Investing in the Future: Native American Youth and Education

On November 13, 2013 at the White House Tribal Nations Conference, we were honored to co-host a session for tribal leaders from federally-recognized Indian tribes with my colleagues from eight federal agencies. The purpose was to listen, learn and share pathways to federal resources with the distinguished representatives of a wide range of tribal governments. The context was improving education for the children of Indian Country. Co-host, David Bean, an elected third-term member of the Puyallup Tribal Council, stressed the importance of hearing recommendations from tribal leaders in formulating federal policy to improve education in many areas: governance, curriculum, teachers, equity, diversity, health services, student support, and administration. Bill Mendoza, Oglala and Sicangu Lakota and Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, joined us and reported on progress made in implementing previous recommendations from our nation’s tribes, but emphasized there is much more to be done. We were especially impressed with David Bean’s personal history, grounded in “the teachings from his mother, Gloria R. Bean, his elders and his education from the University of Puget Sound to guide him in preserving, supporting and protecting the Constitution and By-laws of the Puyallup Tribe and the Constitution of the United States.”

What We Heard

Gathered around the crowded table at the U.S. Department of the Interior, tribal leaders spoke on the topics of K-12 Education; Tribal Colleges and Universities; Preserving Native Languages, Culture and History; Mental Health and Substance Abuse Prevention; Childhood and Tribal Nutrition; and Let’s Move! In Indian Country. Joe Garcia, Governor, Ohkay Owingeh of New Mexico, said: “We are making new trails, but education is not one-size-fits-all’! States run the schools and they may or may not work with the tribes…there are too many siloes, too many variables. Language and culture need to be part of the curriculum from the top levels. We’re all tied together. Sessions and partnerships like this help us work together for the well-being of our children.”

Gregory Mendoza, Governor of the Gila River Tribe also from New Mexico, emphasized the need for a K-12 “curriculum that includes our history, language and culture and safe places for learning…a culturally relevant curriculum…the urgency of clarifying the role of tribal governments in relation to the board of education in accordance with the Indian Education Act.” He said that “tribal leaders should have a seat on state and local school boards.” Edwina Butler-Wolfe, Governor of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and a 15-year public school educator from Oklahoma, presented twelve recommendations. She said: “The education of ALL our Indian children is a priority. All entities that work with Indian children should make every effort to include all students, whether they live on a reservation, rural area, Indian community or urban and city areas. Creating partnerships with Tribes, Indian communities and school districts is the most effective way to provide resources and services for all Indian students.” She emphasized the need to utilize higher education to put in after-school tutoring programs for Indian children and graduate and hire more Indian educators for our school systems.

Cline Griggs of the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council, who serves on the Riverside Indian School Board in Arizona, reported: “The average teacher stays about three years on our reservation.” He called on tribal and government education leaders “to save our language and our culture.” Nataanii Bahozhonii Hatathlie, an impressive Navajo tribal youth and sophomore at Stanford University, eloquently called for a “culturally relevant education, support for the teaching of native languages and graduating more Native teachers to mentor and guide our youth,” noting that he is a first-generation university student. He said that a course in tribal government should be required earlier than the last year of high school. He also confirmed the need for culturally relevant training materials for teachers and school staff.

University of Alaska Professor Theresa Arevgaq John, from the Alaska Native Yup’ik and a member of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, presented a variety of information, including published books, materials and guidelines for strengthening Indian and Alaska Native education. She noted that the need for Native teachers and professors is great, stating that “the University of Alaska has only 5 Native professors on staff.” She emphasized the need to strengthen indigenous knowledge throughout our education system, calling for tribes and educators to come together as a family for this purpose.

Several tribal leaders, including Lee Jim, Vice President of the Navajo Nation of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and David Archambault II, Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, shared their call to action that the Administration and Congress designate their nations as State Education Agencies with responsibility for accrediting schools, hiring and evaluating teachers and implementing a culturally relevant curriculum. They discussed amending the Indian Self-Determination Act and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act or enacting new legislation to recognize tribal sovereignty ad authority to establish education standards and programs for Native youth. Rhonda Metcalf, Sauk-Suiattle Tribal Council member emphasized the need for early learning programs that provide sorely needed mental and physical health services, stating “our children are labeled as problems and then they are ignored.” She also put in a call to provide far better services for foster youth.

Dahkota Franklin “Kicking Bear” Brown, a 14-year-old Wilton Miwok high school student from Jackson, California, asked the leaders to consider a simple question: “Are these kids happy and healthy?” Selected as a White House Champion of Change by the Center for Native American Youth, Dahkota told the tribal leaders and federal agencies about NERDS (Native Education Raising Dedicated Students), an organization he founded that provides peer-to-peer study groups, tutoring, support and college visits for Indian children in local high schools and middle schools. He talked about the importance of family, student, school and community support to increase the success of K-12 and college students.

Patricia Whitefoot, Yakama and NACIE member who also referred to herself as a parent volunteer, discussed the need to enact the priorities of the Native Class Act, increasing grants to tribes and federal support for tribes collectively to “realize self-control and self-determination.” She commented on the fact that she was able to receive her baccalaureate degree years ago through the Teacher Corps and looked to times ahead when this type of support would enable more Native American youth to complete a postsecondary education.

Marcelino Aguino, Ohkay Owingeh, acknowledged the need to “protect our sovereignty and the well-being of all our tribal members as well as protecting the next 7 generations.” He described the success of the Tribe’s community school under P.L. 100-297 since its transition from the Bureau of Indian Education to a grant school, they had achieved AYP for the last 3 years and they continue to make gains in all subject areas, including advancement in language, culture and tradition. He spoke to the federal government, and specifically to the BIE, about the need for funding and support to expand educational capacity and presented the Tribe’s vision for an Educational Complex that would incorporate HeadStart and Early Childhood with elementary education grades, noting that “the 1994 New Mexico Indian Education Act does not address the needs of Pueblo children in two general areas: (1) Early Childhood Development; and, (2) HeadStart. He reminded the participants that “Pueblo students are citizens of New Mexico and whether they attend tribal schools, BIE, public schools, or charter schools does not change this fact.”

David “Wicahpi Isnala” (“Lone Star”) Gipp of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and President of the United Tribes Technical College, one of 37 tribal colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada, discussed the need for “tribal government control over the destiny of our children, including control over Impact Act. He noted that 93% of Native children are being educated in the public school system and called for financial as well as educational reforms pursuant to implementing the Johnson-O’Malley Act. He also underscored the need for ensuring that Career-Technical Education is provided, noting that 80-90%  of our children will need one- and two-year college certificates and degrees, offered by our nation’s tribal colleges and universities.

Sam McCracken, Fort Peck Sioux, representing Nike N7, Nike N7 Fund, and NACIE announced the availability of a $50 million fund available for tribes under the “Let’s Move Active Schools” program.

Other members noted that communicating with native youth is critical in reducing recidivism rates and inspiring youth, in order to decrease and ultimately eliminate substance abuse, suicide, bullying and domestic violence affecting Indian and Alaska Native communities. An example of mentoring Native youth twice a week in an afterschool program that enables students to discuss these issues and solve problems. Notah Begay, Navajo, Professional Golfer and Founder of The Notah Begay Foundation emphasized the NB3 opportunities for tribes to systemically improve healthcare factors affecting youth and adults.

Federal Agencies Widen the “Open Door” with Tribal Leaders

A wide variety of federal agencies and Administration representatives listened to these issues, concerns and recommendations, each at the conclusion of the session providing a summary of what they heard, actions to be pursued and a commitment to the open door for further, deeper conversations to identify solutions and solve the problems identified. Comments were provided by Dr. Susan Karol, Chief Medical Officer, Indian Health Service and Pamela Hyde, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrator, both from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Dr. Anthony Wilhelm, Associate Administrator for Telecommunications and Information Applications and Director of BTOP, Office of Telecommunications, National Telecommunications and Information Administration from the U.S. Department of Commerce; Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary, Food Nutrition and Consumer Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Dr. Ann Bartrtuska, Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Karol Mason, Assistant  Attorney General, Office of Justice Programs, Department of Justice; Charles “Monty” Roessel, Acting Director, Bureau of Indian Education, Joyce Silverthorne, Director of the Office of Indian Education, and David Jayo, Senior Advisor to the Secretary, Department of the Interior. The federal agency representatives confirmed the need for a more holistic approach, federal agencies working together and partnering with tribes, breaking down siloes and, specific for education, growing the Native American and Alaska Native teaching workforce, supporting the implementation of Native history, languages and culture across the curriculum, seeking congressional action for policy proposals and funding, and fulfilling the responsibilities of federal agencies to help increase the educational success of Native youth and tribal communities.

What’s Ahead

A forthcoming report that summarizes the recommendations and results from the conference will be provided to the tribal leaders and federal agency representatives to address the needs and work ahead of us! We look forward to being a strong partner in these efforts and invite you to connect with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education through our website at and email us at where further updates will be provided on our progress in the months and years ahead.

Martha Kanter is the U.S. Under Secretary of Education and William “Bill” Mendoza is the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education