The United States has a long and unpleasant history when it comes to Native Americans and education. The long-standing boarding school program severely damaged Indigenous communities; erased millennia-old customs, histories, and languages; and inflicted generational trauma still present in tribes today.
The era of boarding schools is now a thing of the past, but the education system continues to fail Native students. Schools often discriminate against them, insist on a history curriculum that erases the narrative of the Indigenous, and ignore calls from Native parents to address their issues. Indigenous students are at the bottom of achievement rates, graduation rates, and mobility rates. To better understand the unique problems facing Indigenous students and educators, we turned to Sarah Pierce and Amy Sazue of NDN Collective, an organization dedicated to building Indigenous power.
Much of the federal policy in place around Indian education comes from Title VI, which was enacted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VI prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities which receive federal financial assistance. One of the programs under Title VI deals specifically with Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native education. According to the law, it is designed to “fulfill the Federal Government’s unique and continuing trust relationship with and responsibility to the Indian people for the education of Indian children.”
It does this in several ways. First, it provides grants for schools with Native enrollment, tribes, and Indian community-based organizations. It also earmarks money for special programs designed “to develop, test, and demonstrate the effectiveness of services and programs to improve educational opportunities and achievement of Indian children and youth.” It also funds national programs and projects to assess the effectiveness of various programs and collect data on the needs of native students. Title VI also requires the creation of native Parental Advisory Committees (PACs), which conduct regular meetings with school administration. The PACs also consult on developing, operating, and evaluating the district’s Title VI usage and strategy.
According to Pierce, Title VI is essential to Native students, parents, and teachers. “It’s designed exclusively to influence changes that help systemically yield student success not only academically, but reinforce a solid sense of identity, language, and cultural understanding,” she told Mila during our interview.
Still, Title VI is far from perfect, and according to Sazue, one of the main problems is finding people to listen.
“The parents really feel like they aren’t being heard or they aren’t being taken seriously, and that they really are kind of pigeonholed into this tokenized position instead of being an authentic voice with concerns that are straight from the community,” she said. “We’re also feeling like we’re not part of the solution process for some of these issues.”
The problem of being brushed aside is not unique to South Dakota (where Sazue and Pierce work). It also speaks to a more significant issue within the Indigenous education community: lack of representation.
“This last year, there was approximately 15,000 Indigenous students identified as part of the total pre-K through 12 system here in South Dakota. But there was only 1.6% Indigenous staff. There’s only 3% management. Only 1% of the teaching staff across our state are Indigenous people and only about three in education specialist positions,” she said. “It’s not to say that indigenous people don’t want to be teachers, but do they feel like public school systems are a safe place? Or a place that they want to go and feel included and part of? I don’t know.”
It’s clear that we need to press our lawmakers to lift Native students, through curriculum choice and more Native representation in our school leadership. Title VI provides crucial grant money to many, but far too often, Native leaders and educators aren’t in control of its disbursement. White administration of Native students is not going to achieve the results they so desperately need.
Title VI can be an effective tool, but we need more Indigenous men and women wielding it—for the sake of all of our students.
April Corbin Girnus, Nevada Current February 19. “Parents Express Frustration over CCSD Structure, Funding of Indian Education.” Nevada Current, 21 Feb. 2020, www.nevadacurrent.com/2020/02/19/parents-express-frustration-over-ccsd-structure-funding-of-indian-education/.
Education and Title VI. (2020, January 10). Retrieved February 26, 2021, from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/hq43e4.html
“Decolonizing America: Nick Tilsen.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/decolonizing-america-nick-tilsen/.
“Title VI-Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education.” Home, US Department of Education (ED), 20 Mar. 2019, www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/essa/legislation/title-vi.html.