Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, told the audience at the Frank LaMere Presidential Forum that her policies on education are inclusive of Native youth and college students. But Native students attending the forum don’t think so.
The graduation rate for Native American high school students is 51 percent, according to College Horizons. Of that percentage, only five percent proceed to four-year colleges and only 10 percent of those graduate in four years.
Warren was one of four Democratic presidential candidates who spoke with tribes and organizations on day one of the presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa.
Warren elaborated further on her proposed policies when it comes to providing more resources to ensure the success of Native students.
“First thing we need to do is fully fund our current obligations, and that’s for children K through 12,” Warren said. “The second thing I want to do is provide universal childcare, universal pre-k and raise the wages of every childcare worker and teacher in this country. That’s true for Native children, it’s true for all of our children.”
The senator is proposing to fund these plans with a two-cent tax on the wealth, Sen. Warren also plans to make technical schools, community and tribal colleges and universities tuition-free, as well as expand Pell grants and close the student-loan debt.
These propositions, she said, will enable more educational opportunities across Indian Country.
“People who come from families who don’t have much in the way of resources have a meaningful opportunity to go to college,” Warren said. “[With the two-cent tax] we can invest in the next generation and help them have a chance to build a strong future.”
Brooke Waukau Johnson, Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans, drove eight hours from Appleton, Wisconsin, and missed her first days of college to attend both days of the historic forum. She said Warren’s policies hold flaws when it comes to addressing specific Native education issues.
“Looking at the Native American student from kindergarten to college, they should know that we are the worst test-takers, we test the lowest,” Johnson said. “How are you able to make the most impact on a curriculum that was forced upon us that no longer serves us anymore?”
Johnson, who is executive director of Women’s Indigenous Media, is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public administration. She said if candidates addressed specific issues that impact the Native student experience, it would win over more Native votes.
“We’re not asking for a lot. We’re asking for the basic things that we need not only for us to survive, but for our younger generations to thrive,” she said. “She’s a strong candidate if she actually does the groundwork, visit these reservations that are dealing with the direct issues that she’s claiming to be able to change if she’s elected.”
Joye Braun of Indigenous Environmental Network and daughter Morgan Brings Plenty, both Cheyenne River Sioux, made the six-hour trip from Eagle Butte, South Dakota, to not only attend the forum but also uplift the messages of the Indigenous population.
Braun liked that Warren addressed tribal colleges and said the senator’s stance on eliminating student debt would be a huge help to Native Americans as it has personally impacted both herself and her family.
“When I first went to college, I was 17 years old and was saddled with $2,000 in debt,” Braun said. “It’s a tiny bit, but for me, that kept me from going back to school when I had kids because I couldn’t afford that. My sister has her master’s degree, joined the Navy to reduce her debt, and ended up doing three tours in Afghanistan. Now she has shrapnel in her head, and that’s a heavy price to pay just because you’re in debt. My brother has a master’s degree and is an archeologist. His debt is $80,000. How many of our Native men have degrees like that?”
For 24-year-old Brings Plenty, said she would have liked if Warren addressed specifically the lack of educational resources in tribal communities that promote Native student success.
“I’m lucky enough to have a small GED class at my local college, but there are tons of places that don’t have designated GED classes, computers to work on, or proper libraries,” Brings Plenty said. “I’m at a fifth-grade level math and eighth-grade level of English, history and science. I should be able to have all of the resources to finish high school and to carry myself into college. I never got that, neither did my cousins or friends.”
“But she can spell treaty,” joked Braun.
Despite the missed points, Braun said nonetheless the forum shines the national spotlight on all Native issues to everyone tuned into the event.
“These systems are not meant for us, but we’re doing our best to at least get our voice out there,” Braun said. “These candidates actually showing up here is proof that the Indigenous voice is having an effect on the national agenda, and we have to keep pushing that.”
Taylor Notah is a Diné journalist originally from the Navajo Nation. She works as senior editor for Arizona State University’s Turning Points Magazine.