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Bush's Absence From Conference Riles Indian Educators

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WASHINGTON--Delegates to the White House Conference on Indian Education have adjourned amid considerable bitterness over President Bush's decision not to make even a cameo appearance at the unprecedented four-day conference.

While Mr. Bush's absence was a prime topic of discussions and a demonstration at the meeting here last month, the conference focused on formal rejection of a proposal to establish an independent national Board of Indian Education.

Delegates attacked the board concept, which was suggested in Congressional legislation authorizing the conference, as a federal intrusion into Indian affairs and "contrary to tribal self-determination and sovereignty."

Critics contended that creating a national body to govern federal Indian-education programs would be inappropriate and "counterproductive'' amid a growing movement toward tribal independence. (See Education Week, Jan. 29, 1992.)

Some delegates supported an alternative proposal that would have established a National Indian Education Commission--whose members would have been selected by "tribal people"to be a policymaking body.

Stuart Tonemah, a delegate from Oklahoma and a proponent of the alternative proposal, argued that a national policymaking panel could perform a valuable service without interfering with tribal rights.

"I have a concern that we in Indian Country have no one to turn to in terms of accountability for programs that affect our kids," Mr. Tonemah said. "We need some entity that will hold the federal government's feet to the fire."

The measure calling for a national panel failed to achieve the support needed for consideration, however.

'Where Is The President?'

In a speech to delegates, Peterson Zah, the president of the Navajo Nation, emphasized self-determination in education and other areas.

Mr. Zah noted that treaties signed by the Navajo and the federal government in the 1860's included specific requirements aimed at ensuring education for all Navajo children. But only now, he said, are the Navajo in a position to consider establishing a tribal department of education that would channel federal and state funds into effective programs for Indian children.

As part of a tribal initiative to improve education on the vast Navajo reservation, Mr. Zah added, a program also is under way to involve tribal community colleges and off-reservation postsecondary institutions in an effort to train 1,000 Navajos to become teachers within the five years. "That to me spells control. That's the way to save Indian education," he said. "We don't want to model ourselves on the [public-school] system out there because that has already failed the American people."

Mr. Zah also echoed criticisms that President Bush did not attend the meeting, instead sending members of his domestic-policy staff.

"We are meeting in his own back yard. We are here in his name. But where is the President?" Mr. Zah asked.

An Administration spokesman said last week that a "scheduling nightmare" during the conference had made it impossible for the President to attend.

A vocal group of delegates, meanwhile, organized a rally to protest Mr. Bush's "indifference" to the plight of native students.

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