More than 100 members and supporters of Colorado’s Native American community gathered August 2 at the State Capitol for an education-themed reception hosted by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who heads both the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA) and the Colorado Department of Education.
The meeting underscored a need to support stronger Native American education because only about half of Native high school students in Colorado will graduate, Carol Harvey, CCIA executive secretary, said.
“The message we’re trying to give is that education, tradition, history, culture are not mutually exclusive,” Harvey said. “You can keep your history, you can keep your culture, you can keep your tradition alive at the same time you’re receiving an education.”
Garcia announced a major campaign, “Celebrating American Indian Heritage,” to encourage American Indian education and graduation, employing meetings with education professionals, creating priorities within the school system, and using widespread posters and other graphics, including bookmarks and smaller versions of the posters showing students’ portraits and captions about staying in school, graduating and maintaining tradition.
Both Garcia and Harvey stressed the importance of tradition and Native roots. Garcia pointed to strong ties in Native New Mexico and Harvey said her Diné ancestors, who included medicine men, gave her access to traditional narratives that she sometimes tells young audiences.
“Many kids come from homes where parents themselves dropped out of school,” said Harvey, who pointed out that although her mother left school after the third grade she encouraged Harvey to continue her education, leading to advanced degrees that include a doctorate from the University of Denver.
Harvey hopes more Native students will hear her story and similar family histories that encourage them to stay in school and to also celebrate their heritage.
Garcia told Native business leaders last spring that Colorado’s educational attainment gap between minority and white populations is wide when compared to other parts of the U.S. and that unless there is change the state’s economic growth could suffer.
Representatives from the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes came to the reception, as did those from state government and others, including the Native American Rights Fund, Denver Art Museum, Colorado General Assembly, University of Northern Colorado, History Colorado, University of Colorado, and tribal and urban health, social services and education officials.
Brad Hight, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe vice chairman and attendee, said he is hopeful Native American students will continue to achieve, noting that increasing numbers are not only attending college locally but are going to University of California, Los Angeles, New York University, and other major universities.
The current campaign by the lieutenant governor and CCIA hopes to prepare both Native and non-Native students for 2014, when state standardized testing will include quizzes on Native American civics and history. Colorado has had an unfunded mandate for some time to teach American Indian culture and history in public schools, but most school districts have said they do not have the money to implement the program.
Among other initiatives is a proposal that the Ute language be taught for credit, joining Lakota and Navajo language programs that are in place in some public schools. In addition, alternative licensure could result in more Native American teachers in classrooms, while increased interest in higher education may be fostered through a college fair to be held in connection with a Tri-Ute Leadership Conference in mid-August.
It was announced that History Colorado is currently presenting Tribal Paths: Colorado’s American Indians 1500 to Today in the basement rotunda of the Capitol. It is an exhibit about the history and transmission of Colorado’s Native culture. The exhibit can be viewed from 7:30 a.m.to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through December 8.