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Is Educational Change Coming For Native Americans?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we'd like to talk about President Obama's recent trip to Indian country. On Friday, President Obama and the first lady visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. It was the president's first visit to Indian country as president, and as part of the visit, he laid out a plan to improve Native American schools that are federally funded. The plan will redesign the Bureau of Indian Education to focus more on professional development, teacher and principal retention, and intervention for failing students. And the plan is also intended to honor tribal leaders' long-standing requests for more tribal authority in education. We wanted to hear more about all of this, so we are joined now by Ahniwake Rose. She is the executive director of the National Indian Educational Association. She's also a member of the Cherokee Nation. Welcome to the program. Thanks for joining us.

AHNIWAKE ROSE: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: It was an historic visit in that it was the president's first as president, but it wasn't not just a lovefest. I mean, he was calling attention to some serious issues, including, for example, he highlighted the dropout rate of Native American students, which he said is nearly twice the national rate. And he called that number a, quote, "moral call to action." So I wanted to ask, overall, how was that message received?

ROSE: We're really excited. You know, the fact that the state of emergency that Native education is in is finally reaching the president's level is something that all the tribal leaders and our native educators and communities are standing up and applauding.

MARTIN: Yeah, there were a lot bureaucratic initiatives that were talked about here, which I think is going to be a lot of complicated - for people to rap their heads around.

ROSE: Right.

MARTIN: Can you just pick out one or two things that you think will make a difference?

ROSE: So I think there's two things that folks should really understand. One is that native people never gave up what they wanted to educate their citizens. This was something that was taken from them. So the concept of self-determination and tribes being able to run and control their school systems again is huge. It's something that tribal leaders and educators have been asking for for a long time - so reinvigorating that concept of self-determination and sovereignty over our education systems.

The second piece is really BIE getting out of the business of educating, right? Tribes being able to run their day-to-day education, and BIE becoming a resource center, something that will really allow the tribes to have a place to go to for capacity-building and for best practices. General information like the comprehensive centers provide the local education agencies and the state education agencies, but tribes have really not had any access to.

MARTIN: So what's going to be different now?

ROSE: Oh, so many the things are going to be different. First, we're going to have entered this concept of self-determination - the tribes being able to really determine how our schools are going to be delivering our education, which includes language and culture. You know, is the tribe going to determine to make a culturally infused curriculum for their students? And that's now up to our tribal leaders to determine, and not up to BIE.

MARTIN: Now how do people - the Bureau of Indian Education - how - what is the sense, though, of this whole question of, on the one hand, you know, a lot of people want local control, but there's also a sense that - I mean, that's kind of part of the American tradition. In the case of Indian country, I think a lot of people are aware that a lot of people have a very negative relationship with centrally controlled education, with, you know, kids being taken away from their parents...

ROSE: Right.

MARTIN: ...Kids being sent to schools where they were barred from speaking, you know, their traditional languages, were actually made to feel shame, you know, about their heritage. Some people have some very negative and traumatic experiences related to this. On the one hand, you have to assume that people want their kids to be able to compete on the world stage, just like kids who live anywhere else. Well, how is that balancing act to be - how is that balancing act to be met? I mean, for example, will schools then try - meet Common Core standards now going forward? How is that going to work?

ROSE: So that's a really interesting question, too. BIE has actually not adopted Common Core. So this is one of the pieces within their blueprint, that they're going to be moving forward and thinking about adoption of Common Core. What that will mean for tribes is that tribes will now have this ability to lean back on these shoulders of BIE and say, OK, now we're going to develop our own assessments around this baseline of standards, which will include questions that they really want their students to know, right?

They'll be able to think about nonfiction from tribal authors - so really creating a curriculum that's infused with knowledge that we think that our students need to know, while still meeting those world-class standards, right? So we're going to have leaders now that are able to come back and work within our communities that have these, you know, prestigious, you know, six-year or eight-year degrees from Harvard or wherever- but really being able to have world-class-based education that's driven from the tribe's perspective.

MARTIN: They can't do that now? Are you saying that schools now, if they want to embrace Native American authors, they cannot do that now if they receive federal funding?

ROSE: So it's challenging. And the way that they're able to develop their curriculum, they still have to meet the requirements of No Child Left Behind, you know. They still have a lot of pieces that are being dictated to them from the BIE. And so that's where a lot of this movement and this transformation will be taking place, to really allow the tribes to be able to dictate what that's going to look like within their schools.

MARTIN: As we mentioned earlier, that there is this history of mistrust, based on practices that I think many people understand are discredited today, even if they are believed to have been well-intentioned, that created kind of a great deal trauma. Do you feel that there is an attitude of trust now?

ROSE: So there's a lot of skepticism, right? There are some concerns. BIE has done some realignment and adjustments in the past that haven't been exactly aligned with what tribes have asked for. So what the National Indian Education Association will be doing is working very closely with BIE to make sure that the implementation is taking place in the best way possible. They have five circles of pieces they're going to be rolling out, and we're going to be working with them to make sure that that implementation is done through consultation and making sure that tribes are involved every step of the way.

MARTIN: You've been involved with the government and sort of - in policy positions, working in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for example. Has there been a change over the time that you have been involved kind of in policy in this area?

I mean, it would seem that there are now people of Native American heritage who were involved in these agencies. Why does it take that long to change? Is that they're just habits of relationships that just need to be changed? Is this a policy issue? Is this a matter of the way that the - relationship are constructed legally? Can you talk a little bit about that?

ROSE: So since the administration has changed, President Obama has really been instrumental in highlighting the concerns that are around Native education. Secretary Jewell and Secretary Duncan, from almost the moments that they stepped into office, were paying attention to what was going on with Native education. For the last two years, BIE has been going out to consultations, asking tribes, we're going to make this fix, what does it look like? So this blueprint that you're looking at is actually quite a long process of steps that has been taking place to - and making sure that they've got it right before they've rolled it out. So change within Indian country is slow because it's something that we - the federal government's really make sure that tribes are involved in and included in. They don't want to mess up again.

MARTIN: Finally, we have about a minute left. That dropout rate issue that we talked about, how confident are you that if you and I were to get together five years from now, that a dent will have been made in that? Is that a priority?

ROSE: Oh, absolutely, it's a priority. Making sure - if tribes have a definite say-so about how the education system is going to be done, how their schools are going to be taught, then, yes. There will be a dent made.

MARTIN: Do you feel confident?

ROSE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Ahniwake Rose is the executive director of the National Indian Education Association. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Ahniwake, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ROSE: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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