Celebrate Heritage Month: Focus on Education


November is American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month.  Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories and to acknowledge the important contributions of Native people.  It is also an opportunity to highlight the important contributions of Native peoples and the shared histories between tribal nations and other communities.

Throughout Heritage Month, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) will look at different elements of Native heritage from both an historical and contemporary perspective.  Where applicable, we will also highlight some of NARF’s work that relates to the area.


In our first installment for Heritage Month, we reflected on the roles of Native Americans as both traditional and modern day warriors.  Tomorrow, we will examine some truths and fictions about tribes in relation to Thanksgiving.  Today we will look at education.

It has been well documented that Native American communities face some of the greatest educational challenges in the country in terms of keeping kids in school, academic performance and college degree attainment.  Reasons for this are many and intertwined, but often include inadequate funding, few employment opportunities on reservations, lack of cultural context and historic trauma from a legacy Indian boarding school abuses.

There is some good news.  While dropout rates are high, many Native Americans ultimately go back to school.  The percentage with a high school diploma by age 25 is 67%, not far behind the national average of 75%.  There is also improved achievement in those few schools that have welcomed tribal involvement in decision making and worked to include cultural and/or Native language content into their curricula. More on that later.

First, let’s look at an excerpt from a 1784 essay written by Benjamin Franklin about Native Americans, titled: “Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America.” The excerpt relates an exchange that occurred during the 1774 negotiation of the Treaty of Lancaster in Pennsylvania between the government of Virginia and the Six Nations (a confederation of Iroquois tribes: Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, Mohawk, and Tuscarora.)

After the principal business was settled, the commissioners from Virginia acquainted the Indians by a speech, that there was at Williamsburg a college, with a fund for educating Indian youth; and that, if the Six Nations would send down half a dozen of their young lads to that college, the government would take care that they should be well provided for, and instructed in all the learning of the white people.  It is one of the Indian rules of politeness not to answer a public proposition the same day that it is made; they think it would be treating it as a light matter, and that they show it respect by taking time to consider it, as of a matter important.  They therefore deferred their answer till the day following; when their speaker began, by expressing their deep sense of the kindness of the Virginia government, in making them that offer; “for we know,” says he, “that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the maintenance of our young men, while with you, would be very expensive to you.  We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily.  But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours.  We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing.  We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.”

More than two decades ago, NARF began helping tribes establish tribal education departments (TEDs). The goal was to reassert tribal sovereignty over education of Native youth.  Today, more than 200 tribes in 32 states have TEDs.  NARF represents a consortium of more than 70 of these education departments, known collectively as the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA).

Together, NARF and TEDNA have guided an education bill—the Native CLASS Act—through committees in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.  The bills have yet to make their way to the floor, but we remain hopeful of action.  Meantime, the federal budget for 2012 for the first time includes an appropriation of $2 million for pilot programs that will use a combination of local tribal oversight and traditional values and context to help lower dropout rates and raise test scores.  Grants for pilot programs were awarded to four tribes: the Nez Perce Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, the Navajo Nation, and the Chickasaw Nation.  All of these tribes have been long time members of TEDNA.