Sidelined Sovereignty in Native Education

Matika Wilbur/Danny Rapada, Swinomish, graduated from eighth grade despite battling cancer.

Indian Country Today

Understanding of sovereignty and treaties missing from curricula compromises Native students.

Early in June, in the small town of La Conner, Washington, in the state’s northwest corner, a cluster of about two dozen Native American students from the Swinomish Rez graduated from the eighth grade. My remarkable nephew Treyton and his best friend Dano were part of those graduates, and wow, the sight of those kids in shiny shoes and collared shirts gave me a sense of pride I’ve never felt before.

I know I wasn’t alone in that feeling. You should have heard the drumbeats and war whoops in that gymnasium as Dano crossed the makeshift stage. The crowd cheered with delight because this young man has been fighting an epic battle with a type of cancer known as aplastic anemia. He’s undergone chemo, recovered from multiple surgeries, rehabbed his adolescent limbs, and demonstrated the strength and resilience of indigenous legacy. So when he picked himself up from that wheelchair and walked across the stage … you could feel the tears of his mother as the spirit of our ancestors entered our chests and took a deep breath for us. Half of the people there had tears on their cheeks.

But probably only half.

Because La Conner, like most other towns in America, is riddled with troubling designations—“them,” “those people,” and “us.” It’s a community divided into tax brackets, a gated enclave of white picket fences with the white population, a roughly-tiered hood of HUD homes for tribal members, the Rainbow Bridge separating the Rez from the town proper, and the Swinomish Channel that islands us all from the Washington mainland.

This is a town whose white members often tout that it is “post racial.” But our graduation ceremony indicated otherwise. The proceedings began with a salute to the American flag, but no acknowledgment of the profound Native legacy and presence of sovereign people who were there. Several awards were given out during the hour-long formalities—none for Swinomish students. There was a moment when the daughter of the school board president played a classical piece on a grand piano. But Swinomish songs weren’t sung.

Teachers spoke; students spoke. None were Indians. And even though there were probably a dozen amazing indigenous speakers of national stature on hand (some of them in regalia, some of them toting their drums), the opportunity for them to share was not considered. School officials did, however, allow a Republican Party representative to give an award to a student who had written “an excellent essay.” Just before the evening came to a close, I leaned forward to the school board president and whispered, “You know John, not a single indigenous person was acknowledged, awarded or given the opportunity to speak; you could walk up there and change that, you could go up there, call up a tribal representative, and turn this epic failure into a beautiful triumph.”

His silence mirrored the general sentiment of the school district, the town, our nation.

We live in a time when Native graduation rates remain lowest for any racial group, with crushing consequences. There is crucial need for accurate and positive acknowledgement and representations of Native youth to uplift their self-esteem and help improve educational outcomes. Each time we gather in public settings, especially in traditional indigenous territories, we should acknowledge indigenous nations as part of standard protocol. Places such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada have managed to adopt this tradition. Why haven’t we?

When I spoke with the school board president after the graduation ceremony, I asked why it wasn’t thought necessary to include indigenous people. He replied, “Well, this isn’t really a commencement, it’s more like a ‘moving on,’ but at the high school commencement we let ‘the Indians’ have all the time they want.”

I didn’t understand . . . maybe my outrage was from my not hearing clearly, or maybe the caricatures of “Indian Braves” on the wall were holding me back from empathy.

“Are you saying that indigenous representation isn’t important all the time?” I asked. He muttered a response, something like, “If you want representation, all you have to do is ask … just like I asked for my daughter to be included….”

His response is problematic and typical of the “post racial” construct. I encounter these passive-aggressive positions and scenarios regularly. It goes right along with the idea that “We should get over it,” that “Colonization happened a long time ago.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said. Why don’t we ask? There are so many other questions in this context. Why is there only one Native teacher on the entire staff, when one-third of the students are Native? How did we come to this place of unequal representation? Why do a quarter of Swinomish students drop out of high school? Why is there only one Native American on the school board? The school board did not respond to my inquiries.

When you consider the long, sad, tragic view of Indians in white education, the answer is simple: The effects of forced assimilation from the boarding school era left a lasting impact on our ability to feel safe and welcome in formalized academic institutions. It is no longer acceptable to omit accurate indigenous representation, curricula and presence in our students’ lives; the lack of training in systems of “indigenous intelligence” in public classrooms is educational malpractice. The failure to develop and offer an inclusive learning experience is especially offensive in a school district that relies on Native American funds to operate.

Ouch. I know that sentence stung a little for the residents of La Conner, many of whom I hold dear, and deeply respect. But in 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that county governments cannot legally collect taxes on buildings, homes and other “improvements” on tribal trust lands, even if those structures are leased and used by non-Indians.

This ruling hit La Conner hard. One quarter of the taxpaying residents of this district live on tribal trust Swinomish property in a gated community called Shelter Bay. For over a hundred years, those Shelter Bay residents have been illegally paying taxes to Skagit County instead of to the rightful treaty-ratified government of Swinomish. The ruling meant that the county could no longer collect unlawful tax money, totaling nearly two million dollars for 931 Shelter Bay parcels of land. A good $800,000 of that money was allocated for the La Conner School District. To remedy this uncertain financial crisis, the Swinomish Tribe gave the district $400,000 in 2014, and Skagit County proposed a tax levy that would raise $1.25 million over the following two years. At first the tax levy failed. It took the rallied cries of the community to get the levy passed in our last voting season.

A few weeks ago I ran into a woman I’ll call the Lunch Lady. While I was in grade school, she was the woman who made sure we drank our milk and spit out our gum. She is now a school administrator. She approached me with furrowed brow and demanded to know “which side of the line” I was on. The Lunch Lady was appalled that I hadn’t made a public statement about the issue and concluded that I should “encourage my tribe to give the money back,” that we should be “better neighbors.”

At the time, I was aghast and speechless. How could this elderly woman not understand how deeply backward her statement was? The “post racial–woke” woman would instead ask, “How can we be better guests?” But because indigenous sovereignty has been largely left out of public curricula, most people do not understand basic concepts of tribal sovereignty. So let’s review, starting with the U.S. Constitution itself.

“This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding,” the U.S. Constitution states. Moreover, Native American Tribes are sovereign nations where “treaties are to be construed as a grant of rights from the Indians, not to them—and a reservation of those not granted.”

The purpose of the reservation is to allow Native people the space to carry on the way they always have, pre-colonialism and post-colonialism.

Many people were surprised by the Tribe’s key role in school support and in the overall economics and governance of our community. There is scant awareness among most people in our community of the basis and reality of Native sovereignty, including its legal, financial, and other resources and goals, and its relationships with adjacent communities, the “nation to nation” construct. Such important understanding, and other vital insights about Native America, are barely covered in our school system, depriving generation after generation of non-Indians awareness of and respect for our shared existences, challenges and possibilities.

My nephew and his best friend are also deprived by an educational model that does not emphasize all our children’s rights to feel included, acknowledged, accepted, and safe. These boys feel and speak about the division. They know they are underrepresented and marginalized. Since we cannot separate ourselves from our colonial past, we should understand and surpass its lingering effects. There is no way to separate ourselves from our future; we cannot separate ourselves from one another. We have to live together, reconciling distinct cultures, and this can be so advantageous and special. We can learn “to come together for the next seven generations.” Our school system is a smart place to begin to create these connections.

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