Corrected: This article incorrectly named the organization that sponsored a briefing on Capitol Hill. It was the Washington-based National Indian Education Association.
A senator and Native American leaders took turns sharing what they see as good news last week during a briefing about national legislation that would affect American Indian schoolchildren.
Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat from South Dakota, said a bill that would authorize Indian tribes to issue school construction bonds has a good chance of passing this fall.
He and several congressional aides spoke during the late-afternoon briefing on Capitol Hill, planned by its host, the American Indian Education Association, to coincide with the weeklong festivities celebrating the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.
Sen. Johnson said that the bill, which Native Americans have been trying to get passed for more than a decade, was approved in May by the Senate as an attachment to a tax bill that has a lot of support. He noted that the Senate is now trying to resolve differences with the House of Representatives regarding the tax bill.
“There’s been an immense backlog of school construction all over Indian country,” Mr. Johnson said at the Sept. 22 briefing. He said the proposed legislation wouldn’t be a “cure-all” for that backlog, but would give tribes the option of offering bonds for school construction.
The law would, for the first time, make it possible for tribes to take on bond- related debt for the purpose of building schools on reservations.
Cindy La Marr, the president of the Washington-based American Indian Education Association and a member of the Pit River and Paiute tribes, reported what advocates say is positive news on another matter: an update on the executive order addressing the education of American Indians and Alaska natives that President Bush signed on April 30.
The executive order says that the federal government will help Native students meet the academic standards of the No Child Left Behind Act “in a manner consistent with tribal traditions, languages, and cultures.” It also requires comprehensive research on American Indian education.
The federal government missed its deadline to draw up a plan for carrying out the executive order within 90 days of its signing. But last week, the Department of Education gave Ms. La Marr a draft of such a plan.
Written by an interagency working group, the plan recommends that the federal government build on a 1991 report, “Indian Nations at Risk.” The findings of that report are still valid, and few of the report’s recommendations have been addressed, according to the draft plan.
In addition, the plan says that the federal government will consult with American Indian educators at two conferences in October sponsored by Indian groups. The plan sets March 31 as a deadline for the Education Department to compile the most pertinent data, reports, and studies on Native American education.
By that same date, the interagency group is also to have convened a meeting of schools that have demonstrated promising practices for teaching Native Americans. The working group is scheduled to publish a final report by June 30 of next year.
Patricia Zell, the Democratic staff director for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, observed at the briefing that Congress has improved relations with Native Americans in the more than 20 years that she’s worked for the committee.
“In the early days, there was always a process of consultation with Indian country, but it wasn’t a very effective process,” she said. She credited new technology, in part, for improving communication between Native Americans and lawmakers. Now, she said, when members of Congress write laws affecting Native Americans, “the ideas come from Indian country; the legislative language comes from Indian country.”
Slow to Act?
Jon Whirlwind Horse, a member of the Lakota tribe and a facilities manager at Little Wound School in Kyle, S.D., agreed that Indians have increasingly gained access to lawmakers. He’s worked for years to get the Indian school construction bill passed. But he added that while Washington lawmakers now listen to the opinions of American Indians, they are still slow to act on those views.
His opinions are backed up by a July 2003 report, “A Quiet Crisis: Federal Funding and Unmet Needs in Indian Country,” by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The report criticized the U.S. government for ignoring the needs of American Indian schoolchildren. “The federal government has not upheld its legal and moral obligation to provide sufficient funding for the education of Native American students,” it concluded.