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Cindy La Marr - A one woman tour de force for Indian education

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When it comes to the various issues surrounding American Indian education
in California it's hard to find a better expert than Cindy La Marr. Though
her official job title is executive director of the non-profit Capitol Area
Indian Resources, a position she has held since 1991, it does not even
begin to tell the entire story.

La Marr sits on a myriad of boards and has been a tireless promoter of all
facets of Indian education. Her activities have ranged from helping draft
President Bush's Executive Order on American Indian and Alaska Native
Education earlier this year to testifying before the California state
legislature on banning the use of the term "Redskin" as a mascot in the
Golden State's public schools.

Though these are big achievements for anyone, they are just the tip of the
iceberg in describing La Marr's work as listing her achievements and the
boards that she sits on could fill the pages of a small novella.

All of this is more remarkable coming from someone who had to overcome
serious obstacles just to receive an education. Raised in the remote
Northeast California town of Susanville, which La Marr calls a "very racist
place," the daughter of parents who went to Indian boarding schools and
never made it past junior high school, La Marr witnessed first hand the
barriers that American Indians have to overcome to get an education.

La Marr's father, who she describes as "an incredibly smart man," ended up
taking a job in the lumber mills and she wonders what his life would have
been like had there been educational opportunities for Indians in his day
and if Susanville had been different.

"The expectations [in Susanville] for someone like my dad were very low,"
recounted La Marr.

Tensions between Indians and non-Indians have been prevalent in Susanville,
which sits east of the Sierras and has more in common culturally with the
Great Basin than with the rest of California and is home to a state prison
which is the prime industry in the area. At one point the state of
California had to step in to stop a teacher from making racially divisive
comments, a story that was turned into a segment on the CBS television
newsmagazine 60 Minutes.

In fact at one point La Marr thought she was doomed to a life in
Susanville. La Marr found herself a single, teenage mother. She decided to
move to Sacramento in 1980 to pursue a degree in Social Work Administration
from the local California State University campus.

La Marr believes her background in social work has led her to understand
that Indian education "does not just exist in a vacuum" and must be dealt
with on several levels. What La Marr advocates is a more holistic approach
to Indian education that touches on all levels of American Indian society
and supports community-based programs that bring in people of all levels to
work with the kids and the schools.

"We need to be able to acknowledge and grieve together for the genocide
that has affected Indian people before we can move on."

One place where La Marr has helped this process is working on the
implementation of legislation that was enacted a few years ago to expand
the kindergarten through high school curriculum as it relates to California
Indians. The purpose of the legislation was to present a multi-faceted view
of Indians as contemporary members of society that would encompass civics
and literature as well as history classes.

This year, as part of a pilot program, an eighth grade civics class
curriculum will be implemented using volunteer teachers.

The program will seek to introduce junior high school students to the idea
of tribal sovereignty and where tribal governments sit in the apparatus of
governments in the United States.

Though she is proud of the work that has been done thus far, La Marr also
pointed out the difficulties associated with putting together such a
program. First, only $100,000 was granted by the state to fund the
curriculum, a sum that La Marr admits makes it difficult to address all of
the needs of such an ambitious program.

Also, the curriculum is non-binding and can only be introduced on a
volunteer basis by the state's teachers. The problem with this is that
individual teachers can elect to not implement the new curriculum, making
it a luck-of-the-draw scenario for California public school students.

La Marr worked with the then-Republican minority leader of the California
state Senate Jim Brulte on this and other issues. Her success was rewarded
in 2001 when she was named as the first Californian to be the executive
director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) which is the
largest Indian education advocacy group in the country.

It was through her work at the NIEA that she helped write the draft
language for President Bush's Executive Order on American Indian and Alaska
Native Education that was enacted last April.

The main point of the Executive Order was to make sure that the No Child
Left Behind Act is implemented on Indian reservations and schools and La
Marr is buoyed by the prospects of the Executive Order being strengthened
in the future. In what she describes as a "win-win" situation, La Marr said
she has worked well with the Bush administration on the issue and that she
expects strengthened support if either Bush re-elected or if voters decide
to replace him with Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry this November.

Recently, La Marr was tapped by the U.S. Embassy in Israel to go to that
country to meet with under-represented Israelis and non-governmental
organizations as well as speak at a civic seminar on education. During her
stay, La Marr met with various ethnic groups in the country while visiting
several cities and was moved by the plight of many in the country,
particularly Palestinians who drew parallels between their situation and
that of American Indians. La Marr reported that several villages had many
similarities to American Indians and that many tribes also had trouble
gaining recognition from the Israeli government.

Lori Nelson, who works with the Alliance Against Racial Mascots (ALLARM) in
Los Angeles has worked with La Marr on the mascot issue. Currently there is
legislation making its way through the California State Senate that seeks
to ban the use of the term "Redskins" from California public schools. One
of La Marr's many duties is a seat on ALLARM's steering committee.

Nelson said the thing that amazes her most about La Marr is how, despite
the various duties she has assumed, she was always available to the
organization and is one of the most tireless and helpful people she has
ever worked with.

"I'm always talking to Cindy when she is at some airport or running to
catch some plane, but she's always there, her commitment is so genuine,"
said Nelson.

Nelson also credits La Marr's dedication to Indian youth and said she has
been vital in organizing youth for the anti-mascot campaign.

La Marr concurred and maintains that she get her energy because of what her
work means to Indian children, who she pointed out fail in school more than
other ethnic groups and are more prone to addictions and suicide.

La Marr said she has not had a proper vacation in 12 years and uses much of
her vacation time to attend to her various duties. However, La Marr did
take a break when her grandson was born and stayed at home with him until
he went to school.

Though she has seen much progress La Marr points to her grandson as an
example of how much work still needs to be done.

"My grandson came home not too long ago and said 'Grandma, Columbus
discovered America, that's what my teacher said'," sighed La Marr.

If there is one thing that La Marr's grandson can count on, it is that his
grandmother is right person to tell him the truth.