An indigenous linguist, Abadio Green has demonstrated a viable and successful ethno-educational model within his Tule community, and is now ready to transfer it to other traditional cultures across Latin America.
The New Idea
At the center of Abadio's model for ethno-education is "madre tierra," or mother nature. Other educational models focus on the student as an object, always asking how to teach the students certain subjects and knowledge. This is not in accordance with indigenous mentality, which puts more emphasis on nature, its care and protection. Abadio, instead, asks how the student, in the process of learning these subjects, can come to love and respect nature. He conceives of students' education as a community process, including family, teachers, elders, and community wise men. The entire community assists in the design of curriculum appropriate to its indigenous populations, incorporating the local history and traditional knowledge passed down by community elders. Occidental educational models applied in Colombia do not value indigenous ancestral knowledge, but Abadio focuses on the knowledge of elders as the basis for educational curricula. He consciously combines local and traditional teachings with western studies in mathematics, language, and science, to provide a complete education which allows indigenous persons to move and function in both modern and traditional worlds. Due to laws to promote more effective educational models in Latin America during the past decade, many NGOs are implementing projects in bilingual education. Most such programs simply translate state educational materials into indigenous languages. Abadio believes that for true learning to occur, one must get to the essence of words by researching their roots to find their true significance. He is changing the system of instruction by teaching the heart of the language, instead of focusing on grammatical rules, theories, and phonetics. Abadio discovered that in language lies the key to a people's tradition and that the history of a population can be discovered in the words it uses. As indigenous languages do not have roots in other languages, he is using linguistic principles to recuperate the richness of indigenous languages and teach the traditions and history of ethnic populations. Because all indigenous languages have the same basic structure, this idea is easily replicated in other indigenous communities in Colombia and beyond. Although there are 8 indigenous linguists in Colombia, Abadio is the only one using the fundamentals of indigenous language to create curricula for indigenous populations.
With the Spanish invasion, formal occidental education was imposed on indigenous populations to civilize them, in effect destroying their culture. In the period since independence the Colombian state has not recognized indigenous values in the design of educational curriculum, but has instead promoted the teaching of occidental subjects in Spanish. Even bilingual reform movements have only achieved the translation of western curricula into indigenous languages. Official curriculum is usually designed in the country's capital, by policymakers with little or no contact with rural indigenous communities, relying on educational ideas from outside of Colombia. Educational materials do not approach indigenous reality nor incorporate ancestral knowledge that community sources such as elders, traditional authorities, and medicine men possess. Until recently, teachers were sent to rural, ethnically distinct areas with no preparation. The result is indigenous children who are taught in a foreign language, who cannot relate their studies to their real-world experiences, and who are not prepared to further their education beyond primary schooling. In Colombia, there are more than 1 million indigenous persons in more than 80 recognized ethnic groups. The population of Ecuador is more than 40% indigenous, while Bolivia's indigenous population nears 70%. While the majority of these populations continue to speak in their native languages, students are taught in Spanish. Indigenous populations across Latin America reach lower levels of schooling, have higher drop-out rates, and don't understand the Spanish-language materials presented to them. In the face of these statistics, Colombia passed laws in 1991 and 1994 for educational reform, requiring that education for ethnic populations should be bilingual, linked to the environment and productive processes, with appropriate curriculum and programs adapted to community customs. But the reforms remain largely on paper as the state has done little to implement changes in the education of indigenous students and has yet to produce appropriate educational materials. However, these new laws provide an opening for new educational models like that of Abadio, and allow more responsibility and opportunity for communities to plan their own educational experiences.
Abadio brings together teachers, parents, elders, and community members in meetings and workshops to design educational materials appropriate to indigenous children and recreate ancestral knowledge. He believes in the value of knowledge possessed by the "sabios," the older generation whose knowledge is often not written down, but passed on by oral traditions. These elders, as "depositories of knowledge," share important teachings to be incorporated into written educational materials, give classes to students in their areas of expertise, and form the fundamental basis of the model's curriculum design. After agreeing on the curriculum, teachers are trained to effectively transmit the information to students, according to their own indigenous languages and reality. Teachers are chosen by the community, and play the role of educational facilitators, taking students to the countryside for classes on botany, assisting them in constructing greenhouses, inviting community elders into the classrooms to share their knowledge and give courses, and coordinating relations between the students and community sources of knowledge. Along with his Tule community, located near Colombia's border with Panama, Abadio has designed a series of educational materials through six years of workshops, meetings, and studies in a Community Process of Curriculum Construction. He has produced a book on the Tule curriculum, explaining its fundamentals, the role of the school, and study plans for primary education. Subjects agreed to be of most relevant for Tule children combine occidental and traditional teachings and include subjects such as botany and traditional plants, Tule language and history, Tule and occidental mathematics, agriculture and caring for the earth, oral arts and weaving. The plan includes specific activities for first through fifth grades in each subject, mostly hands-on activities deemed important by the community such as talks with community elders to learn history, role-playing of traditions, and analysis of political documents. A workbook entitled "Mathematics as an Element of Tule Community Reflection" combines elements of occidental and Tule teachings, using linguistics and the root of words for a deeper understanding of numbers and logic. Numbers in the Tule language are based on and signify family and social units, and through them one is able to better grasp the Tule cosmology. The designs contained in molas, traditional Tule weavings, are used to teach spatial relationships and shapes. The other half of the workbook is dedicated to occidental mathematics and includes addition, multiplication, and proportions. The roots and underlying significance of words are used to teach not only mathematics, but important historical happenings and traditions as well. Abadio has already implemented this curriculum in one school in the Tule community, and is now ready to implement it in all schools in the Tule region of Colombia, his goal for the next year. The curriculum has been accepted as part of the educational proposal of the Association of Antioquia Indigenous Chiefs, as well as Antioquia's Secretariat for Education and Culture, which has asked Abadio to use this curriculum to train teachers in the entire state of Antioquia. As former President of the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia Abadio is putting more emphasis on educational processes and projecting his model to the national level. Witnessing the model's success with the Tule, other indigenous populations have invited Abadio to implement the same process in their communities across Colombia, including the Amazon, and Panama, which has a large Tule population of 80,000. The Minister of Education invited him to give a conference in Panama, and Abadio has already contacted the Indigenous Confederation of Native Populations of Western Bolivia. Through his position as the President of Colombia's National Indigenous Organization he has been able to present his model to all of Colombia's 84 indigenous populations. He is working with other indigenous linguists in Colombia to form a team to replicate his model in their communities.
Abadio's mother died during childbirth, which, according to Abadio, offered him the privilege of being raised by an entire community. He was brought up in the knowledge of community elders, especially his grandparents, one an intellectual politician and wise man and the other a pragmatic agricultural worker. Entering the university was a great shock but also a source of strength to Abadio, as he was the only indigenous student and he spoke Spanish differently from the other students. Abadio relates that the most important influences in his life were the teachings and knowledge of his grandparents, his opportunity to study both occidental and traditional disciplines, and his commitment to fight to save the culture of his people. Abadio has combined these three aspects to form the basis of his educational model. Abadio received his post-graduate degree in ethnolinguistics from the University of the Andes. He studied for six years with a community chief and wise man and is now, even at his young age of 41 years, recognized as a "sabio" within his community. He advised the educational committee of the Antioquia Indigenous Organization and was elected the organization's president in 1993. Later that year he was named president of Colombia's National Indigenous Organization. He will leave this prestigious position, and has rejected many opportunities, including the position of Vice-Minister for Education in Panama and a full scholarship to Harvard University, in order to dedicate all his time and remain focused on his new model of education for indigenous communities.