Serving a real need for an educated community

Mark Trahant

On the Indian Country Today newscast for Monday, September 14, 2020 is guest Dr. Dorene Wiese followed by Indian Country Today reporter Mary Annette Pember

As the nation is in the process of restructuring education and learning spaces it’s a good time to reflect on the educational needs of tribal communities. On today’s newscast we take a look back at the innovative higher education college created by urban Natives in Chicago. Then, we discuss the Bureau of Indian Education plans for reopening schools later this week.

Dr. Dorene Wiese is the president of the Native American Educational Services College, which transitioned into a non-profit after losing its accreditation in 2005. She explains how NAES merged traditional knowledge with western academia to give Natives in Chicago access to a four year degree program.

Later in the newscast national correspondent Mary Annette Pember discusses the Bureau of Indian Education. She has been covering the bureau’s changing reopening plans during the pandemic.

Here are a few of their comments

Dr. Dorene Wiese:

“NAES college began in 1974 and incorporated that year, and while it was forming, it was developed by a group of young people that were related to the, that were working with the Native American committee and they were trying to build all of them. And many others are trying to fill as a whole set of services for our community, for our Indian people in Chicago, because there were so many people here without education, without jobs as our healthcare. So it was an exciting time. It was just close to the location where there was a lot of money that was coming into urban areas. And so it was a time when all kinds of programs were being developed, but there wasn't an educated leadership.”

“They realized that there were only about four American Indian people in all the cities, Chicago that had bachelor's degrees and that they would not be able to get the jobs and these new programs and grant programs and organizations throughout the city, that they did not, if they did not have an education. So that's what they set out to do.”

“The University Without Walls took a person's knowledge that they brought with them as people received credit for prior learning and those knowledge areas, you could also take college classes, but you also could get credit for what, you know, I use might be your tribal language. It might be your knowledge of agriculture. It might be your knowledge of parenting.”

“And if we can, as I said, cause there was a real need for an educated community. And so the idea was that the students would come into the program and they would be working in organizations, American Indian organizations, or volunteering. And then they would use that knowledge and experience and develop their field projects and really reflect on what they were learning. The traditional knowledge, what's there in terms of language classes, these free classes, public policy classes there were arts and music classes.”

“Many of our students went to the community college first and got their general eds and then went to NAES College. So an example of that, one of the students there had an interest in helping people that had been alcoholics and then he went on later to help American Indian people who needed alcoholism counseling.”

“Other people, afterwards, went to law school and they helped their tribe in terms of legal issues. Two or three of our graduates went on to become tribal chairman and women of their tribes. It really also was a tremendous asset to the entire United States because most of our students then after they worked in Chicago a while they went and took their knowledge back to their tribal communities and they shared that knowledge with them.”

“So they learned about writing grants about managing nonprofits, about starting businesses. That very first graduate of nature college is a man named Willard Vermeer. And he was also one of the first businessmen in Chicago. So you can imagine then when he started a small business association and he expanded the idea of business and tribal community, you can see that ripple effect”

“The Mellon grant once received through Northwestern University to Josh Honn, I believe he authored it with a couple other Northwestern faculty and that's that grant was to look at our archives. Cause as I mentioned earlier, we were at first looking somewhere to sell the archives because we couldn't really find anyone that wanted the books.”

“People weren’t just that interested in books, but this is a 40 year collection. There's some very unique pieces. They're just not all modern. So that, and also they some of the contain some original curriculum materials that people use to teach us they tribal languages. And so you have very unique items in the archives, along with over 1000 photographs with hundreds of cassette tapes with many of the classes being audio tape. “

“Kelly Wisecup tutored in our afterschool program with the AIA, American Indian association. And so she, and some other students graduate students were tutoring with us as well. And so we got to feel a lot of Pell and we started talking and we said, this would be a great idea if we, if we could continue to work together on the archive and the library. So as I said, Josh Honn and her and other people developed this grant and focused it on, how could we look at what were the contents of the library and its uniqueness? And it was indeed they found it was unique. They were able to catalog or digitized the card catalog so that we saw what was exactly in it. Of course there are many items that were not in the card catalog cause they were documents related to nature itself.”

“So that's really how it started as we were looking for a home for the library. And we had approached our question because they had recently started and made American research center. So we wanted to, but our main idea was we wanted someone to use the book. So I'm kind of doing that out there. Now, people are interested in the library that are people that are working with native students or, or even people that might want us to help them start a new tribal college. Yeah. So in that, out to a couple of times and were willing to help them do that and because it's such I think that they're, they're, it's a lot easier than you think in some ways and a lot harder than you think in other ways, but it's so important because our, our people are still behind in terms of bachelor's degree completers. And we would like to see that model continue.”

“We really need funding for this storage, that's really one of our biggest expenses are the storage of the books and then keeping them clean and the boxes in good condition and things like that. So we're looking for funding and we're looking for partnerships. We would love to partner or as I said, if any tribal colleges would like to start a new tribal college.”

Mary Annette Pember:

“There are BIA tribally controlled schools and there are direct BIE controlled schools and the BIE schools, the direct federally controlled schools, they were adamant about opening for in-person instruction, many or most of the tribally controlled schools, however, early on opted to do remote.”

“Many people were very unhappy that the BIE controlled schools decided to hold in-person instruction and voiced their opinions about that. And out of nowhere it seemed they decided on Friday school begins, all of the BIE schools begin Wednesday, September 16 but they decided on Friday to suddenly hold remote schooling.”

“They are waiting for further instruction and today is Monday and school starts Wednesday. So it must be a very difficult position for them to be in. I think we're talking about approximately 30 schools that really don't know what they're going to be doing Wednesday.”

“Yes. If we start looking across the board, that is correct in places like on a Navajo reservation, a lot of the people, a lot of the students do attend the BIE schools. It seems like they're sort of clustered together. Also Navajo is home to more than half of the BIE directly controlled schools.”

“I can't speak for sure. I can speculate that all of it is coming from the Trump administration and there has been a great deal of complaints that it has been very much a politicized kind of situation. And people actually have been complaining a great deal. There was the U.S. house committee of natural resources, a subcommittee for Indigenous peoples of the U.S. held a hearing this past Friday. And they invited the BIE and the BIE declined to join them. And it was specifically about the trouble with the schools beginning.”

“Yes, I certainly would think so, in places in particular like Navajo, where connectivity is spotty at best and then even the schools providing devices. I did sort of I hear that there was a school that had some Kindle devices and they were trying to get the students online and access their classes then, and there is word that they will be getting more devices in October, but I mean, it just sounds very difficult. Also the food situation, many of the kids depend upon school for food. And as you know, since Navajo has been on lockdown, it isn't really super easy to go out and get groceries. So people are trying to plan for that as well.”

“I was surprised to hear that the boarding schools then were also choosing to, I have classes remotely, and I was, you know, wondering what kind of challenges that does create. I think that the big challenge is food. And then also planning for the kids that if they're going to be gone, I mean, producing clothing and various things and supplies for them, and then being on the fence about finding out which way it's going to go. I would think that those are the challenges. And then now how, how are we going to educate our kids at home? They did mention in one report that they were giving them one device per family, for those who didn't have any devices. So there was one parent that I spoke to who has six children normally, who would go to the Tuba City Boarding School. So I don't know how she's navigating it. She doesn't know how she's navigating it. She was relieved to hear that they are going to be dropping off food using the bus routes. So that was a big relief for her. But yeah, I think that they're just very uncertain.”

“They're just using whatever is available. There was even some discussion of, I think, just dropping off lesson plans using the bus routes.”

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. 

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