accountability and Sovereignty in American Indian Education 
by Vine Deloria Jr.,

[Vine Deloria Jr., Standing Rock Sioux, is a world-renown American Indian scholar and author whose book, Custer Died for Your Sins,  was named among the 100 Best  Books of the 20th Century (  Mr. Deloria taught  the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado, and is the former executive director of the National Congress of American Indians,  Among his many awards, Mr. Deloria has received  the 1996 Native American Writers Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, the 1999 Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award and the 2005 American Indian Visionary Award.]

In the 1830s, after being expelled from the southeastern United States, the Five Civilized Tribes established an educational system that was the envy of every civilized state. School systems of the Five Civilized Tribes demanded accountability from students, teachers, parents and tribal educational officers.

   Before becoming a student, the youngster was informed that the nations were going to invest some of their funds in his or her education and that the student was expected to do his or her best in mastering the curricula the schools offered. To ensure that everyone did their part, the nations established a celebration at the end of the school year. Parents came to the school and camped so they could participate in the doings. Teachers were evaluated before they could be hired for the next year. Students wrote compositions that they read and debated in front of tribal officials, relatives and the public.

   The tribal schools offered a basic education in English, literature, language, mathematics, foreign language and citizenship. Academies for boys and girls capable of doing advanced work

were established. At the end of the spring term families and tribal officials were invited to the schools, where students recited the lessons they had learned.

   When the governments of the nations were legislated out of existence, the Five Civilized Tribes had produced more college graduates than the state of Texas did - a record that might still be favorably compared today on a per capita basis.

   Today we have immense problems in education, but we do not have the commitments from the colleges and universities, tribal governments or students. We do not ask anyone to demonstrate what they have learned and we are content to continue spending money to send students to college without asking whether they are actually being educated; we ask only that they continue in college.

   Colleges and universities feel no responsibility to ensure that our students succeed or graduate. Tribal governments do not feel the need to demand progress reports from these institutions. Students feel lucky to be in college and have little contact with tribal education committees.

   If we continue to fail to come to grips with the question of accountability in education, we become simply another donor or parent in the eyes of the educational institution. The responsibility for success is placed wholly on the student; and when the individual fails, we tend to place the blame wholly on the student, thereby allowing the tribe and institutions to escape responsibility. People forget that scholarships given by tribes and contributions to colleges by tribes are the acts of sovereign nations.

   We should not be standing hat in hand, begging to send our children to an institution. We should be awaiting well-prepared proposals submitted from colleges and universities describing what they can do for our students. We have the power to negotiate with any entity to ensure the proper benefits for our tribal members - and we should be doing that regularly.

   Do we have any idea which colleges and universities are providing a good education for our students? Do we have any figures on the track record of these institutions? I know that the University of New Mexico, the University of Arizona and Arizona State have reported large numbers of Indian students for decades; but of these vast numbers, how many Indian students actually graduated? Arizona State has had master's and doctorate in education degree programs for 40 years or better, but how many Indian students have actually finished these degrees at that institution? I would venture to guess that the record is disastrous and embarrassing.

   What do tribes expect when they grant scholarships to students? Or, more importantly for the California tribes: After giving these large grants to the California institutions, to whom do they report and what do they report? To whom is the student or institution responsible? When a college or university recruits an Indian student, does it accrue responsibility for monitoring that student's progress? Many federal special services grants are based upon the number of students to be served. When a census is taken of Indian students on campus, do the figures reflect the number entering in the fall or the number of students still in school at the end of the spring term? How inflated are any of the numbers of students the colleges and universities report?

   Today some tribes are making major contributions to colleges and universities with the expectation that they will provide special services to the Indian students and the tribes. But how are these responsibilities fulfilled? The University of California at Riverside once had an endowed chair named after Rupert Costo given to support an Indian scholar. A non-Indian presently sits in that chair. Was it impossible for the university to recruit an Indian scholar; did it even try to find one? In the last several years, Indian faculty at several California universities have been pushed out the door. How does it affect the Indian students who now must take Indian Studies courses from non-Indians? When, if ever, will there be a good Indian faculty at some of these schools?

   What is the role of the tribal government in education? Is it enough to work with on- and near-reservation schools, even when they are Indian controlled? Should they exercise some form of monitoring of student progress? Should the tribe or tribal education committee provide an evaluation of the colleges and universities to students considering higher education? Must the student rely solely on the memories of friends and acquaintances who may have spent a semester - or even six years - at a certain institution?

   Should tribal education committees provide information and news to its students regarding developments on the reservation and opportunities they might well fill? Does the tribe have any published goals describing the projects and efforts it is making toward establishing self-sufficient communities that would attract students to look to the reservation homeland for employment after graduation? What kind of professional expertise will the tribe need, and how will it inform students majoring in those fields?

   What about those students who have never lived on the reservation and are nevertheless listed as tribal members and receiving scholarships? Do we have some way of bringing real Indian life into their experiences? After receiving a scholarship from a tribe, does not the non-resident student have some responsibility to connect with his tribe in cultural and social ways that will create or help bolster his or her sense of Indian identity? We have all kinds of people running around Indian country claiming membership and making policy statements who have never lived on a reservation and cannot quickly identify with a tribal community. Should we provide small gatherings and seminars that bring knowledge of the tribe, its history and present status, to these people?

   Education conferences for decades have stressed methods of getting waivers on federal rules for granting education funds. Isn't it time we devoted considerable time and energy to finding the best way to ensure success at the college and graduate level? Why are we sending people to college if we have no way to encourage them to help build the tribe, reservation resources and communities? Aren't we just allowing our best resource - educated people - to slip away? Aren't we wasting money and lives under the current system, where there is no accountability and sovereignty becomes an empty slogan? Are we building nations or dissolving communities?

Mr: Deloria's Photo:

Graphics by Shawna

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