Skip to main content

Johnson O'Malley grants provide cultural transitions

WASHINGTON - Disappointment ran deep in Indian country last winter when President George W. Bush proposed a budget that would have eliminating federal funding of the Johnson O'Malley program. The administration gave the same reason for the cutback that the Department of Interior Appropriations subcommittee in the House of Representatives had dismissed the previous year as ''completely unfounded'' - namely, that other government programs provide funding for the same purposes through the Department of Education.

The subcommittee this year, in its report accompanying a House bill on Indian education, states that the administration's attempt to pay for increases in funding the transportation costs of Indian education and a student tracking system by decreasing funding for other programs, including JOM, is ''clearly disingenuous and feckless.'' The report implores the president to stop zeroing out the JOM budget.

In any case, Indians today were as surprised to hear the administration's account as their ancestors would have been in 1934, when the Depression-era grants program went into effect. The rationale for it was that Indians from rural environs of poverty and high unemployment need assistance with the transition to other settings if they are going to participate in school with their non-Indian peers. Ever since then, JOM grants have provided sorely needed supplemental funding for the educational needs of Indian students. The grants have been a guide to school success for out-of-the-way, low-income communities and families that lack resources for the non-academic building blocks that support the school experience.

A 2006 survey by the National Indian Education Association found that Indian youth rely on JOM grants for the full gamut of supplemental services other young students take for granted, including books and other reading materials, tutoring services and summer school, test fees, school supplies, youth leadership programs, counseling, eyeglasses and contacts, transportation, athletic equipment, caps and gowns, choir, band, cheerleading outfits, field trips, transportation, musical instruments ...

There's more, but let's stop on musical instruments. When Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert was growing up, ''we as a family were in no kind of financial situation to buy a cello,'' what with his father finishing a doctorate. The dances and songs of traditional Hopi culture had implanted a musical appreciation that a forebear, grandfather Victor Sakiestewa, who was sent off for schooling to Marshall Institute in Riverside, Calif., also channeled by mastering the clarinet. But without the cello rental and music lessons paid for by a JOM grant, the gift might have gone unrealized in his grandson. As it was, four or five years of lessons gave him the kind of send-off through school and life that all parents want for their children. His father, Willard Gilbert, current president-elect of NIEA, stood up and said so during an education hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in February.

Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, too, remembers the JOM funding with advantages. He learned music on the cello, and settled on Spanish classical guitar as his instrument of choice while still in high school (more important than Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, other influences of the time, was a harp recital: ''That's the sound I wanted to make on my guitar.'') In college he joined a choir, and singing competitions opened the door to travel - Italy, Israel, London, throughout the United States and Alaska.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

But interestingly enough, the ultimate value of his JOM musical tutelage doesn't hinge on a musical career - as a family man with two young children, the younger Gilbert isn't a concert guitarist. He feels lucky enough to get his guitar out occasionally and strike up ''Rercuerdos de la Alhambra'' or some other masterpiece in miniature by Francisco Tarrega or another favorite, Manuel Ponce, and he and his wife still sing occasionally in a church choir. But as an assistant professor of American Indian Studies and history at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, he finds that his studies and travels help to bring subject matter alive for his students - another form of cultural transition made possible JOM grants.

''Music ... opens up many, many, many doors. I had opportunities that other people didn't ... These types of experiences that I've had have really enriched my life ... I can really bring something to my students because I've traveled.''

He is also incorporating music into his scholarship as he writes a book, for University of Nebraska Press, on Hopi involvement with music.

And he keeps a cello of his own in storage for when the kids are grown.

Congress has decided so far that JOM funding remains indispensable, restoring it against the president's wishes - though at what level will not be known until a final budget for fiscal year 2008, beginning Oct. 1, can be enacted. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that restores both JOM grants ($16.4 million) and the JOM funds found in BIA/tribal compacts and contracts ($7.7 million) to previous levels. The Senate has restored BIA/tribal compact and contract amounts, but reduced the sum for JOM grants (to $8 million), in a bill that is still pending action on the floor at press time. Debbie Ho, a lobbyist with Ietan Consulting Group, expects BIA/tribal compact and contract funding to come in at $7.7 million and grants at approximately $12 million, once the two chambers iron out their differences by ''halving the baby'' in a so-called ''conference committee.'' The figures would represent stability for compacts and contracts but a fall in JOM grants from $16.4 million at present.

The problem, Ho said, is that the Senate is reluctant to spend $16.4 million without data to back up its decisions. ''Frankly, we've had a hard time getting them that data.'' She is pressing Native JOM programs to send the reports they must file with the BIA to her at Ietan as well, in hopes they'll generate the data Washington appropriators demand nowadays. That way, if the compromise figure for JOM grants does decline to $12 million or thereabouts, JOM programs will be prepared to prove their case for a full restoration in fiscal year 2009.