Havasupai Children File Suit Against BIE for Failed Education

A group of Havasupai children and their families are suing the Bureau of Indian Education, saying they haven’t been provided with even a basic education.

A Group of nine Havasupai children and the Native American Disability Law Center (NADLC) have filed a landmark civil rights lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Education, alleging the federal government has failed to provide the children with even a basic education.

Havasupai Elementary is the only school in the remote village at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai Indian Reservation is an eight-mile horseback ride or a $170 helicopter ride from the canyon’s rim.

Havasupai Indian Tribal Chairman Don E. Watahomigie said on January 12, the day the lawsuit was filed, “The United States government confined us to this remote location. The United States government promised to provide a quality education to our people. The United States government has failed on this promise.”


The only subjects in which the school provides instruction are math, reading and writing. There is no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, arts or physical education, nor is there any culturally-relevant instruction. Staffing shortages cause the school to shut down for weeks at a time, and teacher vacancies are sometimes filled by people not certified to teach, such as the school janitor or secretary, or temporary staff who are there two weeks at a time, according to the lawsuit.

The school does not have enough textbooks or a library. There are no art or music classes, clubs or sports.

But even more outrageous is the fact that even though about half the students have been identified as having disabilities, Havasupai Elementary School provides no specialized instruction or accommodations. Special needs students are routinely excluded from school for as much as 80 percent of the time they should be there. They are often punished, and sometimes subject to law enforcement action, because of their disabilities, the plaintiffs allege.

Frank C., grandfather of one child on whose behalf the suit was filed, said, “Because of the BIE’s failures, Stephen is currently in the 6th grade but does not have basic skills or knowledge. He is struggling to read and write after spending nearly seven years at the school; he can barely write a sentence. He does not know basic facts about history or geography—recently, I was explaining to him and some other kids about the protests in Standing Rock, and I had to show them where to find North Dakota on a map.”

Failure spins out of control at Havasupai Elementary. In the 2012-2013 school year, students performed at the 1st percentile in reading and 3rd percentile in math. The school places last in both reading and math of all BIE schools, which themselves place near the bottom of schools nationwide in academic achievement. Only 20 percent of Havasupai Elementary School students graduate from high school, in contrast to 83.2 percent of high school students nationwide.

Alexis DeLaCruz, an attorney at NADLC, said in a statement: “Havasupai children lack even a fighting chance at achieving academic success and reaching their full potential” because of the failures at Havasupai Elementary School.

The lawsuit details how parents, tribal leaders and community members have tried for years to get BIE to improve education at Havasupai Elementary. “I have been fighting for my kids for years to get what they deserved in Havasupai. I sued the BIE once, I wrote letters to BIE officials in Washington, D.C., nothing worked,” said the mother of two of the plaintiffs.

Not only has the BIE broken its promise to the Havasupai, it has broken federal law in regard to both the education of Indian children and to the education of disabled kids, according to the lawsuit.

This image from 1972 shows children in the Village of Supai, which is part of Grand Canyon National Park. A group of Havasupai children and families are suing the Bureau of Indian Education for failure to provide a basic education.

This image from 1972 shows children in the Village of Supai, which is part of Grand Canyon National Park. A group of Havasupai children and families are suing the Bureau of Indian Education for failure to provide a basic education.

Carletta Tilousi, a member of the tribal council, emphasizes that the lawsuit is being brought by the children’s families, not by the tribe. “With that said, the Havasupai Tribal Council is in full support of the individuals and families that have finally taken a step up to request better education for our children in Supai Village,” she told ICMN.

The plaintiffs are suing BIE; Interior Secretary Sally Jewell; Lawrence Roberts, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs; BIE Director Tony Dearman; and Havasupai Elementary School Principal Jeff Williamson. They are not seeking monetary damages, but are instead asking the court to order the defendants to meet their responsibility to give Havasupai kids an adequate education in a culturally-relevant environment and to provide compensatory and remedial education for them.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs—NADLC, Public Counsel, and the law firms Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, and Sacks Tierney P.A.—are handling the case pro bono, with participation of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

This is not the only time the Havasuw `Baaja, the People of the Blue Green Waters, have filed a lawsuit seeking redress of a stunning injustice. In 2010, the University of Arizona agreed to pay $700,000 to tribal members and return blood samples they had collected under false pretenses and used for research not approved by the tribe or the donors. That was a landmark case and it led to significant changes in how medical research is conducted in American Indian communities, including contributing to the development of the concept of community-based participatory research where scientists respond to needs defined by the tribe rather than imposing pre-determined research priorities and procedures.

Neither the Bureau of Indian Education nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs would comment on pending litigation.