The results have been in for some time and the conclusion is alarming: government-run schools have failed and continue to fail Native American kids from coast to coast. This is why I am concerned with a recent opinion piece by reporter Tanya Lee, Exploiting Native Kids: School Choice. I say this with the utmost respect for Ms. Lee and for Indian Country Today as an important media outlet servicing our tribal communities; At a minimum, the headline is inaccurate and does not capture entirely Lee’s article. Her report references a new documentary on the disparity of education for our Native children titled America’s Underdogs: Students in Crisis. I gladly participated in the documentary personally because I am a Navajo-born, Arizona State Senator who sees the education crisis in our tribal communities every day. Being raised on the Navajo Nation in Arizona and going to a BIE boarding school myself as a child, I understand first hand the struggle we have always faced --- and still face --- in educating Native children.
Photo by Bryan Eneas
After serving two terms in the Arizona State Senate and representing the largest legislative district in the country with eight different tribal communities, education has become a clear passion of mine. Over the last few years I’ve spoken at 22 high school graduations in tribal communities. I speak from experience when I say my story of having the right opportunities, which empowered me to obtain a masters degree, is the exception not the rule for the American Indian young adult.
At one graduation I spoke at this year there was a graduating class of 62 Native teens. Four of those kids were graduating with a GPA over 3.0. That means only four of those teens have a GPA high enough to afford them an opportunity to go to a post secondary education program. But what about the other 58 Native teens? What are their chances in life? The tragic facts are that American Indian teens have the highest dropout rate and highest rate of suicide as young Native adults compared to any other group in America.
America’s Underdogs features Tenai Tortice, a young White Mountain Apache teen who bravely tells his life story, the adversity he has had to overcome so far, and the bright future he has knowing he is already a voice and leader for his community. Hearing Tenai’s story clearly made Ms. Lee feel uncomfortable. I feel that her heart was in the right place and she was trying to protect Tenai but she unfortunately, in my opinion, missed the purpose of the documentary. The only way to fix a problem is to honestly and fully identify it first. Tenai’s story puts a real face and name to what we are facing: a crisis in tribal education.
Villainizing school choice is not a way to encourage our Native children to achieve a world-quality education. School choice is one way to put more education options on the table for Native families to use if they see their child failing. These are opportunities to have different kinds of schools, schools that resonate with our culture and heritage and are successful in teaching our children. Historically, our communities have had almost none of these K-12 education opportunities, and the majority of tribal communities do not even know what school choice is. We need to listen to our families and to create pathways for Native children to learn on their terms, so they can grow into happy, well-adjusted, successful adults. One big factor is making sure they are getting the education that is right for them and instills pride and self-worth. The documentary tells of the rich history, culture and traditions that many of our youth are fighting to reclaim through their education. There are great examples of this highlighted in America’s Underdogs. Two schools featured on the Navajo Nation, one a charter school and another a private school, are both producing great outcomes with their Native American students.
There is an important difference between “exploiting” our Native students and providing a platform for them to have a voice. Tenai has an important voice and message he shared with us through his participation in America’s Underdogs. I am incredibly proud of him and his tribal leaders for participating in this documentary, for speaking the truth in the hopes of finding solutions. The alternative to creating a voice is to stay silent, continue heading down the same road our tribal communities have been going down for years and get the same results of low graduation rates, hopelessness and high suicide rates.
Our Native American families deserve to have empowerment and options in their children’s education because education creates opportunity. As our brave Navajo Chief Manuelito once wisely proclaimed long ago, “education is the
Photo by Bryan Eneas
ladder” up for our people. I hope Tenai continues to tell his story to everyone who will listen because that kind of bravery exposes the truth, as uncomfortable as it may be for some people to hear, and forces change.
Carlyle W. Begay is a senator from Arizona.