SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - One of the largest expected gatherings of educators in Indian country is under way.
More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the National Indian Education Association annual conference here to tackle a long list of topics American Indian education faces in the 21st century.
"We expect that people will go away renewed and be action oriented," Carole Anne Heart, Rosebud Sicangu, NIEA president-elect and convention chairwoman, said. "We expect people to go home and do something. We attract a lot of people for the conference and we learn and find things that work."
Heart said the dropout rate among American Indian students is still high overall and the conference will have several workshops that deal with that issue. She also said one of the highest priorities is to learn what programs work to maintain tribal languages and cultural activities.
"It seems that a lot of schools teach languages for one-half hour in the mornings and it won't be effective.
"Every year we lose some of the language. That is our survival as Indian people," Heart said.
As with most of the educational districts across the country, there are recognizable changes in the children and social norms. For instance, Heart said, years ago there were no single mothers in school, "now it is accepted.
"We have to deal with contemporary issues facing us today such as, single parenting, drugs and alcohol. It's unbelievable. Substance abuse is plaguing our youth and some parents are still suffering from the boarding schools."
Participants at the NIEA 2000 conference will deal with issues such as leadership, government, language immersion programs, year-around schooling, technology and dropout problems.
Workshops will deal with oral history techniques, ways to raise test scores, reading skills with an interactive theme, learning styles of students, using humor in the classroom and a myriad of other topics, some 40 in all.
On a more philosophical level will be workshops on learning through American Indian eyes, self understanding and self improvement and using poetry in the classroom.
"We try to touch on every issue in a comprehensive way to deal with health and government issues that affect our children," Heart said.
The conference is set up with many programs that all generations, from young students to elders, can enjoy together. A disc jockey dance with all types of music is planned so the generations can mingle there as well. A pow wow, entertainment from Brule and Native Roots, and a special performance by Indigenous are planned. The Indigenous concert will emphasize a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle.
Heart said planning events that can be attended by all age groups promotes the traditional teaching and learning methods of most tribal nations.
"Intergenerational things carry on to children. This conference is an outstanding time to create awareness about all the things that surround the school building. For us, it's a community center. A lot of things happen at the school building. When I heard it said that it takes a community raise a child, I thought they were talking about Indian people.
"We don't have the intergenerational connection any more. Elders don't live with the family anymore. They are in homes. I grew up with my grandparents. They taught my daughter. Children don't grow up with grandparents. It gives you empathy seeing how they now can't get around anymore. If you don't grow up with that, you miss out as a human being," Heart said.
Heart will become the next president of NIEA. Current president Dr. Gloria E. Sly, Cherokee, said that technology, theme of the 2000 convention, played an important role in the development of tribes across the country for generations.
"Previously, tools such as the horse and the automobile revolutionized Indian country in countless ways. Now computers, the Internet and wireless communications are bringing new changes into our lives. Like horses and cars, they are carrying us into a new century and a new world.
"As educators and parents, we must find ways to harness these tools to improve the quality of education in our schools, to preserve our cultures and languages, and to enable our children to compete in a world growing ever more challenging and complex," Sly said.
Heart said that during her presidency she would like to look at the core of the organization to make it the center of education. "If any wants to know about education, they call us."
The association's future may be to collect and maintain an archive of master's theses and doctoral dissertations written by American Indian scholars. "We can look at some point to what effect these studies have had on our children.
"We have educated a lot more people than in the past. There are more people with doctor's degrees and there are more lawyers and medical doctors than before, and we need more.
"I went to a meeting of the World Bank and learned about research on a longitudinal study. One of the findings said that the first five years of a child's life was the most crucial. Indian people always knew that, but we didn't have the scientific data. When we talk about that, our knowledge is not considered.
"We consider children as sacred and if we treat them that way, they will grow. We don't need a 50-year study to prove that," Heart said.
She also said the association will look into the possibility of doing research to prove to American Indian educators that the traditions are right.
The NIEA was formed by a group of concerned American Indian educators in Minneapolis in 1969. As the mission statement eventually adopted states, the association is designed to support traditional Native cultures and values so students would become contributing members of their communities. Control of the education systems for American Indians also became a goal of the organization.
High student dropout rates, lack of American Indian teachers and cultural and language curriculum were early issues of the association. The same issues, although improvement has occurred, remain on its agenda today.
The association was granted non-profit status in 1970 when it was chartered under the state of Minnesota and with acquisition of the IRS 501(c)(3) status.
The NIEA executive committee consists of Sly, Heart, Vice President Juan Perez, Klamath-Modoc, Secretary Gloria Grand, M.Ed., Navajo-Omaha, and Treasurer Alma J. Vince, Turtle Mountain Chippewa.
General board members include: Tim Begay, Navajo; Kerry D. Bird, MSW, Sisseton-Wahpeton-Lumbee; Emer J. Guy, MRA, Navajo; Cheryl M. Kulas, Oglala Lakota-Turtle Mountain Chippewa; Caleb Roanhorse, M.Ed., Navajo; Sly, Vince, Grant and Heart.