Insufficient funding, dilapidated school facilities, impossible teacher retention, inadequate transportation, junk food, hunger, alcoholism, drugs, and little to no student confidence.
These are only a few of the contributing factors that bar Native American children from receiving a proper education, according to a report released November 30 by the U.S. Department of Education.
In accordance with President Obama’s 2009 memorandum requiring the federal government to consult and coordinate with tribal leaders, in 2010, Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with his senior staff, visited with tribal leaders, school administrators and Indian educators in six states to document their concerns regarding the plight of Indian education.
“To better serve Native students, we must collaborate with the people who know their students the best—tribal leaders,” wrote Duncan. “… This report documents what we heard during those consultations.”
All manner of complications were voiced in the more than 50-page testimonial: overwhelming drop out rates, buildings saturated with asbestos and lead, and a general disposition that the government is delinquent and inattentive regarding the quality of education in Indian Country.
Several tribal leaders accosted the Department of Education for a lack of action at the administrative level.
“The U.S. government has a trust responsibility to all the tribes. And from what I’ve seen, they’re partially negligent in that trust responsibility,” said Peter Garcia of the Ohkay Owingeh Nation.
A collection of tribal leaders reported that they desire better-suited school curricula for their students, specifically regarding indigenous language instruction. Many students don’t speak their native language, it was asserted, but they are eager to learn.
“Captain (Richard H.) Pratt used education to take away our language, culture and history,” said Tom Miller, Chippewa, superintendent of the Hannahville Indian School. “What we would like is for Obama to take education and use it to restore our language, culture and history.”
Colorado State Senator Suzanne Williams, a former educator and member of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators, said last week in response to the report that she will introduce legislation in 2012 that would certify Native language instructors.
“Native peoples’ languages are dying,” said Williams, a Comanche. “And when language dies so does the culture. I’m hoping that this bill will revive languages of native peoples and will thus stabilize the culture.”
Williams said she hopes the landmark legislation will be replicated throughout the nation to address the need for Native American languages in schools.
In addition to a restoration of native languages, the report also emphasized the need for more funding and less convoluted channels for financial distribution.
“The biggest thing, I think, is funding,” said Marnee White Wolf, principal of the Wounded Knee School District. “We are underfunded and until the funding comes in and the people here on the Pine Ridge Reservation are in charge of the money, I don’t think there’s going to be very many changes, and I think that’s the bottom line.”
Several of the tribal elders and school administrators in the report said that a lack of confidence and hope in their students is a significant concern. Although many are precocious and eager, others lack faith and aspiration.
“We must look at the reasons our students are not succeeding,” said Mary Brown, a teacher of the Standing Rock Sioux. “They live off muddy roads and can’t attend school if they can’t get to the road. … They are hungry and distracted.”
John Shotton, Otoe-Missouria, added, “I’ve got a tremendous amount of kids that graduate with GEDs working in my casinos (who) are very smart and very capable. They just didn’t’ see a future beyond working in that casino.”
“We need to do better,” wrote Duncan.
This was the first time in U.S. history senior members of the Department of Education independently organized consultations with tribal leaders to discuss the critical challenges that plague Native American education.
“Please let us know what the result of all this is,” requested Ivan M. Ivan, Tribal Chief of the Akiak Nation, “because I’ve been to many of these (consultations) over 40-some years and in most cases nothing happens.”
Visit the Department of Education website to read the full report.
Click here to read ICTMN’s story about Obama signing an executive order titled “Improving American Indian and Alaska Native Education Opportunities and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities,” which is meant to improve educational performance and options for Native American and Alaska Native students from early education through college.