Advocating for Indian Education

Native American educators spent February 13 to 15 in Washington, D.C. trying to make progress on Indian education legislation.

Native educators took to the nation’s capital in droves the week of February 13, trying to make legislative inroads on improving Indian education.

The push, part of the National Indian Education Association’s annual legislative summit, this year on Capitol Hill, asked not only for federal officials to fulfill obligations in this area, but also for tribal officials to do a better job at being advocates for Indian youth and their educational needs.

“What we do today, this week, and this year, is another path that builds the bridges between our children’s future and our ancestors’ past,” said Quinton Roman Nose, NIEA president, in his main address to a crowd of assembled educators from various tribal nations. “Our traditions already do this. Our stories already do this. Our songs already do this. Our ceremonies and dances already do this. Our languages do this.

“It is time, once again, for all of us educators to make sure that Native education builds these bridges as well, as it had always done for thousands of years,” said Roman Nose, of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes.

In a panel session during the summit, U.S. Bureau of Indian Education Director Keith Moore encouraged honed advocacy, saying that Native educators should move from asking just for resources to solving education gaps and gathering data-driven education reform. In that way, they can truly make the case for the reforms they want, he said.

NIEA’s main thrust is to get better federal commitments to Native students within the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which expired in 2007. While the current U.S. Congress seems unlikely to take this issue up this year, advocates continue to press the Obama administration and Congress to support the passage of the Native-friendly ESEA.

A top priority is passage of the Native Culture, Language and Access for Success in Schools (CLASS) Act, which would restructure the federal government’s role in Indian education, while empowering tribes to assume a greater role and responsibility in the education of Native children. “As a matter of right, why would Native peoples want their children’s education controlled by non-Natives?” organization officials ask in their 2012 briefing book, issued as part of the meeting. “As a practical matter, Native and local control will yield better results, both in terms of cultural vitality and in terms of student success.”

In total, the NIEA is seeking funding for tribal education departments and agencies; a mandate for more collaboration and sharing of data from the states and local education agencies; encouragement of tribal and state partnerships; and investments in cultural and language revitalization.

In addition, educators said that a strong corps of Native education professionals is needed to build up Native education. Along those lines, the organization is asking for more resources for professional development, salary increases, and other long-term employment incentives for Native education professionals, as well as expanded training and technical assistance programs.

Finally, the organization called on the federal government to continue to fulfill its trust obligation and make strong investments in Indian education programs in the fiscal year 2013 budget: “The trust obligation of the federal government to Native education is fundamentally different from ordinary discretionary spending,” the briefing book noted. “Unlike other areas, this legal obligation is deeply rooted in the U.S. Constitution, treaties, statutes, case law and other commitments made to Native peoples, largely in return for huge land cessions.”

Roman Nose said that federal support for Native education is not only a fulfillment of the trust responsibility, it is also smart policy because it strengthens Native communities, languages and cultures; empowers Native peoples to be self-sufficient; and yields a multi-fold economic return.

William Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, was also in attendance at the summit. An Oglala and Sicangu Lakota, he leads the Obama administration’s efforts to expand opportunities for Native students.

Mendoza said that only eight percent of Native students are served by BIE schools, which is why the Obama administration thinks it is crucial to aid urban Indian students. “Even if we gave all that BIE money to tribes, we would still only reach 40,000 students,” he said during a talk at the meeting.

When an NIEA member asked Mendoza whether BIE will be moved from U.S. Department of the Interior to the U.S. Department of Education, he noted that the Native CLASS Act includes a provision for study of such a move. He added that there would be tribal consultation on this topic.