Native American Educators Seek More Control and More Money

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 29, 1995 3 min read


Native Americans say they do not want to wait for the federal government to define the future of Indian education.

So last week, American Indian and Alaska Native educators and tribal and state officials came here seeking control over the education of Indian children and more federal support for Indian-education programs.

Leaders of the National Indian Education Association, the National Congress of American Indians, and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education organized the three-day summit.

There are about 400,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students--slightly less than 1 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren. Close to 90 percent are educated in public schools, many of which are on or near reservations. Others attend schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs or by local tribes through contracts with that agency.

During the summit, participants outlined recommendations intended for Congress, the Clinton Administration, and the education community. Most highlighted a desire to preserve native cultures and languages, protect tribal sovereignty, and uphold the “government to government” relationship between the tribes and federal authorities. Issues of Indian sovereignty and federal responsibility ran throughout the discussions.

Conflicting Views

From the late 1700’s to the 1870’s, the U.S. government signed hundreds of treaties with tribal leaders, many of which included provisions for educating Indians in exchange for land.

Many Indian leaders have argued that the federal government has a historical, political, legal, and moral responsibility to educate Native Americans and that Indians should not have to compete for federal resources with other minorities.

And while the federal government in the past few decades has moved to support tribal self-determination and sovereignty in education, many summit participants said they feared those efforts might erode in an era of likely federal budget cuts and increased state control over federal dollars in the form of block grants.

“We need to insure that these changes do not undermine the federal government’s obligation to the Indian people,” said Regis S. Pecos, a member of the Cochiti Pueblos and the executive director of the New Mexico office of Indian affairs.

While some participants argued that federal support for Indian education is simply “rent due” on lands ceded years ago to the U.S. government, others argued that for tribes to become truly sovereign they must become financially independent.

“Tribes need to act more sovereign,” said Wil Numkena, the director of Indian affairs in Utah. “Too often this is just rhetoric....Why do we have our hand out to Uncle Sam for crumbs?”

The differing viewpoints at the summit draw from the various definitions of sovereignty among tribes and the federal government and how they relate to education. And education for most Indian children is controlled by state and local entities now beyond the reach of most tribal governments.

Because so many federal agencies control pieces of Indian-education programs, leaders of the three groups that organized the meeting here are crafting a federal Indian-education policy statement to help reassert the government-to-government relationship, uphold federal treaty responsibilities, and boost tribal control over education.

“The policies are too fragmented now and vacillate with changing political winds,” said Phil Baird, the co-chairman of the education committee of the National Congress of American Indians.

Fear of Cuts

Those shifting winds are making many Indian leaders fearful of funding cuts in federal programs that affect their students. Historically, states and tribes have butted heads over many issues. Given the failure of many Indian students in the public schools, most Indian leaders here expressed little faith in state governments’ ability to insure that Native American students get a quality education.

Thus, proposals by the new Republican majority on Capitol Hill to consolidate a slew of education programs into state block grants sparked concern among educators such as Sherry Dawn Red Owl, the director of the Rosebud Sioux tribal education department in South Dakota.

“I’m not convinced our children would see those funds,” she said.

Some educators said they feared that lawmakers eager to cut federal spending may cite some tribes’ newfound financial muscle in gaming operations as a reason to lower such spending. (See Education Week, 12/07/94.)

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1995 edition of Education Week as Native American Educators Seek More Control and More Money