Commentary—Unique Identification for Unique Talents

Winter 1995 Masthead

A review of Identifying Outstanding Talent in American Indian and Alaska Native Students

Bruce N. Berube
The University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT

In their book, Identifying Outstanding Talent in American Indian and Alaska Native Students, Carolyn M. Callahan and Jay A. McIntire provide a comprehensive overview of some of the key issues involving the identification of these two populations. The central question that the book attempts to answer is: What are the specific techniques that should be employed to recognize the gifts of students from these two groups? Due to a lack of research into the appropriate identification techniques for Alaska Natives and American Indians this question is difficult to answer. The authors do, however, provide many general suggestions as to how the identification process can be substantially improved.

The crux of the argument for more appropriate identification techniques is based on research which suggests that American Indians and Alaska Natives are severely underrepresented in gifted programs throughout the country. As the authors point out, the “average national rate of public school eighth-grade students’ participation in programs specially designated for gifted and talented students is about 8.8 percent. The American Indian/Alaska Native participation rate is only 2.1 percent” (p. 3). The question that arises is: Why are American Indian and Alaska Native students not being selected for participation in gifted programs? The authors believe the answer to this question is that the procedures used to identify the majority of gifted students do not recognize the unique and varied talents of these two minority groups.

Before considering some of the suggestions presented for identifying the gifts of American Indian and Alaska Native students, it is necessary to point out the issues that are of concern in dealing with students from these two populations. Not only are these two groups distinct from the majority of American students, but there is great diversity within each group that needs to be considered. This diversity stems from the following four areas:

  1. Geographic location: Students who live in rural, isolated areas often have little knowledge of what is expected of them from the mainstream culture that they find in school. Students raised in urban areas may not experience this difference.
  2. Tribal differences: The traditions and customs, as well as the language spoken, often varies from tribe to tribe.
  3. Schools attended: Most American Indian and Alaska Native students do not attend special reservation schools. In most public schools they are a minority population. They often have a different first language and have many unique experiences and modes of expression which make it difficult to recognize their talents.
  4. Cultural and social orientation: Students in these two groups may reflect various degrees of familiarity with the mainstream culture, ranging from being well acculturated to quite traditional in their cultural heritage.

Before beginning the identification process, the authors stress the importance of clearly defining what is meant by giftedness. They rely heavily on the definition of giftedness put forth by the U.S. Department of Education (1993). The characteristics they feel are important to recognize in gifted students include “intellectual ability, creative or artistic talent, leadership capacity, or excellence in specific academic fields” (p. 6). While these characteristics allow for a variety of talents and abilities, the authors point out that many definitions of giftedness often conflict with the beliefs and values of a particular tribe. Many tribes are against labeling students as gifted because this tends to separate them from other tribal members. A mesh between tribal identity and scholastic expectations must be reached in order for these students to be successful.

Eight general principles are presented to help educators identify the broad range of gifts and talents that may be exhibited by American Indian and Alaska Native students. It should be emphasized that these recommendations are “general” in nature. This seems to be both good and bad. The recommendations provided can be applied to almost any subgroup of gifted students for which a broad and flexible range of identification techniques may be necessary. On the other hand, the principles should be more specific in order to provide for the unique needs of subgroups of the Alaska Native and American Indian populations. It should be noted that so little has been written on this topic that even general recommendations that provide a basic framework for later research into identification techniques are greatly needed.

Instead of explaining each principle in detail, I will comment on the central themes that run through the principles. First and foremost, the authors recognize the need for a broadened conception of giftedness which takes into account a wide range of talents and abilities. The authors cite the work of Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg as particularly relevant in this respect. It is important to realize that many of the talents and gifts exhibited by American Indian and Alaska Native students reflect the culture of the tribal community in which they are raised. This may be particularly noticeable in music and art. Separate identification procedures need to be developed that are “contextually relevant” and grasp the true nature of the gift that is revealed. American Indian and Alaska Native students should not be lumped together as a general population, but regarded as an amalgamation of a diverse variety of subgroups.

To illustrate the unique talents of these two groups, the authors provide many examples of poetry and art produced by American Indian and Alaska Native students throughout the book. In fact, the art work on the front cover, designed by Vic Runnels, was a product of his son’s inspiration. According to Runnels, his son Jason came up with the idea in kindergarten when asked to draw a turkey using the shape of his hand. Instead of drawing a turkey for Thanksgiving, Jason “drew faces in the fingers, people in the palm of the hand, eagles and suns in the sky, and fish in the water” (p. 76). When asked what the drawing represented, Jason stated it was “The Great Spirit watching over the earth” (p. 76). This certainly shows the unique gifts and talents that many students possess.

Some of the particular identification instruments that the authors recommend include parent, teacher, and community rating scales, and portfolio assessment. I believe portfolio assessment would be particularly useful, because it stresses the need to evaluate student products. This allows the identification to be appropriate to the unique talents that may be displayed by a particular student, from a particular tribe, at a particular time. Although the techniques mentioned above may be useful, it is stressed that no one form of identification should be used exclusively. Just as there are a broad array of talents, a wide range of identification procedures need to be used to identify these talents.

Even though the principles provided are general in nature, the authors do a good job of listing many of the characteristic behaviors and traits that are exhibited by particular groups of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Implications for identification based on these behaviors and traits are then provided.

Overall, I found the book quite informative. The authors skillfully emphasize the need to recognize the great diversity among these two groups and the multiplicity of talents that can be revealed by the members in them. I would have liked to have seen more specific recommendations, but as the authors point out, research in this area is just beginning.

U.S. Department of Education. (1993). National excellence: The case for developing America’s talent. Washington, DC: Author

A Review of Identifying Outstanding Talent in American Indian and Alaska Native Students by Carolyn M. Callahan and Jay A. McIntire, ©1994, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC


Back to Newsletter Articles Page