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NIEA conference discusses state of Indian education

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PHOENIX, Ariz. - Amid election fever, thousands of American Indian
educators packed the downtown convention center for the 35th Annual
National Indian Education Association (NIEA) convention to discuss issues
and give reports on the status of American Indian education in the United
States.

Tribes as diverse as the Yup'ic who inhabit the outermost edges of Alaska
and members of the Mississippi Choctaw came together to discuss how
education needs are being met in their communities. The diversity of
communities represented was as wide as the views that were offered on
American Indian education.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates these divergences than that of two
prominent speakers who came to discuss their views. Among those appearing
at the conference was Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian
Affairs Dave Anderson, along with former Congressman Joseph Kennedy III and
former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller.

In keeping in line with the Bush administration's views on education,
Anderson's spirited address focused mainly on personal responsibility and
the need for Indians to take control of their own destiny.

Anderson said that Indian educators had the responsibility of keeping
tradition and culture along with equipping tribal children to deal with
problems in the modern world. The tools of Indian culture, said Anderson,
have always had a practical usage.

"Culture is not about folk art, it's about survival," said Anderson.

Drawing a parallel between Plains tribes' buffalo culture and the modern
technological age Anderson said modern Indians have to use "every part of a
computer" and understand it in the same way that their predecessors
utilized "every piece of a buffalo."

Trying to blunt criticism of the Bush administration's handling and funding
of Indian education, Anderson claimed that the Bush administration had
opened 26 new Indian schools compared to only four during the eight years
of the Clinton administration and that Bush has allocated $1.1 billion
toward Indian education.

Anderson advocates turning BIA schools into "leadership academies" modeled
on a successful Hispanic school in Texas which requires collaboration with
parents, teachers and students, in which teachers would be required to
carry cell phones and parents would have to sign contracts for a
"no-excuses" type of environment.

Anderson's picture of progress contrasted sharply with an address given by
former Massachusetts congressman Joe Kennedy III, a Democrat. Kennedy, the
son of the late political icon Robert F. Kennedy, blasted the Bush
administration for under funding Indian education by pointing out that the
Bush administration actually cut funding in his proposed budget.

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"President Bush has cut American Indian education and hasn't put a dime
into Indian housing but he just gave another $80 billion to the Iraqis,"
said Kennedy.

Ironically, both Kennedy and Anderson advocated the idea of American
Indians taking the reins of power. While Anderson supported personal
empowerment, Kennedy used it as a call-to-arms for tribes to vote by
pointing out that American Indians in Arizona could make a difference if
they voted a only 20 percent of an estimated population of 110,000 voted in
the Grand Canyon state last year.

Though the crowd gave Anderson a warm reception, his boss is apparently not
as popular among American Indian educators. Several convention attendees
were spotted openly wearing Kerry/Edwards buttons and not a single Bush
supporter mustered up the nerve to wear such an open display.

Former Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller openly criticized the Bush
administration record on Indian education.

"In almost every case, there has been an absence of compassion," said
Mankiller.

Mankiller criticized the failure of educators in the United States to
accurately portray American Indian contributions to history. Among the
neglected contributions, claimed Mankiller, were those to the field of
pharmacology as many modern medicines today are derived from plants long
used by American Indians.

One person who has worked hard to counter these trends is outgoing NIEA
president Cindy La Marr. La Marr was one of the principal architects of a
law passed by the California legislature in 2002 to change the public
school curriculum to present a larger view of Indian education in
California.

During her address to the convention La Marr gave list of her
accomplishments during her tenure as NIEA president. Among those listed was
working to get President Bush to sign an Executive Order on American Indian
and Alaska Native Education last April that guaranteed that the No Child
Left Behind Act was implemented on reservations.

On the other hand La Marr denounced congress for failing to enact Head
Start set-asides for American Indians.

In regard to the Bush budget, La Marr hailed the help of the House of
Representatives to restore Indian educational funding.

The non-profit NIEA was formed in 1969 and advocates for American Indian
education federal and state levels. It is the oldest and largest such
organization in the United States. It holds annual meetings in a different
city every year. The organization's next meeting is scheduled for 2005 in
Denver.