Home Back to School in Indian Country: Educational Statistics Improving, But Challenges Still Exist

Back to School in Indian Country: Educational Statistics Improving, But Challenges Still Exist

It was hard not to enjoy this past summer, despite the record heat many of us experienced in Indian country. The summer for me has always been a time to visit with relatives around the country and catch up on how fast their children are growing.

Seeing our Indian children grow up is a reminder of how strong the bonds of family and tribe remain. As they advance from toddlers, to pre-school and elementary school, it’s a great feeling to see your family advance and grow. As a proud grandfather with10 grandchildren and one on the way, I am heartened to see their growth and development as we visit each summer. I am also gratified and proud of their academic achievements in higher education and that they’ve chosen careers in Indian country, and at home in Oneida.

It is important to remember that we lead by example, and I’ve been fortunate to watch my grandmother, Maria Hinton—herself a product of the government boarding school era—return to teach the Oneida language, and eventually earn her teaching degree and credentials at the age of 63. She is now 102 and is a role model, inspiration and is still teaching. She and other elders like her throughout Indian country are the best examples of leadership by doing, and they obviously had some good examples of their own.

As the summer draws to a close, those growing children are heading back to school. It’s hard to take a summer break and run free for three months, only to return to the structure of the classroom. But our most enjoyable memories as children revolve around our time in school, be it learning in the classroom or competing on the athletic fields . Indian country understands that a strong education and the lessons learned while in school are valuable tools that help to positively shape the lives of our children. It was a wonderful thing when my own children started to ask about the world around them. You can see the wonder in a child’s eyes, and we should encourage them to seek their own answers, whether it is through our oral traditions or in our history books. Education of Indian children is not limited to schools. It includes their heritage cultures, languages and value systems. This makes them better prepared to assume the responsibilities and challenges their generation is going to face in the future.

Most Americans believe that education should be considered a fundamental right. For Indian country, education of our children represents a solemn promise made to our ancestors by the United States as well as the determination of our ancestors that the children also be educated in the ways of the dominant society in which they will have to coexist. The U.S., in return for taking hundreds of millions of acres of tribal homelands, made specific treaty promises to provide for the education—among other provisions—of all American Indians. It is the duty of each generation of Indian people to make sure these legal obligations are not abandoned.

Sadly, these promises have not been kept. The 2011 National Indian Education Study (NIES) reported that Native fourth- and eighth-grade students scored an average of 13-19 points lower in math and reading proficiency than non-Natives. Feeding into these statistics is the sometimes deplorable conditions of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools in which our children must attempt to learn. There is a more than $3 billion backlog in Indian school construction needs. The result of these deficiencies is poverty and all the social problems that follow from that. The need for improved educational opportunities—though slightly improved already—is still, and will remain, a priority in Indian country for the foreseeable future.

I have friends at the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe that have attempted to work with the BIE for decades to replace the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School. The school is a metal clad pole barn with too many deficiencies to list here. Children are forced to wear their winter coats inside during school hours. How can we expect our children to learn in these environments?

At the higher education level, according to the National Institute for Native Leadership in Higher Education, only six in 10 Native students will finish high school, and less than two in 10 Native students that enter college will graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Indian country is working to change all of these numbers for the better. We believe that we are gaining, but not at the rate we feel is adequate.

Despite these statistics, there is great reason for hope. The 2011 NIES report cited above also had some good news. The report showed that average math scores for fourth-grade American Indian and Alaska Native students attending BIE schools have improved since 2009. Seventy-three percent of Native fourth-graders reported getting help with their schoolwork from a parent or family member once a week or more. Sixty-two percent reported getting help from a teacher at least once a week.

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, acknowledged the need to do more. “American Indian and Alaska Native students need a top-flight education in order to fully participate in a 21st century economy, and the wide and persistent gap between our fourth- and eighth-grade Native students and their peers highlights that we need to do more to help these students,” Duncan said after the July 3, 2012, release of the NIES report. We whole-heartedly agree with these sentiments.

Many tribal governments are also working to fill the gaps in education needs. Tribal governments are using Indian gaming revenues to help supplement the educational services provided to their tribal citizens. Indian gaming revenues are helping to build new head start buildings, day care centers, schools and libraries. They fund Native language preservation programs, after-school activities, scholarships and other educational programs that enrich and encourage the learning experiences of tribal members, young and old. Because of Indian gaming, over the past 20 years, the number of Native students enrolling in college has doubled. As we continue to educate our children and young adults, many of them return to reservations after college, medical school or law school, bringing their skills and knowledge back home. I am so proud of those who make that commitment. Still, we will need more professionals in all areas of our community and tribal workforces.

To be a part of this progress, I have been honored to work with NIGA’s member tribes to establish the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation. Each year, the foundation makes approximately 36 scholarships, totaling about $150,000, to students at tribal colleges. The funding comes directly from NIGA’s member tribes. We look to a time when these scholarships grow so that all young Native students can have access to higher education.

You would think that the United States would foster the work being done by tribes to supplement and improve Indian education. However, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is deterring this activity. In recent years, the IRS has engaged in intrusive audits of tribal governments, some of which have challenged educational benefits provided by tribal governments to their citizens, viewing them as taxable income. NIGA and our member tribes are working with the U.S. Department of the Treasury and Congress to acknowledge the federal government’s obligations to provide for Indian education and to clarify that educational benefits provided by tribes are not subject to federal income tax laws. Educating lawmakers is, ironically, one of the challenges we face as we seek to improve our children’s opportunities.

We must continue to encourage our students to dream and strive to meet their full potential, hold a positive perspective of themselves and our culture, and provide other alternatives to obtain the best education possible. Our children are smart, creative and beautiful people who deserve a great education from our school systems. Indian gaming is not a panacea for our education ills. But, as our children head back to school this fall, we must stay vigilant and do all we can, as parents, tribal leaders, mentors and more, to ensure our Native youth are entering schools that provide quality education and care in the safest of environments.

I hope you all savor the last of the summer picnics and visits with family, because we know that fall is coming fast, and back-to-school preparation moves to the front of our to-do lists. After all, we want the next generation of Indian leaders to carry on their forefather’s visions and hard work that is just starting to give our tribal nations a start on a new and brighter future for all of Indian country.

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