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NIEA convention numbers up this year

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Despite the squeeze on educational budgets across the country, attendance at the 41st Annual National Indian Education Association’s Convention and Tradeshow increased from last year, to organizers surprise.

Held in San Diego, Calif., Oct. 7 – 10, the convention attracted more than 2,100 teachers and administrators from across the country – about 400 more than last year’s convention held in Milwaukee, Wis., said NIEA President Mary Jane Oatman-Wak Wak.

She got to hear first-hand the creative measures attendees took in order to raise funds.

“They did fundraisers, and did what it took to be there, so they could be a part of the gathering, and to share the great things that are happening in their community and to learn from their peer communities across the country.”

Held for four days at Town and Country Resort & Conference Center, the schedule was packed with the usual multiple educational seminars ranging from creating and developing indigenous curriculum in schools to implementing preventive techniques to keep children in school.

To add something new to the mix and address the need for educators to seek creative avenues to tap funds in a down economy, officials from the U.S. Department of Education provided a full day of technical workshops. Grant writing experts offered advice on getting and maintaining those funds.

National Indian Education Association President Mary Jane Oatman-Wak Wak stood in the center of Department of Education and Indian Affairs officials. Pictured, from left, are Donald Yu, senior counsel to the general counsel, Department of Education; Keith Moore, director of the Bureau of Indian Education; Oatman-Wak Wak; Brian Drapeaux, chief of staff, Bureau of Indian Education; and Stacey Phelps, from South Dakota.

“We had all ‘title’ programs at this workshop, which was unprecedented,” Oatman-Wak Wak said. “It was a fabulous presentation.”

Similar to other conventions in Indian country, NIEA hosted a golf tournament and honored Native students with college scholarships. But what sets NIEA apart from the others was the social pow wow, 5K run/walk, elders network seminars, regional caucuses, and “youth day” workshops.

Eleven accolades were handed out, including two Lifetime Achievement Awards. One to Joseph McDonald, the founder of and president of Salish Kootenai College, and the other to Elouise Cobell, a banking, accounting and community development manager who serves on several Native foundation boards.

Cobell is the lead plaintiff in Cobell v. Salazar, a class-action lawsuit filed in 1996 on behalf of an estimated 500,000 Native individually-owned money accounts that were allegedly mismanaged by the federal government.

Oatman-Wak Wak, Nez Perce, described the event as moving and emotional, and recalled the inspirational speech given by keynote speaker Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary-Indian Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior. She said that Echo Hawk, Pawnee, not only shared how he overcame obstacles early in life, but how he felt when he got the call from President Barack Obama’s staff asking him to step up to his current role. He was also the first Native attorney general in the United States, elected in Idaho.

“He also spoke about how we can serve our communities in tribal leadership, outside of the box so we can forge new territories,” she said. “I was having a hard time keeping my eyes dry; it was such a powerful speech.”

Oatman-Wak Wak knows what it’s like to set a precedence. In June 2008, she stepped into the new role as the Indian education coordinator for the Idaho State Department of Education, a position that didn’t exist until she came along. One of her most memorable moments occurred when she helped to secure the hiring of five full-time language instructors, who teach the languages indigenous to Idaho tribes.

It was at the conference where the reigns were transferred to her by outgoing president Patricia Whitefoot. At 31, she is the youngest president to ever serve on the board, a role that she doesn’t take lightly. “I am very humbled, but I take that with a huge amount of responsibility to know that I have to reflect on where we’ve been to know where we are going.”

When it comes down to fulfilling the goals of the organization, the list is long, but if she could change anything during her year-long run as president, it would be to examine why so few Native men go to college. The statistics are dismal, she said, with Native men accounting for less than 10 percent of the already low Native population in colleges across the country.

She correlates it to inadequacies in the K-12 system of record keeping, especially when it comes to disciplinary procedures. She said numerous schools fail to keep accurate records of disciplinary actions against students, and young Native men often fall through the cracks. Kicked out or suspended, some turn to crime instead of college.

It’s a project, she said, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights should lead. “It will shine the light on those little corners where our kids are able to hide due to a lack of data.”

Other goals include looking for ways to generate revenue for the organization, and to stretch their strong influence in Indian country beyond hands-on involvement with Indian education legislation on Capitol Hill. Last year the nonprofit organization took in about $1.4 million in revenue from membership and convention fees and grants. But it’s not enough, she said, the computer system is antiquated, which makes it challenging to keep up with all the educational data sent on a daily basis.

“We have a lot of internal needs as an organization, so we can emerge to that greatness we’re just on the verge of.”

To learn more or donate to NIEA, visit or call (202) 544-7290.