How Much Longer Can We Ignore our Native American Students? - National Council of Teachers of English
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How Much Longer Can We Ignore our Native American Students?

capitol buildingRecently, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held hearings to discuss the state of Native American schools. “An embarrassment,” described Chairman John Barrasso (R-WY); “a disgrace,” declared Senator Al Franken (D-MN), and “deplorable” commented both Chairman John Kline (R- MN 2nd District) and Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA 3rd District). Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) emphasized that we “would never let this happen in our neighborhood” and that “we all share the responsibility.” Particularly upsetting to the committees were the descriptions and photographs of the physical condition of the schools, ranging from exposed wires to sagging floors to lack of heat during brutally cold winters.

According to the testimony of Charles Roessel, Director of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), BIE serves approximately 8 percent of Native youth. The majority attend public schools. The BIE directly operates 57 schools and 64 tribes operate the remaining 126 schools. The graduation rate for students in BIE schools is lower than for Native American youth attending public schools, and BIE students do not score as well on achievement tests. One of the greatest challenges is attracting high-quality teachers to schools that are in areas of high poverty and in remote locations with insufficient housing and services.

Mr. Tommy Lewis, Superintendent of Schools, Department of Diné Education in Window Rock, Arizona, requested that the Navajo nation be granted sovereignty to oversee their own school system; no other tribe has been granted that right or authority. What is most important to all the tribes is the right of their children to learn Native American language, culture, and history. Dr. Roessel emphasized the need for self-determination for tribal nations in his testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, explaining to Congressman Buddy Carter (R-GA 1st District ) that the reason some Native Americans choose BIE schools over public schools is to ensure that their children learn Native American culture, language, and history.

NCTE has long respected and encouraged that students preserve their first language and cultural ties. In 1974, it passed its Resolution on the Students’ Right to Their Own Language. NCTE further emphasized “the desirability of preserving a student’s first language and its cultural ties” in its 1982 Resolution on English as a Second Language and Bilingual Education. In its Resolution on the Student’s Right to Incorporate Heritage and Home Languages in Writing, NCTE notes that incorporating the “home language” “affirm[s] student voice and address[es] issues of identity, culture and politics.” It continues, “When students’ home languages—spoken and written—are denied, their voices become muted and they become invisible in the larger society.” Senator Heitkamp echoed that sentiment when she stated that the message we are sending Native American students is that they are “not worthy” and “less than.”

It was clear from the Senate and the House hearings that there is a collective concern over the conditions of Native American education and a bipartisan will to address them. As Chairman Kline noted, “The challenges facing these Native American students have been ignored far too long…Every child in every classroom should receive an excellent education.” It is time we all share the responsibility to educate these children.