The late American Indian philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. once wrote, “Every society needs educated people, but the primary responsibility of educated people is to bring wisdom back into the community and make it available to others so that the lives they are leading make sense.” In many ways, the essence of education is to share knowledge and wisdom to improve the lives of other people. However, if we analyze history, Native people are reminded that education has too often been underfunded or masked as a tool for the federal government’s assimilation and termination policies.
As Native people, we are the only demographic in the United States that the federal government has a moral obligation to educate—a trust responsibility to provide adequate resources for Native-serving programs, which include education, in exchange for the land and resources tribes ceded years ago. And yet, the result of this trust responsibility to our students has been laden with decades of destructive federal policy.
The assimilation era—a period that began after the Civil War and lasted through the early 20th century—stifled Native education as boarding schools sought to end the cultural and linguistic traditions of Native communities. Fortunately, as tribes regained their self-determination with the resurgence of tribal sovereignty, they secured the ability to administer and direct their tribal education programs. As improvements are made, we, as Native peoples, must look back and recognize the policies that reformed Native education, laying the groundwork for future policies to be enacted.
The Indian Education Act of 1972 should be recognized as a turning point for Native education. It was critical for improving the quality of education for American Indians and Alaska Natives after a period when cultural decline was commonplace within tribal communities.
Native advocates worked with Congress on the law to meet the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students and to close the educational gap that had formed between Natives and their non-Native peers. The law authorized federal education assistance at higher monetary levels than what had been allocated through the federal Office of Education, the precursor to the U.S. Department of Education under the old Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The law also formed a specific Office of Indian Education within the Office of Education, creating the National Advisory Council for Indian Education—a forum for providing input to Congress and the administration on Native education priorities. Tribes and Native communities considered the creation of these formal bodies a much-needed step forward as Native education advocates sought to be heard at higher levels within the federal government.
As a proud tribal citizen, I can stand and say that I am a product of the Indian Education Act and Title VII programming.”
While the increased administrative attention was important to providing a voice for Native education, the Indian Education Act more importantly laid a foundation for future legislation, such as Title VII, which would preserve and promote the protection, use, and teaching of cultural and linguistic education in public schools.
Title VII, the stand-alone Native education program under the No Child Left Behind Act, has been one of the most important pieces of legislation for reforming Native education. It must be protected as future versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act are developed by Congress. Under Title VII, Native education stakeholders work with schools and higher education institutions to ensure that culture-based education is included in school curricula and that it meets the educational needs of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students.
The supplemental education programs and funding under Title VII have contributed greatly to the education of our Native students by bringing their local culture into the public schools they attend. And yet, while there have been successes, we still continue to fight outside pressure for the right to an equal education that includes our Native cultural values and traditions.
“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Those words in a speech by Robert Henry Pratt in 1892 are a stark reminder of how the United States government once viewed American Indians. In 1879, Pratt opened the first off-reservation government boarding school where Native American children where sent, often forcibly, to be “civilized.”
Low rates of high school graduation, among other grim educational outcomes, weigh on Indian Country today. In spite of their deep concerns, many Native leaders see a direction for how to improve student achievement and academic prosperity, including through the preservation of tribal cultures and languages.
Education Week Commentary editors partnered with the National Indian Education Association to invite Native leaders to discuss such issues. Artist Brent Greenwood (Chickasaw/Ponca) contributed original illustrations.
Read the other Commentaries and browse a related reporting project on Native American education: Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunities
This past summer, the U.S. House of Representatives tried to strip Title VII from the reauthorization of the ESEA. Fortunately, through the work of organizations like the National Indian Education Association, of which I am a student board member, and our champions in Congress, like Reps. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Betty McCollum, D-Minn., we garnered overwhelming bipartisan support to keep Title VII as a stand-alone program as the reauthorization of the ESEA made its way through the House.
Congress and non-Natives must understand that Title VII is a critical program for both addressing the unique educational needs of our Native students and establishing educational equity. Unfortunately, many people do not fully comprehend the impact that these programs have on Native education. Too often, Native students must rely on aid for supplies or help from tutoring or other education services provided by programmatic funding under Title VII; otherwise, students must go without.
As a proud tribal citizen, I can stand and say that I am a product of the Indian Education Act and Title VII programming. For me and others who have been helped by such programs, we must continue to fight for Native education and protect the laws that have helped thousands of Native students. Without such federal aid, I would not have made it through high school, much less college.
I owe many of my accomplishments to the programs offered under these two laws, and I know others like me have similar testimonials. It is because of Title VII, and the legislation that laid the groundwork for it, that many Native students have access to an increasingly equal education and the opportunity to reach their goals and turn their dreams into reality. It is with the help of educators and counselors, funded by Title VII, that our Native students are reminded that they can be anything they want to be.
Native people do not advocate for education legislation because it accrues money; we fight for it because Native education legislation, like Title VII, brings hope to our communities and to our people—hope that our Native students, both those today and those yet to be born, will have an equal opportunity at a quality education, so they can improve not only their lives, but the lives of their families, communities, and people.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Title VII: A Path to Education Equity