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International Indigenous education connection eyed

RAPID CITY, S.D. - An international Indigenous gathering of educators is a possible vehicle to develop a strong system for higher education.

Members of the Maori from New Zealand came to North America to meet with members of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and discuss education, the digital divide and developing an international organization on education to improve education.

Rongo Wetere Turnaki, chief executive officer of Te Kuratini o Nga Waka, one of three Maori colleges in New Zealand, and Trevor Moeke, CEO of the Te Mangai Paho Broadcasting, recently toured the facilities of Sinte Gleska University and of Oglala Lakota College.

"We saw some wondrous things about how they are using technology to reach across the reservations to the communities and have people interacting in electronic classrooms. We saw some amazing stuff. People can get educated without leaving home," Moeke said.

Next year many of the tribal college presidents from North America will go to New Zealand to learn from the Maori college system. The three Maori colleges have 11 campus sites on the island. The visitors said 80 percent of the Maori people are under the age of 30 so education is important for the people. Moeke said they do have a great emphasis on language and cultural education.

"We would like to develop agreements about future exchange of students and faculty and ideas, especially now that technology is available. We can build the culture and the language."

A year ago in Hawaii, the New Zealand and North American college officials met at the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education. The meeting in America was the result of that Hawaii conference. The tour of the South Dakota campuses came at the end of a two-day conference designed to plan for the initial international exchanges of faculty and students.

Moeke said what he learned during visits to the two universities is the way technology is used to reach and teach in the communities. Before the visits, the two were in Palo Alto, Calif., meeting with companies about technology in education. Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies and other technology providers were among those in attendance.

"We came up with these visions and ideas and through negotiations we came up with these strong ideas about getting the colleges together with some of these people. Some of the things we came up with were establishing digital libraries to share cultural information.

"We have a strong broadcasting language archive with much ideas about music. We have a growing academic tradition that's written. Material like that forms a body of knowledge that needs to be shared," Moeke said.

He said they are interested in the accreditation systems used by the North American colleges in addition to the technology.

The Maori colleges, though not as far in land distance from each other, need to be connected to form distance-learning classrooms throughout the communities. Moeke said the colleges lack the equipment to now put that into place. There are computers on the campuses, but hooking them up to create interactive classrooms, like on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations, is not possible in New Zealand at this time, Moeke and Tumaki said.

"In terms of our education initiative, we are somewhat younger than what you have in the states, here. You have colleges that are 30 years old. We've only been fully operational since 1993, so we are relatively young," Moeke said.

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He added that although the colleges have degree programs, what is most important is to assess each student's level and progress from that point. Over the years, the Maori have been victims of a poor early education system and to catch up and provide skilled people for the employment market, the colleges must fill in some of educational gaps for the students. The unemployment for the Maori people averages 20 percent with a some communities at 30 percent.

"We try to overcome the depressing situation of unemployment," Tumaki said.

To get the schools financially functional, the administrations had to "take the crown to task," Moeke said. "The capital costs of the facilities have never been provided by the crown. And we won the court case and it has shifted."

This means that equipment for the technology to close the digital divide for the Maori colleges will be made available.

When the tribal college officials from North America visit New Zealand they will experience the bilingual training of teachers, Tumaki said.

"The teachers can go out to the schools and help with the retention of the language. We start with kindergarten and we have total immersion schools.

He said protecting the culture is important and holds a special place in the education curricula of the higher education school system.

"The realization that these connections (between the school systems) are important so that cultural ideas are kept strong for the future and that economic and business ideas can be exchanged," Moeke said.

"In our case, we started to develop some confidence. For example, in television we have a program that won the top award and it was in the Maori language.

"We are producing people that are able to create these kinds of things," Moeke said.

The two said that because the education systems come from an indigenous basis, there can be a cooperative exchange of ideas even though they are continents apart. "The tribes here are very similar in their values and thinking and similar in their culture and stories and history and so they have an immediate connection. It's appropriate that groups such as us are making these connections," Moeke said.

Because the government has not financially supported school tuition for students, New Zealand is on a competitive basis with other higher learning facilities. But through distance learning, which is different from that at Oglala Lakota College or Sinte Gleska, students are provided with one-way cell phones and textbooks, video capabilities, but no Internet hookups, as yet. There are nearly 800 students out of a student population of 3,000 who are involved in the distance learning. Moeki and Tumaki expected the total enrollment at the various campuses to reach 6,000 next year.

The tour in South Dakota impressed the two men. They praised the work done by Tom Shortbull, president of Oglala Lakota College, and Lionel Bourdeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University. The college presidents were hosts during the Maori officials' tour.

Tribal college officials will go to New Zealand in March of 2001.