Indian Education Lagging Due to Lack of Priority and Input

Christina Rose


At a US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs roundtable discussion, tribal leaders and Indian Education specialists focused on challenges and the need for more tribal input in Indian education.

Charles Roessel, acting director for the Bureau of Indian Education, said there will be an increasing focus on instruction in the classroom, which some hope will include changing the framework of teaching and increasing the quality of teachers and instruction in the classroom.

Many tribal leaders, federal agencies, and representatives from Teach for America, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, TEDNA, and National Federation of Federally Impacted Schools expressed concern over the difficulties involved with hiring highly qualified teachers. If BIE schools cannot provide pensions or pay competitive salaries, teachers, especially those with high student loan payments, will teach elsewhere. One question posed was whether there was a way to get congressional relief for the student loans of tribal members who want to come home to teach.

Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, cited the report, Broken Promises, Broken Schools which focuses on deteriorating BIE schools, a significant problem across Indian country. A number of the BIE school facilities are not up to par with local public school systems, including schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Fire Thunder and Dayna Brave Eagle, director of Tribal Education in Pine Ridge, requested more of a voice in distribution of funds and crafting Indian education programs.

Bill Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education said there is a need to explore mechanisms for collaboration and cooperation between states and tribes.

Gov. Gregory Mendoza, Gila River, Arizona, said their 21,000 tribal members utilize a mix of schools including grant, public, and parochial. Gov. Mendoza joined the majority of speakers about the lack of clarity and role of tribal governments in education.

Tino Batt, Treasurer of the Fort Hall Business Council and tribal representative for the Shoshone-Bannock, said he is happy to see Indian Education coming to the fore. “We have had many different forums before, but education is one of our big issues and should be a top priority.”

Batt said it was important to have tribal leaders involved in decision making and funding. “The BIE is asking tribal leaders to prioritize top issues, and whenever we come together, education only comes up as a third or fourth priority, and that’s why you never see a big push. When it comes to top priority, it is usually law enforcement issues that come first,” Batt said. “There have been so many reports since Kennedy, and we are still in that process. It’s like we are moving one foot after the other. We need to get moving on this.”

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value116's picture
Submitted by value116 on
Having taught for 25 years in Central Harlem, I'm semi-retired for the past four or five years, and still doing multicultural studies, peer mentoring, leadership through service projects and early college awareness. What I've found that works is first finding out about that human being called "the student". What are their hopes, dreams, fears, etc.? Use culturally relevant poetry, folktales, etc. to build self-esteem and leadership skills. Then broaden out to children's issues on the level of need and social justice and have the students develop service projects related to those issues. All the curriculum areas can be brought in here including history, math, science, etc. Teacher needs to do some planning for this and to include cultural heritage and heroes and heroines, but it's more interesting for teacher and student alike. Through these projects, critical thinking will also be sharpened. Running through this is development of the student's rich cultural heritage. The college closest to Pine Ridge can become a partner and develop a mentoring program with the students at Pine Ridge Elementary School (as an example). CFES(College For Every Student) programs ( can provide support for college readiness from K through 12th grade. In our school, PS197M, our students have gone from disillusioned to inspired. Teachers with passion are needed. Seek out material that is culturally relevant to the students' lives, rather than irrelevant and low interest(boring). The "state standards" can be upheld as well, using them as a framework. A team can seek out relevant materials, and for cost, since BIA may not pay, try to find sponsors to provide the materials. If there are "no materials" in a certain area, create them. Get the students involved in interviewing and learning the oral histories of the elders. Get the students to take action, doing what makes a difference. If they are learning a skill in the morning, why do they need to know it? Let them put it into practice "in the afternoon" so to speak, or soon after. Make it relevant for their daily lives. Let them develop a performing group, a newspaper, a survival skills group, a peer mentoring group, etc., etc., etc. We don't need any more reports. We need to take action. It's up to each of us as we reclaim the power in our lives. Earlier today I was thinking about Sitting Bull when he said, "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children." Joannie W.