrators. Winnipeg: Manitoba Education and Youth.

Lillard, A. S. (2005). Montessori: The science behind the genius. New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, R. (n.d.). Education for a Culture of Peace. Encounter, 16(1). Retrieved April 10, 2016.

Roy, L., & Larsen, P. (2002). An Indigenous Approach to Creating a Virtual Library of Education Resources. D-Lib Magazine, 8(3). doi:10.1045/march2002-roy


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