Educators from Indian Country and beyond gathered at the University of Montana on Thursday, launching a two-day seminar focused on the state of Native American education and efforts to drive it forward.
From building university-based outreach centers on reservations to exploring the balance of diversity, experts attending the Native American Student Advocacy Institute’s sixth annual conference spent the day discussing resources and ways to get more Indian students to college.
“I hope we find an opportunity to stabilize some programs and do better outreach with the public, and find a way to make transition a reality,” said Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. “I hope the communication from the communities out here continues. I hope we’re able to address some of the concerns people have.”
A member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a UM graduate, Silverthorne began her career years ago as a faculty member at Salish Kootenai College. Kicking off the seminar, she shared her own experiences representing Indian County in a federal agency that lacks a Native American perspective.
Efforts are being made to bring more Indian educators into the Department of Education to give the agency representation Silverthorne says it has lacked. Job preference has been approved for Native Americans within the DOE, and funding from the Udall Foundation has been secured to pay for 12 new interns in Washington, D.C., from 12 tribes and 11 universities.
Silverthorne told the morning audience of several hundred attendees that national education must include Native American input. She said the Department of Education needs a ground-level perspective from those with firsthand experience.
“Their window of understanding is limited,” Silverthorne said. “It’s not that they’re wrong. It’s that they don’t know what they don’t know. Without us being in those offices (at the DOE), people representing the Indian children of our country, in all its diverse nature – it would look different.”
The Office of Indian Education also received a $2 million increase in funding through recent congressional appropriations. It was enough to establish a pilot program funding new tribal education agencies in four different states.
Silverthorne said the agencies, to be established by the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, and the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, will partner with their respective state education offices to build the new program.
The novel effort aims to promote collaboration between tribal and state education agencies, while helping tribes develop and enhance their role, responsibilities and accountability in Indian education.
“We know four programs are not representative of all the tribes, but it’s a beginning,” Silverthorne said. “We’re working hard to support those programs and ensure they come out successful and give us a road map of where we need to go next.”
Teresa Branch, vice president of student affairs at the University of Montana, said the seminar represents a starting point from which to discuss the future of Indian education across the country and at home.
The issue is a fundamental part of making Montana whole, Branch said. The state is home to seven tribal colleges, four governor-appointed Indian officials, and the highest per-capita Native American representation in a state legislature.
Roughly 250 Native American students registered at UM for the 2012-13 academic year, one of the largest classes on record. Several schools, including UM, Montana State University and Northern Arizona University, had recruitment literature displayed at Thursday’s conference.
“UM is recognized as a national leader in Native American studies and it currently has one of the highest enrollment rates of Native Americans in the nation,” Branch said. “We recognize the cultural and social obstacles Native students face in order to obtain an education.”
Efforts to address those obstacles served as a conference focus Thursday, drawing experts from across the country, including Alfred Herrera, the assistant vice provost for academic partnerships at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Herrera said the shortcomings of Native American education can be traced back to reservation schools and their lack of resources and technology. College officials, he said, must be sensitive to cultural differences.
“For us at UCLA, we’ve learned a lot from these national organizations,” Herrera said. “Learning about the cultural backgrounds, the important issues for that tribe and that community – it’s important for us to make sure we’re sensitive to that and provide whatever assistance we can.”
David Yarlott Jr., president of Little Bighorn College on the Crow Reservation, said Indian educators and their students are contributing to the nation’s larger educational process.
A member of the Greasy Mouth Clan and a fluent Crow speaker, Yarlott said it’s important that educators of non-Native students understand that the needs of Indian education are no different from other schools.
“We’re contributors to the education system,” Yarlott said. “The students we teach become contributors to the state and the nation. Whenever we find ways to have our students succeed, we’re getting closer to the goals of the U.S. as a whole.
“Any time we have these conferences and sit down and talk about the things we do, it provides encouragement to each other knowing we’re not in this alone. We move forward together.”
The conference continues Friday at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.