FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Former Gov. Lloyd Tortalita of Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico has more than a strong thought or two about higher education and Native American students.
Tortalita was among 20 tribal leaders from Arizona, New Mexico and California who gathered at Northern Arizona University recently. The summit was geared toward how to make the university even more a leader in the field of higher learning for Indians.
NAU ranks number one in the nation in awarding master's degrees to Indian students and has more Native students than any college outside of Oklahoma. It also has a department of applied indigenous studies. But, according to university statistics, only 56 percent of its Indian students return for their sophomore years.
Tortalita questions whether college is even a good investment of time for his young pueblo members.
"The president of NAU says he wants the best students and minds to come here. But I also want the best minds we have to stay and carry on the traditions of Acoma and to build on their 'grandma and grandpa' education," Tortalita said.
"Besides, our students are very ill-prepared to go to college. A lot of them want to go but they've taken Algebra I instead of geometry. They take classes in things like needlepoint and pottery, things that should be taught at home," Tortalita said. "The counseling they get in high school is mainly social in nature. And, our students don't have concepts of time and deadlines."
Lt. Gov. Mary Thomas of the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix said that competition is intense for those students who do achieve academically and "it's going to be hard for any university to claim to be number one" for higher Indian education as students disperse more.
Thomas said that casino-enriched tribes like Gila River are holding colleges and universities up to a higher standards to make sure "we get our dollars back" measured by the excellence of education provided to students.
The truth of the matter, said Hopi Vice Chairman Caleb Johnson, is that U.S. universities have no idea what to do in educating Indian students on a higher level. Johnson, who received his master's degree from Princeton, speaks
"Maybe NAU can help the tribes by forming a think tank like the Rand Corp. in determining what those educational needs are," Johnson said. "There needs to be a discussion about Indian education per se. NAU doesn't really know what reservation people want or need. There's a lot of difference between American society and the Indian societies."
Carrie Imus, vice chairman of the Hualapai Tribe in northwest Arizona, said the problems begin long before the freshman year of college.
Imus said a "very aggressive" principal was hired recently to administer the tribe's public school in the community of Peach Springs.
"He even goes and knocks on doors and holds the parents accountable and tells them, 'your kids need to be at school,'" Imus said. "That has been met with all kinds of grumbling and resistance by many parents but the tribal leadership is very supportive of him."
Imus, who attended NAU, said she also saw first hand what it was like for her fellow tribal members in a university setting.
"Many of my classmates were stuck in classes like algebra and English for four or five semesters," Imus said.
Dallas Massey, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said problems like that can be attributed to the numerous off-reservation teachers hired, who leave the Indian communities they teach in immediately after school is out and are also gone on weekends.
Massey said there's a huge demand for college instruction on reservations, as evidenced by when NAU recently discontinued offering satellite courses on the Apache reservation. Massey said that a regional junior college, Northland Pioneer College, filled the void by building classrooms in the community of Whiteriver.
"Two hundred fifty people showed up for classes after we had only prepared for 150," Massey said.
Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor said his tribe has had problems finding students for its "Hopi scholars" programs, which was started as part of a $10 million education endowment fund three years ago. Only half of the 20 spots are filled this year, Taylor said.
"Many of our students are first generation when it comes to education," Taylor said. "They don't have a support network, for example, to fill out financial aid paperwork. On top of that, there's a huge dropout rate."
Octaviana Trujillo, chairwoman of the applied indigenous studies program at NAU, said in an interview before the summit that she thinks part of the answer lies in having a separate four-year university for Indian students. Or, a college for indigenous studies within a major university which has an administrator with the power of a dean or assistant provost in charge.
"I've recently visited Australia and New Zealand and that's what they are doing on the university end. We need the same in this country," Trujillo said.