Skip to main content

Continuing the Kennedy family legacy on Indian education

WASHINGTON – Forty years ago, it was the recently departed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who asked to complete his brother’s work involving a survey of Indian education. Today, many Native Americans are asking Edward’s son, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., to continue his family’s tradition of service to Indians.

“We love you – everybody does,” Ryan Wilson, the Oglala Lakota president of National Alliance to Save Native Languages, told Kennedy at a recent gathering of tribal leaders at the Senate Dirksen Office Building on Capitol Hill.


Marcus Levings, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, presented Rep. Patrick Kennedy with a war bonnet that is intended to be displayed at the Kennedy Library in Boston.

The well-attended event, which featured speeches from admired lawmakers, including Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, marked the four decade anniversary of the famous Kennedy Report.

“We know you will continue the strong legacy of your family in supporting Indian education rights and other Native American issues,” Wilson said to a nodding Patrick.

The lawmaker was honored with the presentation of a war bonnet and several accolades from Indian educators and others.

“Your dad and his brothers meant so much to so many of us,” said Jack Trope, director of the Association on American Indian Affairs. “Thank you to you and your family.”

In 1969, it was the Rhode Island politico’s father who received thanks from many Native Americans for delivering the Kennedy Report to Congress, officially known as “Indian Education: A National Tragedy, a National Challenge.”

The elder Kennedy, who passed away in August, was completing the work of his slain brother, Bobby, by chairing a special subcommittee on Indian education of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.

Bobby Kennedy had been known for supporting Indian issues and campaigned on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota just before he was assassinated in 1968. Few national politicians before him had taken such steps.

The 60-point Kennedy Report ended up recommending increased Indian control over education, as well as a much improved federal school system for Indian education.

It also took aim against the failed assimilation practices of the U.S. government, saying the coercive policy had disastrous effects on the education of Indian children, resulting in classrooms as battlegrounds for many Indian students.

The report said the assimilation policy had ended up creating schools that failed to recognize the importance and validity of the Indian community, causing the community and its children to retaliate.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

“Those words are an inspiration,” said Colin Kippen, a Native Hawaiian educator. “In a perfect world, those words would never have had to be said.”


Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., attended a gathering celebrating the 40 years of work his father, recently departed Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., did for Indian education. Tribal leaders and politicians were in attendance as Patrick cut a cake to celebrate the day.

Wilson noted, too, that the report helped spur the National Indian Education Association, as well as a larger modern movement for tribal control of Indian education.

At the gathering of tribal leaders, which was planned to coincide with the Nov. 5 White House Tribal Nations Conference, it was widely apparent how furtively many Indians want Patrick to become a stronger voice on Indian issues.

“What Indian education really needs today is an individual like Robert or Ted Kennedy in Congress who truly understands and embraces full tribal sovereignty in education,” said John Echohawk, director of the Native American Rights Fund.

Patrick Kennedy, in turn, recognized the tribal leaders by saying he respects their nations’ sovereignty and hopes to continue strengthening the country’s nation-to-nation relationship with tribes.

“This is not an issue of partisanship – this is an issue of simple justice,” Kennedy said at the event.

He said it is important to recognize the report’s 40th anniversary because the goals of it are still to be fully accomplished.

“Its mandate still has not been fulfilled. That is why it reminds us to this day that we still have work to continue to do.”

He also noted how important it is for the U.S. government to fulfill its trust obligations to tribes.

Later in the week, Kennedy announced his decision to support legislation that would create a legislative fix to upend the February U.S. Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar.

The ruling found that tribes not under federal jurisdiction in 1934 cannot have lands taken into trust as can tribes recognized before that year.

Kennedy expects a fix to pass this session of Congress. To date, he is the only member of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to support a correction.

Many politicians and others in the state have expressed concerns about the Narragansett Tribe taking lands into trust. The tribe’s desire to do so spawned the Carcieri lawsuit.