Tribal Control in Indian Education, A Vision or Delusion

Dr. Tony Garcia, of Ihanktonwan Community College, discusses tribal control of Native American education.

For the past several weeks the Department of Education (DOE) and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) held what they called joint listening sessions regarding the “State of Affairs in Indian Education.” The purpose for the sessions was to develop a new partnership and address the 2005 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two. The MOU is up for renewal. The meetings were called because of President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13592, which requires the departments improve Indian education and combine expertise, resources, and facilities.

The 2005 MOU expired in 2011, when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was rescheduled for reauthorization. The new MOU must be accomplished in 120 days. Within that time the DOE/BIE will have had four “listening sessions” in Indian Country including the one in Rapid City, South Dakota, held on January 20, which I attended.

I came away from the Rapid City meeting with both positive and negative thoughts. On the positive end, I was encouraged by the fact that more tribal leaders spoke of tribal sovereignty and self-determination. There were several leaders who I thought expressed that very well. Other issues were also mentioned there including funding, standards, curricula, accountability, culture and language.

On the negative end, this was called a “listening session,” where officials heard the same concerns previously expressed in the 2005, 2010, 2011 consultations, and now at the 2012 listening session. My question is why revisit those concerns already voiced and well documented? One document “Tribal Leaders Speak: The State of Indian Education, 2010,” is a good example, which documents and outlines the concerns of tribal nations well.

As a side note, given the importance of quantitative and qualitative research and data driven information systems one would expect a summative and/or formative evaluation of those consultations. Which of the recommendations did the BIE give priority to? How did the BIE address those tribal concerns and recommendations? What are the outcomes?

The main objectives for the 2005 MOU was to channel DOE funds to the BIE and establish the BIE as the State Education Agent (SEA) with the authority to enforce NCLB. This included the collection of and procedures for “securing from all States”, or tribal schools in this case, “information on AYP, assessments, and accountability.”

In fact, the 2005 MOU stated that “...the OIEP assumes the responsibilities of an SEA. Hence, except as exempted by statute…all provisions of the ESEA…that apply to SEA’s…apply to OIEP.” In addition, provision four of the agreement gave the OIEP (Office of Indian Education Programs now known as the BIE) authority over “all functions with respect to formulation and establishment of policy and procedures and supervision of program and expenditures of federal funds for the purpose of Indian education administered by the OIEP.”

Herein lies the issue(s). It is fact that Congress recognized the right of Indian tribes to self-determination and self-government. There are specific laws, orders, rules and regulations that promote and govern self-determination. One major piece of legislation, NCLB, states that it shall be the “policy to facilitate Indian control in all matters relating to Indian Education.” CFR Title 25 requires the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs through the director, in this case the BIE, to engage and ensure that specific principles of the law be followed when it comes to tribal nation self-determination/self-governance.

One principle, the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs must comply with is to ensure tribal nations “fully exercise self-determination and control in planning, priority-setting, development, management, operation, staffing and evaluation in all aspects of the education process.” In addition, the Secretary must “ensure that each agency or local school board shall be authorized and empowered to function as the policy making body for the school, consistent with the authority granted by the tribes.”

These and others are the laws and principles, which the BIA and the BIE must follow when working with and for tribal nations. Did the 2005 MOU violate the law when it established the BIE as the SEA for all tribes? Did we in Indian Country drop the ball by not challenging the legality of the MOU? If we did, will we make the same mistake again?

I never heard at the listening session any discussion, request for, or was there information provided regarding the new MOU. I was under the impression that something was going to be presented on the MOU. As they say, the devil is in the details. It was listed in the announcement. However, no information was provided to my knowledge.

One tribal leader said that we are in a new era of transformation between the DOE and the BIE. Other leaders and department officials referred to the same thought. The 2005 MOU established the basis. If I understand this correctly the new MOU would increase and solidify the centralization of functions, roles, responsibilities, and funding in the BIE. This is not self-determination, but in fact is a perpetuation of BIE governance over tribal nations.

It is time for a change. We must begin by changing the role of the BIE from one of control to one of facilitation and support for tribal control. Tribal nations must actively pursue the assumption and control of inherent sovereign responsibilities and the governance of Indian education responsibilities. This will mean changing the bureaucratic psychology and philosophy, which has a strong history of resistance and paternalism to tribal self-determination and governance.

In short, the foundational topic of facilitation of tribal control in all matters relating to Indian education, should be the heart of the discussion.

A friend of mine from the BIE said tribal nations need to discuss their own functions, roles, and responsibilities in Indian education and be more accountable, which I strongly agree with. But, before we can have a discussion on tribal nations the discussion of facilitation needs to come first.

I would remind tribal nations that sovereignty means being responsible and accountable. Tribes must change from one of being governed, to one of self-governance. Tribes must relearn and learn how to self-govern effectively in today’s world if success is to be realized.

In conclusion, while Indian education has failed, it really hasn’t. The record proves that historical Indian education assimilation philosophies, policies, and practices were very successful. The policies resulted in tribal nations being denied their self-governance, culture, language, religion, family systems, land and resources including their own education. The consequences were devastating for the American Indian in terms of “life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness,” which are constitutional guarantees.

Today, giving credit to past and present tribal leaders, and supporters, we have regained the opportunity for tribal control. If what I’m hearing is true a change is taking place within the BIE. Instead of a new partnership between the two departments the time may be for a new partnership between tribal nations and the two departments instead. But, for this to happen we must have open, truthful, and meaningful consultation or “listening sessions.”

Tribal nations must make known the spirit and heart of the American Indian, as our ancestors did. If we fail then tribal control is only a delusion.

God bless us!

Dr. Tony Garcia is the executive director/academic dean of Ihanktonwan Community College. He can be reached at