Indian Education and National Policy

Volume 2, No. 2 - Fall 1990
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The author: David L. Beaulieu, director, State of Minnesota Department of Education, Indian Education Section

A member of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force says America’s schools still fail to serve Native American communities. However, successful models do exist.

The Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, established by U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos to make recom­mendations on the condition of education of Indians of the United States, initiated its meetings and hearings on May 14-16, 1990 in Washington, D.C. Meetings and hearings of the task force will be held across the United States, in­cluding a hearing held in conjunc­tion with the annual conference of the National Indian Education As­sociation in October 1990 in San Diego. In addition to the hearings, papers, studies and articles on nearly every possible topic related to Indian education will be gathered and/or commissioned by the Task Force in an unprecedented recent effort to access the current status and situa­tion of Indian education.

The centerpiece of the task force work will be a report modeled after the landmark report, A Nation At Risk, which initiated the current wave of educational reform in the United States. The task force, which is co-chaired by Dr. William G. Demmert, commissioner of education for the State of Alaska and Dr. Terrell H. Bell, former United States secretary of education, seeks a similar role for its efforts as that of the A Nation At Risk report, through the development of significant recommendations for change and through the stimulation of new and renewed dialogue and debate about Indian education issues and needs.

It is in its potential role as a catalyst for change that the work of the Indian Nations At Risk Task Force may find its unique place in the history of Indian education. This role, as was the case with the A Nation At Risk report, will be dependent upon the role of the task force to provoke insight and debate and, ultimately, a renewed vision of the future for Indian education which can provide the necessary themes for change.

The first major organized opportunity to engage in this dialogue should occur with the White House Conference on Indian Education currently being planned for 1992. Given the mission and purposes of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force and the opportunity to engage in a nationwide discussion of the issues and needs for Indian education provided by the White House conference, it would appear that education is about to reach a new and significant milestone.

These two efforts provide a major national opportunity to view the needs of Indian education and to plan for the future. Twenty years of sustained Indian involvement with the issues and needs of Indian education provides a unique vantage point, previously unavailable, from which to describe and evaluate the current situation and status of the education of Indian learners and to envision the future.

Growing Awareness

These important events demonstrate a growing awareness in Washington, D.C. of the vital role education can play in Native American society. It is, however, the continuation of a movement that began two decades ago.

Twenty years ago the work of the National Study of American Indian Education had been completed, the National Indian Education Association was initiated in Minneapolis, and the U.S. Senate Sub-Committee on Indian Education published its final report which in its title, Indian Education: A National Tragedy, A National Challenge, determined the principal theme for Indian education.

Through the efforts of the National Indian Education Association and Indians across the country, the Indian Education Act of 1972 became law and a centerpiece of efforts to improve the education of American Indians within public schools and through Indian alternative schools. Ideas tested at this important time in the history of Indian education have had remarkable results.

The one significant opportunity presented Indian education at this time is the opportunity to address issues and concerns with a view of the many success stories, and uniquely Indian related options and opportunities that have been created during the last twenty years. This period has also seen the unprecedented involvement of Indians at all levels. Never before have Indians been so intimately involved in the definition of issues or in the implementation of solutions. Despite the fact that in many ways the ‘statistics’ of Indian education have remained essentially unchanged, there exists a very strong sense of what works and what doesn’t work and countless examples of success.

There is now a new opportunity to meet the challenges of Indian education with a knowledge of its success stories, of unprecedented direct Indian involvement and an understanding of why the good ideas have struggled for acceptance and permanence.

Because most Indians have grown up, so to speak, surrounded by the events which mark our recent history, it is somewhat difficult to gain a perspective on just how remarkable and recent this history has been.

For my part, I entered the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1966. Assisted by a scholarship grant from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, I was one of 36 American Indian students enrolled at the university. Today the University of Minnesota’s enrollment of American Indian students exceeds 500. This past year the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program, which is one of the programs I am responsible to manage as director of Indian Education for Minnesota, received requests for financial assistance from over 2,300 American Indian students enrolled in Minnesota post-secondary education institutions. The program was able to provide assistance to 1,550 students. During the last year our program was unable to assist 750 Indian students who were accepted to post-secondary institutions. Because of the character of our program, these students were, for the most part, new students and unable for financial reasons to attend a post-secondary institution.

Beginning in 1955 with a $5,000 appropriation, the Minnesota Indian Scholarship Program now provides 1.6 million dollars each year in grants to American Indian students. At the time the program began, a total of 22 Indians were attending some form of post-secondary education in Minnesota which represented approximately 10 percent of the national total. Throughout the history of the program over 6,500 American Indians assisted by the program have graduated. Seventy percent of these students have graduated within the last ten years. Ninety-four percent have graduated since 1970. It is currently estimated that 25 percent of all Minnesota Indians aged 25-44 years have had some college level education.

Nationwide Indian enrollment in all forms of post-secondary education has witnessed a similar expansion. The suddenness of this expansion into post-secondary education is similar to the sudden expansion of Indians into elementary and secondary education a generation earlier. At the time my father was of school age at the White Earth Reservation, 70 percent of all Chippewa children had no place to go to school. Those who went to school attended schools provided by the federal government and Christian churches and may have attended for only a year or two. In Minnesota it was not until the late 1920s and the advent of state public schools within Indian reservation areas of the state and the elimination of legal and financial hurdles to Indian enrollment in these schools that you find nearly all school age Indian children actually going to school.

Given the very recent and extensive involvement of Indians in all forms of educational institutions and at all levels, what are the implications for Indian communities and societies?

During the last twenty years American Indians have established two dozen colleges controlled by tribal governments. A large number of elementary and secondary schools have also been established under tribal control. Tribal colleges have been accredited offering two year and four year degree programs. One college, Sinte Gleska College in Rosebud, South Dakota, has been accredited at the master’s degree granting level. These institutions document remarkable success in meeting the individual educational needs of their students. The struggle of these institutions to survive and develop over the last twenty years remarks more strongly upon the clarity and importance of their mission and purposes to the future of tribal societies and communities.

The establishment and existence of tribal educational institutions raises an important discussion about goals of education for American Indians and how educational institutions, as institutions, can serve the long-term needs of Indian societies. Tribal colleges, by emphasizing teaching, public service and research to Indian tribes can provoke new insight about the future of Indian education.

The Need for Indian Leadership

Still, the impact of reform is not yet felt. Over the last twenty years significant efforts, initiated primarily through the Indian Education Act of 1972 and reforms in the Johnson O’Malley program, have attempted to meet the needs of Indian students in state-controlled public schools through categorical aid grants. Yet despite a significant investment over the years the overall educational performance of American Indians remains the same as when the U.S. Senate Sub-Committee on Indian Education described a 60 percent dropout rate and achievement rates one to two years behind the average.

Any general overview of grant proposals for Indian education submitted by public school districts suggests why little has changed. Despite the excellence and creativity of grant programs, these programs are justified in terms of what is wrong with the public school system submitting the proposals. The reason why we have not made progress through the categorical approach may be that the descriptions of what is wrong with public schools have not changed. Our insight and discussions regarding the future of Indian education must include a recognition of why we are not making progress in public schools and what can be done to require the entire school arena to accept responsibility for responding to the unique academic and culturally related educational needs of American Indian students.

In my view, the experiences of the last twenty years provides many opportunities for meeting the needs of American Indians. The establishment of tribal schools and colleges allows a significant discussion on the role of schooling and schools as institutions within Indian communities and tribes. What are the purposes and goals for which we provide education for American Indians? Who determines these purposes and goals? How are they to be determined?

Modern Indian education now has sufficient experience and maturity to evaluate the continuing failure of most state-controlled public schools with Indian students. Despite years of investment into categorical programs of all types, schools still fail to educate American Indian students. In many ways Indian education within state public schools has been a one trick pony without an audience. What must be changed within schools, as schools, in order that they become effective environments for the education of Indian young people? How do we create the kind of change which must take place?

Our particular generation stands at a moment in the history of Indian education which provides a vantage point heretofore unavailable. Change and development in Indian education has occurred at such a sudden and rapid pace that the need to collectively reflect upon current issues and needs and future directions seems imperative. The milestone which is the experience of the last twenty years must be described, assessed and ultimately passed.

David Beaulieu, Chippewa, has a Ph.D. in education administration from the University of Minnesota and is a former Post-Doctorate Fellow of the Center for the History of the American Indian, Newberry Library, Chicago. He is now director of Indian education for the State of Minnesota and has recently been appointed, by U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, to the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force.

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