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Patterson: We must embrace education

At the beginning of November, I had the privilege of attending the 28th annual conference of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. It was an impressive gathering - more than 1,000 American Indian high school, college and graduate students, along with representatives and recruiters from employers like IBM, NASA and Lockheed Martin, and universities like Harvard and Dartmouth. It made me proud to see some of the best and brightest young minds of our tribal nations interacting with people who can do so much to help further their education and work experience.

I also was most impressed by the standards AISES has set for American Indian youth. They require their members to maintain a 3.0 or better grade point average, and they have strict policies against alcohol and drugs - two serious problems throughout Indian country.

Unfortunately, there also was a recurring theme during the conference that is by no means limited to the fields of science and engineering, and that was the lack of faith in the ability of Indian students to succeed in higher education.

Too often, I heard tales of college professors who advised their Indian students to ''go back to the rez,'' to deliberately flunk or drop out of their classes because they'd ''never succeed here.''

And, on the other side, I heard many tales of young Indians who have persevered to attain their educational goals, only to be ostracized when they do return to their home communities for becoming ''apples'': red on the outside, white on the inside. It is perhaps this pervasive attitude that explains why tribal leaders were conspicuous by their absence at the conference. I confess I was disappointed not to see more leadership support for such a worthy organization.

Given American Indians' horrific experiences with forced assimilation in the Indian schools of the last century, where children were punished for speaking their Native languages and forced to renounce their Native culture and heritage, it is not surprising that many Indian people still harbor deep suspicion toward the education system in the United States.

And given the ambivalent messages we send our youth about the value and consequences of education, it is not surprising that many of them have their own ambivalent feelings about finishing high school and going to college.

But these are attitudes we must reject if we are to live up to our commitment to the next seven generations. The premium placed on education cannot be ignored today if we expect to preserve our heritage and culture for the future. All the learning our youth acquire is critical to our survival as Indian people.

In fact, learning and adaptability have always been key to our survival. Our ancestors learned everything they could about their environment to ensure their survival, and they adapted as their environment changed. As European newcomers penetrated farther and farther into our territories, as markets for pelts and other commodities rose and fell, as our game disappeared, as we were shunted onto remote, often barren reservations and forgotten or ignored - through the centuries, we have always managed to do what we needed to do to survive.

Our responsibility to the seventh generation starts with this generation. We must give them the tools they need to succeed in the 21st century and encourage them to adapt those tools to help preserve our culture and protect our heritage. After all, one day they will be our leaders, and the responsibility to the faces yet unborn will fall to them. We owe it to them to give them every opportunity not just to survive but to thrive, so that the ones who follow us will have more than scattered ruins to build on.

Brian Patterson, Bear Clan representative to the Oneida Indian Nation of New York's Men's Council, is the newly elected president of United South and Eastern Tribes.