The Bureau of Indian Education recently wrapped up its tribal consultation process on its latest proposed strategic plan “to guide its work and service delivery to [Native] students, schools, and tribes.” While the BIE creates plan after plan intended to restructure, realign, reform, redesign, revise, and redo their education system, in actuality these plans are rarely carried out. The necessary changes to schooling simply remain words written on paper. Meanwhile, tribes, schools, educators, parents, and students continue to wait for the federal government to meet its legal trust responsibility to provide a quality education to American Indian students.
For over a century, the federal government has proven that attempting to control and oversee a nationwide network of schools leads to an ineffective and disheartening system of education that fails to address the cultural, linguistic, and overall learning needs of American Indian children. If the BIE’s record of failure reflected on any other group of students, there would be a national outcry.
In 1953, as Congress was adopting its official Termination Policy to eradicate Indian tribes in the United States, the late Indian law scholar Felix Cohen wrote about the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs: “It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner’s canary, the Indian marks the shift from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.”
The vast majority of Native students in the United States attend public schools. Although only 8 percent of Native students actually attend schools managed by the BIE, they often post the lowest achievement outcomes of all students in their respective states. This poor performance is not due to the lack of caring by BIE school administrators and teachers. One can also not point a finger at the students. They are smart, creative, and ready to learn. They only need the adults in the bureaucratic maze of the BIE to deliver the programs and services they need.
The BIE’s existence is the result of long-standing federal policies that sprung from treaties negotiated between tribes and the U.S. government. And those treaties, in part, established a government-to-government relationship and created a federal trust obligation. Although many treaties contained education provisions aimed to “civilize” Indians, the U.S. government discharged this obligation, first to churches in the 19th century, then to states in the 1930s. However, the federal government kept a remnant, known now as the BIE, which educates more than 40,000 students in 183 schools on 64 reservations in 23 states.
The BIE bureaucracy does not have the flexibility to make big strides, and there is a tight hold on the everyday business of BIE schools that emanates from Washington. The revolving door of political appointees at the top of the agency does little to establish stability, trust, or confidence. Adding all this to the fact that the BIE is woefully underfunded and understaffed, it’s easy to understand the difficulty of getting adequate, consistent services to students.
With every new planning process, the BIE has a unique opportunity to right the historical wrongs that inflicted enormous traumas upon tribal communities they have yet to overcome. At the beginning, federal schools’ mode of education was to steal young children from their tribal communities, ship them far away, and abuse and control them until their culture disappeared, and they submitted to new American norms. Their values were encompassed in the words of Carlisle Indian School founder Capt. Richard Pratt, who said these schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” As a result, Native languages are currently in peril, Native communities deal with high poverty, and many Native families struggle to find a path to economic and social stability.
If the BIE’s record of failure reflected on any other group of students, there would be a national outcry."
The BIE has moved beyond Pratt’s motto and changes to the federal school system have been made, but the agency still struggles with a colonial mindset. Each new plan, or change to the plan, has failed to move the needle because the BIE has yet to learn from its past mistakes. Instead, the agency continues to create reform plans at the top, hoping they will trickle down to create change at the local level.
When I was the state superintendent in Montana, I understood that meaningful change has to be decided at the local level and supported by those at the top. There is no better approach then to work side-by-side with school staff, community members, and students to help change their education system, let them define their future, and then support their efforts to reach their goals. Our state education agency learned to be nimble and flexible, community-based, and responsive.
These features were key to empowering student voices, creating trauma-informed schools, implementing mental-health wraparound services, and increasing academic rigor in classrooms. This most important work of improving educational and life outcomes for the next generation means that those in charge must be inclusive and truly work with their partners in this effort.
For the BIE, the most local and important partners are tribal governments. When designing new programs and policies that are in keeping with the federal government’s trust responsibility, the BIE is supposed to engage in a meaningful consultation process with tribes. With this most recent strategic plan, tribal governments are not listed as early stakeholders in its development. This is a serious oversight. While the plan outlines a mission to build tribal capacity to determine its own educational future, it does nothing of the sort. Instead, it reads as if the BIE is still in charge.
To truly move toward tribal educational sovereignty, the BIE needs to loosen its grip, reduce the bureaucracy, and stop regulating from afar. Let tribes determine how and when the BIE should support their education efforts and, in turn, how the BIE should be accountable to tribes.
The BIE needs to recognize its constituency: Native students, mostly in Native communities. Tribes’ repeated requests to include Native language and culture in the BIE schools should be front and center, not buried. The BIE needs to embrace its legal and moral obligation to tribal people and stop giving lip service to integrating culture into academic programs. It is frustrating for tribes to be consulted on the same issues time and again, give similar input, wait for the written plan, be hopeful for the coming implementation, observe as some window dressing is changed, and then see continued dismal educational results for their youngest citizens.
While this most recent BIE plan establishes good goals, if it really wants to change student outcomes, it needs to let tribes and communities lead the way.