Colorado has a law—largely ignored—that dictates the teaching of American Indian culture and history in public schools, but it is an unfunded mandate that most school districts have said they don’t have the money to implement, according to concerned parents and community members.
A state statute enacted more than a decade ago requires the schools to teach American Indian “history, culture and contributions” as well as that of other minority groups. and says that satisfactory completion of the subject is a condition of high school graduation.
Given Colorado’s 68 percent dropout rate for Indian students, several groups are marshaling forces to attack the public education shortcomings they say undermine the well-being of the Indian community, most of whose members are concentrated along the Rocky Mountain Front Range and in the Denver metro area.
Encouraged by successful Indian education programs in Montana and Washington state and by increased attention to Native history in Oklahoma and elsewhere, groups have been meeting to push for alternative teacher certification to increase the numbers of Indian teachers and a school curriculum that presents an accurate depiction of Native history and peoples.
“If kids can’t see a future for themselves, they aren’t going to be involved in school,” says Carol Harvey, Dine, executive secretary of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs (CCIA), who has been a major force behind proposed changes. She envisions billboards featuring Indian lawyers, scientists and teachers telling Native youth, “We want you to stay in school.”
Many meetings have been held, involving everyone from the state’s lieutenant governor, who heads both the CCIA and Colorado’s education department, to a visiting Ojibwe cultural consultant from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who recalled elders’ admonition that children need a sense of belonging, confidence, identity and purpose.
Rose Marie McGuire, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, head of Indian education for Denver public schools, is working toward an end to Native students’ being over-represented in lower-performing area schools.
Dr. Barbara Medina, assistant commissioner, Colorado Department of Education, with CCIA participation, is convening Native American round tables for metro Denver Title VII (Indian Education) grantees, educational institutions, and community members to collaborate on best practices for Native American students.
In a meeting May 3 of the Native American Advisory Council for the Center for Colorado and the West at Auraria Library, a collaborative inventory of “authentic Native American curriculum resources” and multimedia approaches were discussed by Mary M. Somerville, center co-director; Dana Echohawk, King Fellow at the center, Harvey, and others.
Ben Sherman, Oglala Lakota, on the advisory council, attributed the increased attention to Native education in part to a wider shift in appreciation for Native cultures, mirrored in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He notes that tourism can include both cultural education and economic development and he is working with tourism initiatives in Zambia and Chiapas, Mexico.
In addition are the efforts of Prof. Michael Welsh, of the University of Northern Colorado, in focusing on the experiences of Navajo and Ute peoples over the years and promoting the teaching of Native and American history, and the work of Title VII programs in public schools, described as under-funded but providing homework help and cultural projects for Native students.
Some educational materials have been developed by Echohawk and Sherman through the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, and the Southern Ute Indian and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes of southwestern Colorado have created online Ute history materials, while the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and other institutions have programs for Native student involvement.
Colorado has no Office of Indian Education because it has not been funded, Medina noted. A Commissioner of Indian Education in Colorado could, however, be a possibility, others said.
Meanwhile, change may happen at the local level, where school boards will be urged to use more dollars for Indian education and where, on the teaching side, educational materials will be promoted that can be easily integrated into existing curricula in “small bites of information” to make them teacher-friendly, proponents said.