From ‘No Power’To Local Power?

August 02, 1989 20 min read

A tiny minority among minorities, American Indians have had a particularly hard time exerting any influence over the education of their children.

“We’re such a small segment of America, we have no power,” says Sally Hunter, an Ojibway Indian who teaches in the Minneapolis public schools. “We have to rely on the kindness of those in power.”

Although the federal government’s policy of “self-determination” for Native Americans requires that the Bureau of Indian Affairs give Indian communities considerable say in the education of youngsters in bia schools, only 10 percent of Indian children today attend such schools.

The vast majority are enrolled in the public-school system. This includes both the majority of Indian children who now live off of reservations, in cities and in small towns, and the large number who live on reservations but attend local public schools.

For the parents of these children, finding ways to help shape their education has proven an uphill battle.

The Mesquaki Tribe, for example, dictates the education policies of the K-6 Sac and Fox School, which is part of the bia system. But the tribe has little influence over the South Tama County, Iowa, public schools, where nearly three-fourths of Mesquaki children are enrolled and where they represent 12 percent of the student population.

Lorraine Davenport, a former member of the Mesquaki parent committee that monitors federal Indian programs, says public-school officials often ignore the suggestions of Mesquaki parents and have little notion of the problems facing Indian students.

No Mesquaki has ever been elected to the South Tama County school board and none is likely to be, according to the tribal chief, Donald Wanatee. This is largely because Mesquakis who live on tribal lands are still denied the right to vote in school-board elections.

Although the reservation, where about 75 percent of the tribe’s members live, is within the geographical boundaries of the school district, it is not considered a part of the school system for voting purposes.

“The public-school system is archaic,” Mr. Wanatee charges. “It’s bogged down in a quagmire of racism. We’re not going to get anything from it unless we go to court and fight for it.”

Turning to the Courts

That view is shared increasingly by other Native Americans, says Jeanette Wolfley, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo. More and more, she notes, Indians are turning to the courts to extract from public-school districts a modicum of control over their children’s education.

Recent cases have involved such charges as discriminatory hiring of teachers, unfair treatment of Indian students, and violations of voting rights in local school-board elections.

In 1980, for example, the Potawatomi Tribe, which lives outside the small town of Crandon, Wisc., began complaining to the state’s bureau of equal educational opportunity that Indian students were disproportionately represented in disciplinary actions by the public schools. The tribe also charged that school officials had refused to provide culturally relevant instruction or to eliminate textbooks that depicted Native Americans in denigrating stereotypes.

After conducting two separate investigations, the bureau found that the school district had refused to provide programs geared toward Indian students’ cultural needs, because such courses were considered “contrary to the concept of equality.”

It also found that only four Native Americans had graduated from Crandon High School between 1970 and 1980, even though Potawatomi youngsters represented 7 percent of the district’s 1,000 students.

In 1986, the Potawatomis filed suit against the school district and the state of Wisconsin, after concluding that their complaints and the two state investigations had failed to result in a solution.

An out-of-court settlement resulted in several reforms, including the creation of a tribal-education committee to review school textbooks, the introduction of cultural-sensitivity training for teachers, and an exploration of the need for bilingual instruction.

‘Now They Want To Vote. What Next?’

Another 1986 lawsuit, in Big Horn County, Mont., centered on a voting system that Indians alleged disenfranchised them from public-school governance.

In Windy Boy v. Big Horn County, U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie ruled that Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indians had been denied access to schools and local government because of a discriminatory at-large voting system--a pattern civil-rights activists charge is common in localities where Indians reside.

Big Horn County is larger than the state of Connecticut, with a population that is 52 percent white and 46 percent Indian. Most whites live in the county seat of Hardin, while most Crows and Northern Cheyennes live on two reservations that constitute nearly 90 percent of the county’s land.

Despite the large percentage of Indians in the county, before 1987 only one had ever been elected to the Hardin school board, which supervises a district that encompasses a populous section of the Crow Reservation.

According to Janine Windy Boy, president of Little Big Horn College and chief plaintiff in the case, the Crow Tribe had actively pursued voter registration during the early 1980’s, in an effort to gain positions on the school board and on the county board of commissioners.

But by 1984, the Indian community had concluded that no matter how many Native Americans voted, they would always be defeated by the white majority.

Although the at-large electoral system feael10ltured district representation, it allowed all county voters to elect the commissioner for each district. Winning candidates sometimes gained as few as 20 votes in their own district, but were carried to victory by thousands of votes coming from elsewhere in the county.

The suit charged that such procedures violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and testimony during the trial revealed a variety of discriminatory voting practices.

Dale Old Horn, a Crow educator and linguist trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also testified that Indian pupils were almost automatically tracked into vocational courses in the county’s schools.

Other witnesses said school officials had refused to meet with Indian parents, once resulting in the loss of federal funds earmarked for Indian students.

Laughlin McDonald, a lawyer who helped prepare the Indians’ case, says he was “surprised and perhaps a little naive at how overt the discrimination was.”

Indians in Montana, he argues, “are at about the same point blacks were 20 to 30 years ago” in the South.

In compliance with Judge Rafeedie’s ruling, Big Horn County was divided into voting districts. And in 1987, two Indians were elected to Hardin’s six-member school board.

But despite the court victory, Ms. Windy Boy says she does not expect any real changes in the immediate future. “Resolving voter discrimination doesn’t solve all your problems,” she says, when attitudes toward Indians remain unaltered.

After the court decision, for example, one white resident of the county remarked, “Now they want to vote. What next?”

In Wisconsin, Eugene Shawno of the Potawatomi tribal-education committee predicts that “it may be 10 years before we see any benefits” from such legal victories.

“There’s hard feelings from way back,” he says.

Making Politics ‘a Priority’

Others complain that even when Indian parents are given the chance to participate in their children’s schooling, many are reluctant to do so, either by serving on committees or by taking charge of program planning.

Some Indian leaders also worry that the election of Indian school-board members has not necessarily benefited Indian students. Often, they suggest, successful candidates have been more interested in personal advancement than in educational issues.

Gerald Wilkinson, who died recently after serving as director of the National Indian Youth Council, last year cited political inexperience as one reason that Indian communities frequently failed to elect effective school-board members. “With their history of suppression, being involved in the political process hasn’t exactly been a top priority,” he said. “But more and more, Indians are seeing how these boards are impacting on their lives. As they get more experience, they’ll be able to discern who’s really on their side.”

A Zuni Success Story

In the rare instances in which Native Americans have been able to gain control over their public schools, the results have been promising.

In 1979, the Zuni Tribe in New Mexico concluded a decade-long study that found more than 40 percent of school-age Zuni children were not enrolled in school. That same year, Zuni high-school graduates recorded average scores just above the 8th-grade level on the state’s comprehensive test of basic skills.

Ten years later, Superintendent Hayes Lewis of the Zuni Public Schools proudly cites an annual dropout rate of only 3 percent and a 34 percent college-attendance rate among last year’s high-school graduates.

He attributes the turnaround to the tribe’s decision to break away from a large public-school district and establish its own reservationwide district.

Prior to that separation, no Zuni had ever served on the school board of Gallup-McKinley County. Today, the reservation’s education policies are set by a local all-Zuni board.

Unfortunately, most observers concede, success stories like the Zuni’s remain anomalies. Establishing public schools that are Indian-controlled, such as the Zuni Reservation’s, requires a unique demographic situation. The Zunis had a large enough population to justify creating their own school district, yet they were a small enough segment of the Gallup-McKinley County district that their efforts to break away did not threaten the larger school system’s economic viability.

‘Time To Try Something Different’

Many Native Americans are keeping a close eye on a controversial proposal to establish a separate, all-Indian public-school district in Minneapolis.

The proposal, developed by a group of Indian leaders and area educators, would create a smaller district within the urban area that would offer a concentration of Native American programs and teachers and be governed by an Indian school board.

The proposal responded to the concerns of many Native Americans in urban areas that their children do not have access to culturally relevant programs or instruction and are discriminated against within the larger school system.

In a 1982-84 study, for example, the Urban Coalition of Minneapolis found that Indian students were suspended at nearly three times the rate of white students. At the same time, a statewide task force on Indian education found that one in eight Indian children was assigned to special education, compared with one in 20 whites.

Rosemary Christensen, director of Indian programs for the Minneapolis public schools, contends that radical steps are needed because of the “total failure of white man’s education to meet Indian students’ needs.”

“The public-school system is an inert beast,” she says. “It’s full of institutional racism, and it can’t move from its own inertia. We’ve pumped $4 million in federal money into that beast, and we’ve got little to show for it. It’s time to try something different.”

If adopted, the Minneapolis proposal could dramatically alter the course of Indian education, expanding the concept of all-Indian schools beyond the boundaries of reservations and into cities, where more than one-third of American Indians live.

But the idea is sure to be controversial.

Many city and state officials argue that creating separate public-school systems for Indians runs counter to desegregation laws. And they question the ability of separate schools to provide an equal education.

Others contend that once Native Americans leave the reservation, they forfeit their rights as tribal members to control general-education policies.

For now, if Indian parents wish to participate in their children’s education, most must continue to rely on federal requirements that schools create parent committees to oversee federally funded programs, such as Title IV.

A 1983 evaluation of the Title IV program by the U.S. Education Department found that parents and staff members who participate in such programs are “often the only Indian presence officially associated with the school system.” But critics also allege that the role played by parent committees is often meaningless, serving as little more than a ''rubber stamp” for existing school policies.

Making Do in B.I.A. System

Even within the bia system--where Indian communities theoretically can exert substantial control over their children’s education--Native Americans say the process of moving toward self-governance is fraught with problems. These include budgetary constraints, accusations that federal officials are slow to give up power, and infighting among tribal leaders.

Two years ago, for example, the Red Scaffold School on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota expanded from a K-9 to a K-12 institution to avoid sending area students to public or boarding high schools.

But despite the school’s expanded student body and its greater transportation costs, the bia declined to increase its level of maintenance funding.

According to Brian Charging Cloud, a member of the Red Scaffold school board, the school operated for a full year in a jury-rigged facility. An old lunchroom was partitioned into high-school classrooms, and students took their meals at a nearby senior citizens’ center.

In 1987, the Santa Fe (N.M.) Indian School was one of two bia schools recognized for educational excellence by the U.S. Education Department among 271 schools nationwide. But Assistant Superintendent James Moffitt complains that to excel, the contract school has had to rely heavily on private donations and other outside funding sources.

Moves To Control ‘Discouraged’

Other tribal leaders complain that the bureau has discouraged their efforts to contract for the operation of reservation schools or has made it difficult to run those schools effectively.

Following a 1988 Congressional hearing, Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, charged that the agency had “discouraged” local Indian communities from operating schools and “caused needless program disruption and expense,” in part because of bureaucratic red tape and intimidation.

The Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe in Oklahoma, for instance, remains locked in a struggle for control of a school that the bia closed in 1984.

Bill Berlin, a former Cheyenne-Arapaho education director, says the tribe had taken over management of the school in 1979, hoping to create a learning environment that was culturally compatible with its students. Within two weeks, however, tribal factions secured a court order returning the school to bia operation. Five years later, the bureau closed the facility and transferred its students to local public schools.

Mr. Berlin contends that agency employees “fueled the fires” in the factional conflict by warning tribal members that bia jobs would be lost if the tribe took over the school. On most reservations, the bureau is a major source of employment.

Leaders in other tribes also describe situations in which community members, often those employed by the federal agency, were hesitant to become involved in school matters for fear of losing their jobs.

Tribal Politics Faulted

But the blame for such conflicts does not lie entirely with the federal government, Indian officials acknowledge. Within tribal communities themselves, they say, struggles are going on over who should control the schools--separate Indian school boards or local tribal governments.

The result is, some Indian parents worry, that tribal politicking will itself create obstacles to adequate schooling.

Many tribes, for example, have established departments of education to disseminate federal funds to reservation schools, distribute postsecondary scholarships to tribal members, and operate Head Start programs.

Some have developed tribal codes of education, which outline policies for all schools on the reservation but are largely ignored. According to Roger Jourdain, chairman of the Red Lake Band of Chippewas in Minnesota, however, tribal governments would like to assert more authority over Indian children’s education.

Addressing a Minnesota state task force on Indian education in 1987, Mr. Jourdain argued: “Rules and regulations of the state board of education that conflict with those promulgated by the tribal code must be waived or otherwise relaxed to ensure that tribal goals are met.”

In particular, he proposed that tribes be granted greater power to hire and fire teachers in public schools on their reservations, as a way to ensure that tribally mandated curriculum policies are carried out.

‘Local Control,’ Not Tribal Control

The concern of educators and some Indian leaders about the emerging role of elected tribal governments stems from their relative novelty.

Tribal government, as it now exists on Indian reservations, was an innovation introduced with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 that is not yet fully trusted.

Traditionally, many tribes were governed by consensus. No decisions were final until agreed upon by all members.

Indians’ inexperience with European forms of government, and flaws within the political system imposed on reservations, have combined to produce frequent squabbles within tribes that are intensified by the tribal government’s status in many instances as the community’s principal employer.

Critics charge that tribal decisions are sometimes based on how many friends and family members can be given jobs, rather than on what is best for the tribe.

In this year’s Senate investigative hearings, for example, Indian witnesses alleged that in exchange for bribes or other favors, tribe members fronted for phony “Indian-owned” companies that then performed shoddy contract construction work on reservations or bilked tribes of earnings from their natural resources.

But other witnesses and several committee investigators--who resigned over the issue--charged that the focus of the hearings should have remained on evidence of mismanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than on the conduct of tribe members. They argued that instances of tribal corruption are to be expected in the movement toward local decisionmaking, and were overemphasized in the hearings.

In any case, educators suggest, the importance of local decisionmaking is not in how it enhances the powers of tribal leaders but in how it encourages communitywide empowerment.

“The concept of local control is just taking hold,” says Anselm Davis, former superintendent of the Window Rock, Ariz., public schools. ''People are beginning to realize their power and beginning to utilize it effectively.”

While tribal governments should give direction to schools and help them set policies that will preserve the native language and culture, Mr. Davis cautions, “tribal control is not always local control. The focus should always be on local control.”

‘Someone Else To Blame’

But as the difficult transition to self-governance proceeds, many communities admit that they need more time to prepare themselves to take over school operations.

“I certainly want the bia out of our education and hope to accomplish that in the next four or five years,” says Randy Plume of the Pine Ridge Reservation. But many residents on the reservation would prefer to maintain federal control indefinitely, he notes.

“A lot of people are afraid of what will happen without the bia,” he says. “It’s a typical adolescent attitude, just like wondering what will happen when mom and dad die. With the bureau running their schools, Indians have got someone else to blame: ‘Damn bureau this’ and ‘Damn bureau that.”’

Eventually, he argues, when Indians are running the schools themselves, and have no external scapegoat, the schools are “bound to perform better.”

“It may not be evident yet, but self-determination and local control are working,” says Lorena Bahe, director of the Navajo Association of Tribally Contracted Schools.

“But those policies need continued support,” she cautions. “It may be 15 or 20 years before we see their real results.”

For States, a ‘Low Priority’

State officials, generally reluctant to become too involved in the problems of Indian education, have often wound up instead in disputes over money with Native American communities.

Several states with large Indian populations have established Indian-education offices. But a 1983 survey conducted for the U.S. Education Department found that many states authorized little or no funding of their own for Indian programs and would terminate them if federal support ended.

In North Dakota, Dennis Blue recalls that in 1987, when he was state coordinator for Indian education, his office also had to administer bilingual and refugee programs, leaving little time to monitor Indian services.

Among state legislators surveyed by the Education Commission of the States in 1980, Indian education was generally a “low priority.” Moreover, while many public-school administrators acknowledged that Indian students were not doing well, they insisted their needs were no different from those of other students, the ecs researchers found.

One exception to the overall pattern of state neglect is Minnesota. In 1977, its lawmakers passed the American Indian Language and Culture Act. The law makes it possible for Indians lacking the requisite credentials to receive teaching certificates in bilingual and bicultural methods. It also provides for Indian classroom aides and programs to bring Indian languages and cultures into the public-school curriculum.

In addition, the state provides more than $3 million annually for Indian dropout-prevention efforts, cultural-enhancement programs, and postsecondary scholarships.

But even in Minnesota, state and federal expenditures are insufficient to meet the needs of Native American students, according to David Beaulieu, director of Indian education. In 1987, he said, nearly 500 of Minnesota’s Indian high-school graduates who had been accepted by colleges were unable to attend because of a shortage of funds.

Losing Battle for Funding

In other states, government officials and Indian tribes have frequently found themselves in conflict over the allocation of federal impact-aid payments.

The Congress enacted the impact-aid program in the 1950’s to alleviate the tax burden on public-school districts that include federal nontaxable lands, such as military installations and Indian reservations. For many pubel10llic schools located on or near reservations, it is a crucial source of funding, sometimes accounting for nearly half of annual budgets.

In 1978, recognizing what it called the “special needs” of Indian students, the Congress also authorized a 25 percent add-on to impact-aid payments going to districts with substantial Indian populations. But many states simply folded the impact aid, including the add-on, into their equalization formulas--with the result that some districts with substantial Indian populations were classified as wealthier than others.

Last year’s omnibus education measure, HR 5, prohibited states from including the add-on in equalization formulas but allowed them to continue folding in the rest of Indian students’ impact aid. For financially pressed Indian educators, that provided some relief from political bickering but no solution to their schools’ persistent funding problems.

“The state thinks we’re getting too much money,” says Patrick Graham, assistant superintendent of the Window Rock, Ariz., schools on the Navajo Reservation. “But they need to take into account the fact that expenses on the reservation are much higher.”

Reservation facilities, which are usually more run down than average, require higher maintenance and utility costs, he explains. In addition, Indian schools must finance housing for teachers and large student-transportation costs, he says.

“A lot of these states are facing hard times themselves, and they’re going to start looking more and more at ways to get hold of that federal money,” says John Forkenbrock, executive director of the Association of Federally Impacted Schools. “We’ve got to educate them about why the Indian schools need to spend more.”

But the combination of shrinking federal support and state reluctance to pick up the slack has left many educators in a pessimistic frame of mind. “I don’t see much of a future for Indian education, haven’t seen one since the early 1980’s,” says Harry Hendrickson, director of federal programs for the Gallup-McKinley County, N.M., public schools. “Quite frankly, I see a slow death for funding."--Reported by Dennis McDonald

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as From ‘No Power’To Local Power?