Seafaring Nomads: Sedentary Schools

Nomads and refugees – among the most marginalized social groups in this globalized era – expose tension between two otherwise-agreeable maxims: that all children have a right to a quality education, and that all cultures are valuable and deserving of respect. Movement complicates the politics of nations more now than ever (Appadurai, 1996). Education specifically has been used by governments to gain control over nomadic people via spatial, social, and cultural manipulation (Meir, 1986). Because common conceptions of education involve sedentary schools, the education provided to moving people is often hegemonic or neocolonial.

For centuries, the nomadic Bajau people have sailed the seas between what we now refer to as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines on houseboats of their own construction. Adept sustenance divers, they forage the sea floor for sea cucumber, fish, black coral and more, often spending over 60% of their working day underwater. On a single breath, the best of them can reach depths of 70 feet, stay submerged for five minutes, and see twice as well as we can (Lane, 2011; BBC One, 2018). These abilities were learned and transferred over generations, and have led to genetic adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive amphibiously (Ilardo et al., 2018). The Bajau are living proof that processes of human natural selection are still underway.

The Bajau are also being selected by nations and NGOs as recipients of educational aid. Indonesia, as a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), has sought to provide primary education for all children. Although these efforts are well intended, this presupposes the Bajau are not adequately educating their children, and in practice has prompted mass sedentarization of Bajau groups. Is the provision of education enticing or coercing the Bajau move to land? How are sedentarization and schooling changing the cultural practices of these people? How culturally responsive and sustaining (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Gay, 2000; Paris & Alim, 2017) is the education being provided to Bajau children?

As an alumnus of the Teach For America, Fulbright, and U.S. State Department English Language Fellows programs, I am thrice complicit in moving across cultural thresholds to teach. My experiences teaching and preparing teachers in Indonesia has prompted me to consider how decolonial teacher education (Dominguez, 2017) might predispose people in similar situations to adopt pedagogies that center indigenous knowledges and lifeways and might potentially sustain or even revitalize (Lee & McCarty, 2017) cultures threatened by rapid globalization.

To contribute to the understanding of development workers, government agents and interested others of how sedentary schooling impacts nomadic people and improve their teacher preparation programs, I intend to ethnographically study the experiences of teachers in a South Sulawesi Bajau community sedentarized just over a decade ago so I can learn about their conceptions of knowledge, the preparatory experiences, and their process of incorporating cultural learning into their pedagogy. Moreover, this study will explore models of schooling and culturally relevant education that have the potential to sustain nomadic existences.


Jonthon Coulson is a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University exploring efforts of indigenous communities to maintain their lifeways and ethnopedagogies in the face of epistemological global governance. Jonthon has spent six of the past twelve years teaching in Indonesia and the rest teaching in the South Bronx as an affiliate of the Fulbright, U.S. State Department English Language Fellow, Teach For America, Institute of Current World Affairs, and Fund For Teachers. He is critical of these organizations and his involvement in them; critique is an act of love. This poster prefaces doctoral fieldwork he intends to undertake as a Fulbright Hays scholar over the coming academic year. A collection of his writings can be accessed at

2 Responses

  1. Cinna Xin

    Great topic! As you mentioned that “The Bajau are also being selected by nations and NGOs as recipients of educational aid” I wonder if the educational aid provides any underlying education model? Or is aid purely financial? If there is no underlying educational framework, who decides what to teach?

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