Education for Self-Determination and Quality of Life

Today, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it’s fitting that we are looking at determination, inspiration and progress. In particular, we focus on historical and current trends in American Indian education. Let’s begin by looking back, to something we all learned about in public school.

On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, giving birth to a new nation known as the United States of America. Soon after, laws were passed guiding the nation’s growth and prosperity. American history acknowledges that, long before these events, Indian Nations existed and prospered on this continent. What the history does not acknowledge is that the citizens of these American Indian nations were educated by their own people, through systems established over thousands of years.

For almost 200 years, the U.S. government has set laws controlling the education of American Indian children. Federal Indian education policies seemed more focused on “civilizing” the American Indian and assimilating them into the U.S. melting pot. “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” was the mantra and approach to educating Indian children. The 1819 Indian Civilization Act passed by Congress authorized education funding for “mission schools” operated by religious groups on reservations. Almost 60 years after that, the federal government expanded the Indian education system by establishing government-operated boarding schools. The U.S. was not alone in this; Canada also set up a similar system for the First Nations people, with similar results.

The U.S. and Canadian systems set up to educate American Indians have failed the children and the tribes. One needs to look back just a couple of decades to see the harsh realities and poor state of Indian education. For those who dare to look back even further, prepare yourself to learn about the atrocities committed against Indian children.

Now fast forwarding, let’s look at what is going on today, and we begin to see that the story is really about determination, inspiration and progress. Determination? Yes, American Indian governments and its people have always worked on reclaiming their right to educate their young and to work with systems to improve the quality of Indian education. Inspiration? Yes. In the face of adversity and miraculously defying extermination, American Indian communities are finding solutions to fix the failing Indian education system. Progress? Yes. American Indians value education and are taking control of the education process, designing their own systems that lead to success.

Did you know that up to 70 percent of Native American students drop out of high school (varies by community) and only 13 percent of Native students earn college degrees? It is true and American Indian governments and organizations are actively working to turn this around. I am proud to say the American Indian Education Fund, a program of Partnership With Native Americans, is one partner in this effort to enhance opportunities for K-12 and post-secondary students.

Six federally recognized tribes in October 2014 were awarded $1.2 million in Sovereignty in Indian Education (SIE) enhancement funds, “to promote tribal control and operation of BIE-funded schools on their reservations.” The SIE enhancement funds support the findings and recommendations of the American Indian Education Study Group and aim at improving federal education systems and resources in Indian Country. The six tribes are:

  1. Gila River Indian Community, Sacaton, Ariz.
  2. Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Fort Yates, N.D.
  3. Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, Belcourt, N.D.
  4. Tohono O’Odham Nation, Sells, Ariz.
  5. Navajo Nation, Window Rock, Ariz.
  6. Oglala Sioux Tribe, Pine Ridge, S.D.

The Navajo Nation is a prime example of an American Indian government working to improve the quality of education. The first BIE-funded boarding school established on the Navajo Nation in 1965 – Rough Rock Demonstration School  (now Rough Rock Community School) – later became “the first Indian-controlled school in modern times.” Soon after, in 1968, citing the high college dropout rate for Native students, the Navajo tribal council passed a resolution founding the first tribal college – Navajo Community College (renamed Diné College in 1977). Finally, in 1978, Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Assistance Act.

The Navajo Nation recently took another step, beginning to transfer operation of more than 30 schools from U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) control, to management by the Navajo Nation’s Department of Education. The Navajo Nation made this request under public law 93-628, also known as the Self-Determination Contract Act, in a Sept. 30, 2016, letter to Sally Jewell, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary.

More and more, what American Indian children are taught and how they are taught is moving under the control of tribal governments across the United States. The motivation is for tribes to be able to have an impact on the quality of education and the lives of their children. Education is a powerful tool for building prosperous communities and well-being, and finally, after two centuries, education has come full circle, back to the people to whom it belongs and who can deliver the greatest impact for tribal citizens.

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