Indian education convention highlights message of hope to Indian youth

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SEATTLE – More than 2,500 Native American educators gathered from around the country to attend the annual National Indian Education Association convention. Held in the unusually sunny and warm city of Seattle, attendees had a chance to listen to famous author Sherman Alexie, listen to video messages from Presidential candidates senators John McCain and Barack Obama, named president elect Nov 4, participate in a Pow Wow, and share in a common mission of opening doors for Native youth through education.

Brooke Waite-Keller, Lummi, Site Manager for Northwest Indian College, called National Book Award winner Alexie’s speech “fabulous!” She said, “I really liked what he had to say about education,” and felt it was important that Alexie emphasized that in today’s world, and especially for Natives, “a high school diploma is not enough.”

During his keynote address, Alexie recalled that when he left the Spokane Reservation to go to school, he was often confronted by Indians, who asked “do you think you’re better than us? Alexie said that he would tell them, “No, we’re all better than this.”

Alexie also briefly waded into politics by predicting that the first female American President will be a Native American woman, a remark that drew plenty of applause.

The mood of the attendees was excited and optimistic. United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp had only high praise for the NIEA Convention and staff calling the choice of Seattle “a great location” and admired all of the local tribes “who turned out in great numbers, contributed wonderful food, dances, and prayers.” Overall, Gipp said the convention was a “great experience.”

Turning to federal Indian policy, Gipp called the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ return of $32 million in unspent money back to the Treasury “a fiscal crime.” He said that Indian country and Indian educators in particular, “really need to prepare ourselves for a new Administration,” adding that we should be working on transition policies “right now.”

Gipp also called for Congress and the new administration to revamp the No Child Left Behind law to provide more support and money for Indian schools in “critical areas where we know our children have not done well.”

The convention also featured a vast tradeshow that featured exhibitors from tribal colleges, major universities such as Harvard University and Penn State, as well as book publishers, political activists and Native artists.

Duane Reeder is a student and exhibitor for Penn State University who attended the convention to promote Penn State’s American Indian Leadership Program. Created in 1970, the leadership program provides Native American undergraduate and graduate students teacher and administration training, management skills and research study opportunities.

Well-known American Indian Leadership Program graduates include Dr. Gerald Gipp, executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and Dr. John Tippeconnic, program head and former director of the Office of Indian Education Programs for the BIA.

Reeder said that part of his mission at the convention is to recruit new students. Reeder himself is now a graduate student pursuing his Doctorate in Education and his goal “is to go back and work with the Navajo Nation Department of Education.” He added that the Penn State program can really open doors and said that he has already had offers from other tribes. Reeder said he “really enjoys working with statistics,” especially “cutting edge statistical theory, the kind of work that you might see in the television show ‘Numbers’.”

Danielle Guzman, a Nez Perce high school student from Idaho, offered a common assessment of why she came to Seattle for the convention. Guzman said that she was there to look at college programs and in particular for college programs that offer Native Americans support. She said she is interested in going into the nursing profession and from what she saw at the convention, Washington State University and Arizona State University “look pretty good.”

Guzman said she felt that speaker Brigham Young University administrator Howard Rainer’s “Voices of Leadership” address really hit home with the message “we are the next generation,” and “it really does come down to us to stay in school and go on to higher education.”

Publisher Anita Large runs Theytus Books, a Salish word she says means “preserving for the sake of handing to the future.” She says the fact that her company is committed to preserving knowledge, stories, and history “for our future generations.” Theytus publishes fiction, educational texts, research, poetry and children’s books, all aimed at Native audiences. “In our case, what we do is create a legacy of our living culture.”

That is a sentiment that pretty much sums up the larger meaning of the NIEA convention. When Sen. Clinton may have said that it “takes a village” to raise a child, she was really on to something. After attending the NIEA convention, you can’t help but leave with the feeling that it takes a people – that is, a collective push from teachers, publishers, recruiters, authors, college presidents and artists – to send a Native student to higher education and the world of opportunities beyond.