When Michelle Obama and her husband visited students of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in North Dakota in the summer of 2014, she met students whose lives had been ravaged by substance abuse and alcoholism. In a high school class of 70, four or five students had committed suicide.
Though last month was Native American Heritage Month, that fact mostly flew under the radar. Overall, it was one of many missed opportunities to acknowledge the urgent hardships faced by our country’s first citizens, and more specifically, their children.
While the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, was a huge boon for Indian education, increasing opportunities for indigenous communities to control their education systems, Native students around the country still languish in failing schools and often face worse outcomes than their White, Black and Latino peers.
How, exactly, did we get here?
America has never been good to its Native people. When genocide, forced removal, and overt efforts at cultural assimilation fell out of favor in the 1950s, the government turned to another tactic to destroy Native American culture: relocation.
In short, this practice enticed and sometimes coerced families to leave their homes on reservations and set out into the urban unknown. Promised jobs, housing, and better education options for both parents and children, many Native Americans quickly realized that the government’s description of urban life was unreasonably optimistic. For too many, relocation was a bust. Native families were stranded in cities, far from home, isolated from their languages and cultures.
The aftermath of relocation was hardest on Native children. Relocation systematically disrupted the cultures and communities children had known their entire lives. In public schools, they had to navigate the politics of language, racial segregation, and discrimination without the guidance of their elders or the camaraderie of their Native peers.
In 1969, a Senate report concluded that the “coercive assimilation” Native children faced at school had turned the classroom into a “battleground.” This contentious environment ultimately resulted in poor school attendance, high dropout rates, low self-esteem, academic failure, and a “perpetuation of the cycle of poverty.”
Today, Native children still face a suite of obstacles unparalleled in American schools. They often attend chronically underfunded schools, both on and off reservations, and they rarely have access to culturally relevant curriculum or culturally competent educators. When compared to the average outcomes for all students, the challenges Native American students face are horrifying:
(2) Source: The National Violent Death Reporting System.
Many researchers link the root of these challenges to historical trauma. For hundreds of years, the Native experience has been undermined by the terror and shame inflicted upon it by America and her citizens. Research indicates that that terror and shame has rippled throughout generations of children, displaying itself in the poverty, poor physical and mental health, and subpar education outcomes that wreak havoc on Indian country today.
No one knows the dire circumstances that mar the lives of Native youth better than Native youth themselves. Sam Schimmel, an Alaska Native teenager, explains the importance and urgency of culture-based education:
I see that, among my peers, I am much less likely to fall prey to alcoholism and much less likely to be suicidal as a result of being brought up in the laps of my elders, listening to stories and being engaged on a cultural level. What I’ve seen is that when youth are not culturally engaged, you see higher rates of incarceration, higher rates of suicide, higher rates of alcoholism, higher rates of drug abuse—all these evils that come in and take the place of culture.
In spite of those dire circumstances, there are solutions to these problems, and they often lie within Native communities, in the hearts and mind of Native people.
For example, there is growing evidence that culture-based education is positively correlated with students’ socio-emotional well-being and academic achievement. The National Indian Education Association (NIEA), a current client of Bellwether Education Partners, was founded in 1970 and works to advance culture-based education opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. By convening and training educators, promoting cultural and language education, and building relationships with policymakers, NIEA champions the idea that centering learning around culture is the key to success for Native students.
Thanks in large part to NIEA’s advocacy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed just three years ago, bolstered Native education in key ways:
- It requires state education agencies to meaningfully consult with tribes, particularly around planning for Title I (the largest federal aid program for public schools in the United States).
- It authorizes funding for developing, implementing, and evaluating Native language immersion programs, formalizing, for the first time in history, support for these sorts of programs.
- It allocates additional funding for dropout prevention and mental health services, addressing key barriers to Native student success.
While their history has been scarred by efforts to annihilate culture and force assimilation, indigenous culture is full of rich, beautiful traditions, economic and social contributions, and deep and inspiring creativity and resilience.
For too long, the education system has served as a weapon against Native Americans. It’s time that it becomes a tool for righting (and learning from) our nation’s wrongs.