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Language, culture key to education

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - There is no secret formula that makes education easy.

But old tried and true traditional methods that incorporate new technology emerged at the recent National Indian Education Association gathering here as the vehicle to develop young people and secure the future of the tribes and nations.

Teach the language, culture, traditions and tribal history and students will know who they are and where they are from, which will build self-motivation, self-esteem and create an active learner, more than 3,000 educators from across the country agreed.

The 31st annual convention of the NIEA drew record numbers of people and more than 50 tribes were represented. Official registration totaled 2,993 and with guests the numbers soared to nearly 3,800, convention officials said.

The title of the convention, "Tribal Tradition and Technology ... our Pathway to the 21st Century" was the catalyst that brought together high-tech workshops alongside work sessions conducted by elders who spoke of tribal traditions and how to better incorporate tribal language into a curriculum. Very few of the more than 100 workshops failed to touch on language and culture as an important element in the education of youth.

"We turn to our traditions to teach our children and we found we always did it right," said Dr. Martin Brokenleg, Rosebud, professor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.

"There is nothing more important than our kids."

What does it take to raise a child to be traditional, work in the world as a whole and be successful? Brokenleg says four points are important.

First is belonging. He said in the Lakota traditions, the families give a sense of belonging and that's where most of the good memories come from. "All teen-agers need to belong. They call friends they had just seen minutes before in school when they get home. That's a sense of belonging. Belonging should be a first reaction when a child is in crisis. It's natural to surround him."

A child needs to be capable and disciplined.

Brokenleg emphasized the difference between discipline and punishment, which he said is not called for. "Discipline and punishment are antithetical forces. I don't want a child that is obedient, I want one that makes the right decisions whether I'm watching or not."

Next, he said children, given the opportunity, will be generous.

"If we focus on these four we will create traditional kids who can get through anything in life." Brokenleg said.

As a keynote speaker, Brokenleg led the way to discussions within the variety of workshops. Most of the tribes at the convention find the same ideas are used to educate American Indian children using language and traditional values, with some variations.

Teaching a language that may be hundreds of years old with the aid of a computer and developed software was an often-repeated message among conference educators.

Disturbing facts, yet with a positive approach about education of American Indian youth, were delivered by Bill Mehojah, director of the Office of Indian Education Project in the BIA. He said that beginning with the Meriam Report on American Indian education in 1926, the Kennedy Report in 1969, the At Risk Report in 1991 and the president's executive order of 1998, all had similarities. Early childhood education, reading, math, language arts, dropout rates and language preservation were issues in each report.

He said the dropout rate has been reduced and work at saving the languages is underway in at least 29 of the 50 states. Government research indicates that parents of this generation of students speak more than 30 languages.

The vision of the federal government is to create a preeminent school system with goals of improved reading and language arts achieved by the 70th percentile of all students instead of the present 48 percent. The math goal is to improve the numbers to 70 percent instead of 48 percent and reduce the dropout rate from 11 percent to 7 percent in the next five years.

Mehojah said the goals and vision of the government include bringing the literacy level of children to the point where all third-grade children are able to read.

Educators in the tribal school systems have worked hard over the past two or three decades to improve the education of American Indian children and have established goals and visions within their various communities and reservations.

The government's goals and vision are not counter to those of the tribes, Mehojah said. He added that tribal educators were asked to comment on the goals set by the education office and they approved the goals and visions.

Each tribe has a special project or system that ups the learning curve for students at all levels. All have similarities and those include the infusion of language, culture, history and spirituality. The intent is to help the students know who they are and be proud of where they come from.

The method of learning is also very similar. Hands-on teaching, use of elders with language programs, outdoor classrooms, using all the senses in the learning process and language immersion classes become across-the-board methods of teaching and learning at all school levels.

Many discussions in hallways of the convention building helped educators from various schools validate methods they used in educating the American Indian student.

It all takes money and Mehojah, Kevin Gover, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, and David Beaulieu, director of the Office of Indian Education in the Department of Education, said there were increases in next year's budget for Indian education and for the construction of seven new buildings. The estimate is that it will take $800 million to replace school buildings.

Mehojah said an increase of funds for secondary education from $27 million to $50 million is necessary in the future.

Beaulieu said that Title IX funding increased by 50 percent and that increases for school construction have occurred since President Bill Clinton signed the executive order in 1998.

"We are learning what to do to create a comprehensive program design. There are some significant issues like a high mobility rate (among students) and staff turnover. We must focus on strategies and a professional staff and develop a community-wide approach to education. All government agencies have a role to play in education," he said.

The children blossom

Members of the Hawaiian delegation shared a method of learning that incorporates traditional values. Dr. David K. Sing of the University of Hawaii Center for the Gifted and Talented said the special program looks at things from a Native and tribal perspective. High tech is also part of the program.

"We have a belief that every child has a gift - they are all gifted and talented. Every child has potential that he was given and that's what we bring to the national arena," Sing said.

Part of the program relates to what others at the NIEA conference said about educating young people and that's connection or belonging. Dr. Sing referred to the student in a metaphorical perspective as a kite. For the kite to reach its potential height, it needs to be connected to something and, in this case, to the community and culture. Separated, the kite will fall.

Sing said the program broadens the students' possibilities by introducing them to Native people who are doctors and educators. If the students make a trip to the fire department, they want to be firemen, he said. The program creates pathways "so the students can be scientists and medical doctors and expose them to people from the fifth grade on so they can say, 'Maybe I could do that.'"

A two-week summer camp run by the Center for Gifted and Talented brought children from all the islands of Hawaii together. The theme was water or in the Hawaiian language, Wai. The students were taken to the water for one week. They were asked to describe what water meant to them.

"We let students experience Wai from the rain and in the springs. Water just doesn't appear and we wanted them to know how to preserve it. We wanted them to know what water means to the people," Sing said.

When students study water they go to the water, when they study volcanoes they go to the volcano, he said.

What the program does, is ask students to search themselves through the culture. "We want them to search who they are. Students said they wanted to go home and understand the stories of their home and family," said Sunnie Hu'eu, Maui Community College. Hu'eu said she told students stories of her family and they responded with the need to return to their communities a learn the stories.

Sing and Hu'eu said the program has had a remarkable success rate. There are no grade-point-average expectations and in the past 10 years 8,000 students have gone through the program.

"Kids want to learn about themselves. They had stereotypes from the media and we introduce positive profiles of who they are," Sing said.

The two-week summer program is designed to spend one week in the field and one week in a computer lab where students created a Web site that depicts what they learned.

Students don't just study a cloud or the water and let it go at that. Other academic disciplines are incorporated into the curriculum and they are encouraged to look at things in an artistic way.

The study of clouds included writing stories about what the clouds meant to them and the feelings they had.

"They have a strong sense of what it is to be Hawaiian," Sing said.

A coalition

The National Indian Education Association recognizes it takes more than one organization to fight for funding and self-determination of tribal education. To that end four national organizations took the opportunity of the convention to sign a Memorandum of Agreement to form a coalition to advocate for and promote advancement in education among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The intent is to improve communications between the four organizations to develop, support and promote unity in relation to national education issues. Each organization will appoint a representative to interact with each of the other organizations on education issues.

"Solidarity is the best defense. We know that by working together we will have positive results," said Sue Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians, one of the four groups in the coalition.

"There is strength in unity. This will ensure a brighter future and the students will be stronger. It will ensure government will have a responsibility to education as promised in the treaties," she said.

The other three organizations are the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the National Indian Education Association and the National Indian School Board Association.

New to the NIEA

Three new board members were added to the NIEA 12-person board. Kay L. Bursheim, Sisseton-Wahpeton, brings 30 years of experience in education to the board. She owns KLB & Associates in Agency Village, S.D. KLB is an economic development and grant writing organization.

She served as president of the South Dakota and Nebraska Indian Education Associations, six years on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribal Council and was academic dean of Nebraska Indian Community College. She also served on the Pierre Indian Learning Center school board for 10 years, was a trustee of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College.

Robin Butterfield, Winnebago-Chippewa, returns to the board. She is the Indian Education Act Title IX coordinator for the Salem-Kaiser School District in Tegard, Ore. She has been a classroom teacher-Indian Education Specialist for the state of Oregon and specialist for the Northwest Regional Educational Lab.

Albert Yazzie, Navajo, is executive director of Wide Ruins Community School. He brings 30 years experience in Indian education to the board. He worked as a classroom teacher, school principal, associate superintendent, school superintendent and executive director. He is a former presidential appointee for the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and has advocated for legislation on the state and national levels on behalf of American Indian education.

New student board members

Katherine Arleen Campbell, Winnebago-Pomo-Meskawki, is a full-time Ph.D. candidate in educational administration at Pennsylvania State University. She holds a bachelor of arts in elementary education from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, and a master of arts degree in educational administration from the University of South Dakota. She interned with the Winnebago School System and worked as acting principal for the Jolley Elementary School in Vermillion. She fills a mid-term vacancy on the NIEA board.

Shelley Colleen Lowe, Navajo, is a full-time student at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is pursuing a master of arts degree in American Indian studies. She holds a bachelor's degree in sociology and recently was awarded a Gates Millennium Scholarship for the 2000-2001 school year. She will complete her master's program this summer and has been accepted into the University of Arizona Higher Education Doctoral program in the fall of 2000. Shelley is married and the mother of three children.

Ryan Sense Wilson, Oglala Lakota, is a full-time student at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is a senior majoring in political science and has been named to the dean's list four consecutive quarters. He is a member of the Native American Student Council and director of the American Indian Student Commission. He previously sat as chairman of the Northwest Indian Youth Conference and instituted the tribal government and sovereignty symposium into the NCAI Youth Forum.

The new president of the NIEA is Carole Anne Heart, Rosebud, succeeds outgoing president Dr. Gloria Sly. Heart was just named executive director of the Aberdeen Area Chairman's Health Board. She was convention chairwoman.