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Accountability and sovereignty in American Indian education

In the 1830s, after being expelled from the southeastern United States, the
Five Civilized Tribes established an educational system that was the envy
of every civilized state. School systems of the Five Civilized Tribes
demanded accountability from students, teachers, parents and tribal
educational officers.

Before becoming a student, the youngster was informed that the nations were
going to invest some of their funds in his or her education and that the
student was expected to do his or her best in mastering the curricula the
schools offered. To ensure that everyone did their part, the nations
established a celebration at the end of the school year. Parents came to
the school and camped so they could participate in the doings. Teachers
were evaluated before they could be hired for the next year. Students wrote
compositions that they read and debated in front of tribal officials,
relatives and the public.

The tribal schools offered a basic education in English, literature,
language, mathematics, foreign language and citizenship. Academies for boys
and girls capable of doing advanced work were established. At the end of
the spring term families and tribal officials were invited to the schools,
where students recited the lessons they had learned.

When the governments of the nations were legislated out of existence, the
Five Civilized Tribes had produced more college graduates than the state of
Texas did - a record that might still be favorably compared today on a per
capita basis.

Today we have immense problems in education, but we do not have the
commitments from the colleges and universities, tribal governments or
students. We do not ask anyone to demonstrate what they have learned and we
are content to continue spending money to send students to college without
asking whether they are actually being educated; we ask only that they
continue in college.

Colleges and universities feel no responsibility to ensure that our
students succeed or graduate. Tribal governments do not feel the need to
demand progress reports from these institutions. Students feel lucky to be
in college and have little contact with tribal education committees.

If we continue to fail to come to grips with the question of accountability
in education, we become simply another donor or parent in the eyes of the
educational institution. The responsibility for success is placed wholly on
the student; and when the individual fails, we tend to place the blame
wholly on the student, thereby allowing the tribe and institutions to
escape responsibility. People forget that scholarships given by tribes and
contributions to colleges by tribes are the acts of sovereign nations.

We should not be standing hat in hand, begging to send our children to an
institution. We should be awaiting well-prepared proposals submitted from
colleges and universities describing what they can do for our students. We
have the power to negotiate with any entity to ensure the proper benefits
for our tribal members - and we should be doing that regularly.

Do we have any idea which colleges and universities are providing a good
education for our students? Do we have any figures on the track record of
these institutions? I know that the University of New Mexico, the
University of Arizona and Arizona State have reported large numbers of
Indian students for decades; but of these vast numbers, how many Indian
students actually graduated? Arizona State has had master's and doctorate
in education degree programs for 40 years or better, but how many Indian
students have actually finished these degrees at that institution? I would
venture to guess that the record is disastrous and embarrassing.

What do tribes expect when they grant scholarships to students? Or, more
importantly for the California tribes: After giving these large grants to
the California institutions, to whom do they report and what do they
report? To whom is the student or institution responsible? When a college
or university recruits an Indian student, does it accrue responsibility for
monitoring that student's progress? Many federal special services grants
are based upon the number of students to be served. When a census is taken
of Indian students on campus, do the figures reflect the number entering in
the fall or the number of students still in school at the end of the spring
term? How inflated are any of the numbers of students the colleges and
universities report?

Today some tribes are making major contributions to colleges and
universities with the expectation that they will provide special services
to the Indian students and the tribes. But how are these responsibilities
fulfilled? The University of California at Riverside once had an endowed
chair named after Rupert Costo given to support an Indian scholar. A
non-Indian presently sits in that chair. Was it impossible for the
university to recruit an Indian scholar; did it even try to find one? In
the last several years, Indian faculty at several California universities
have been pushed out the door. How does it affect the Indian students who
now must take Indian Studies courses from non-Indians? When, if ever, will
there be a good Indian faculty at some of these schools?

What is the role of the tribal government in education? Is it enough to
work with on- and near-reservation schools, even when they are Indian
controlled? Should they exercise some form of monitoring of student
progress? Should the tribe or tribal education committee provide an
evaluation of the colleges and universities to students considering higher
education? Must the student rely solely on the memories of friends and
acquaintances who may have spent a semester - or even six years - at a
certain institution?

Should tribal education committees provide information and news to its
students regarding developments on the reservation and opportunities they
might well fill? Does the tribe have any published goals describing the
projects and efforts it is making toward establishing self-sufficient
communities that would attract students to look to the reservation homeland
for employment after graduation? What kind of professional expertise will
the tribe need, and how will it inform students majoring in those fields?

What about those students who have never lived on the reservation and are
nevertheless listed as tribal members and receiving scholarships? Do we
have some way of bringing real Indian life into their experiences? After
receiving a scholarship from a tribe, does not the non-resident student
have some responsibility to connect with his tribe in cultural and social
ways that will create or help bolster his or her sense of Indian identity?
We have all kinds of people running around Indian country claiming
membership and making policy statements who have never lived on a
reservation and cannot quickly identify with a tribal community. Should we
provide small gatherings and seminars that bring knowledge of the tribe,
its history and present status, to these people?

Education conferences for decades have stressed methods of getting waivers
on federal rules for granting education funds. Isn't it time we devoted
considerable time and energy to finding the best way to ensure success at
the college and graduate level? Why are we sending people to college if we
have no way to encourage them to help build the tribe, reservation
resources and communities? Aren't we just allowing our best resource -
educated people - to slip away? Aren't we wasting money and lives under the
current system, where there is no accountability and sovereignty becomes an
empty slogan? Are we building nations or dissolving communities?

Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Sioux, is an internationally recognized
American Indian scholar and author whose work has embraced many fields,
including history, law and religious studies. He is a former executive
director of the National Congress of American Indians and a retired
professor from the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado.
Deloria is the recipient of the 2005 American Indian Visionary Award.