NIEA president delivers education address

Dr. Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, President of the National Indian Education Association
Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, president, National Indian Education Association

February 12, 2008

My name is Dr. Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert, President of the National Indian Education Association. I am an enrolled member of the Hopi Tribe of northeastern Arizona and belong to the Snake and Sand Clans. I am the great great grandson of Kikmongwi (Chief) Looloma, Bear Clan from the village of Oraibi.

During the late 1800’s, as Hopi children were being forcefully removed to distant boarding schools and the encroachment upon their ancestral lands by other tribes, my great great grandfather along with two other Hopi chiefs from the villages of Walpi and Shungopavi made a historic journey to Washington D.C. This landmark journey to our nation’s capital was the first time Hopi leaders had ventured off their homeland to meet with federal officials.

On this journey they boarded “houses of iron” and traveled beyond the mesas. As the train traveled east, the chiefs saw acres of corn that grew much higher than the Hopi corn which never grew more than 3 feet high due to the arid desert and dry farming practices of the Hopis.

Accompanied by Thomas Keams and Polocca, an Indian trader and interpreter, they were provided a tour at Ft. Leavenworth Military

Prison where tribal chiefs, who had led their people in the Indian wars, were imprisoned. An array of military demonstrations with cannon fire and thousands of marching soldiers were intended to intimidate the Hopi chiefs. Continuing on their journey they were stunned by the sheer number of people and the buildings stretching as far as the eye could see.

Upon arriving they were awed at the majesty of Washington D.C., where they were guests at a formal dinner and entertained by a full orchestra. The next day the three chiefs were taken to the White House where they met with United States President Chester A. Arthur and pleaded with him to halt the removal of Hopi children from their homes. They asked that the Hopis be allowed the freedom to enjoy their lands and practice their religion. They also asked the government to stop the encroachment by other tribes on their lands. President Arthur assured them that he would take action. Two years later he issued an Executive Order creating the Hopi reservation on 2.6 million acres in northern Arizona.

Upon the return to Hopi, Looloma informed the people that the future survival of the Hopi people required Hopi children to obtain western education. What he saw made him fearful for his people. He stated, “We have resisted the ways of the Pahaana for a long time and we are afraid that what we have witnessed will come upon us. Many of us have sought guidance through prayer so that we do what is best for our people. The time is now to decide. Soon our children, our grandchildren and our great grandchildren will be alone. The days to come will be theirs. Will our way of life survive to have them be Hopi?”

He continued, “My children, let us not be afraid of the days to come. The Pahaana way of life is here to stay and we must accept that. I feel in my heart that we can find a way to survive as a people. I say to you all…learn the white man’s tongue and learn how he thinks. Learn his ways so that we can also survive with it.”

Looloma held two strings. “This string is the Hopi way of life,” he said, “the other is the good things of the white man’s way of life.” He tied the strings together and tugged at both ends. “Combine both and the Hopi people will be twice as strong,” Looloma said. “This is what I want for my people. With this strength we can face the future and survive.”

Chief Looloma tied the string together to show how strong the Hopi people could become if they combined the knowledge of the Pahaana with the Hopi way of life. And he urged his people, “Let us not be afraid.”

My great great grandfather’s wisdom expressed that day, particularly his guidance and advice on the need to balance and preserve our Hopi culture and traditions while embracing modern life remains as relevant and crucial today as it did more than 120 years ago when my great great grandfather made that historic journey to speak with President Arthur in the early 1880’s.

I dedicate this “State of the Indian Education Address” to my great great grandfather whose prophetic wisdom, for the need to balance Hopi culture and traditions and also become educated in the pahaana’s world, is true and relevant for every Native people today and I also dedicate this to my great great grandchildren who are the future!

For me to stand before you as the President of the National Indian Education Association is truly a humbling experience. What my great great grandfather understood over 120 years ago, fully embodies NIEA’s mission, purpose, and its goals and objectives today.


From the late 1880’s, we forge ahead in history almost ninety years to 1969. In 1969, a great movement was born to advance the educational needs of Indian Country and the inception of the National Indian Education Association was conceived. I am very proud to preside over this organization which was created by a group of dedicated and committed American Indians who initiated this great movement for the purpose of advancing education for our Native students.

The first meeting’s major concerns in 1969 were:

Development and maintenance of forceful [educational] leadership from within Indian Country
The National Indian Education Conference to be planned by Indian people for Indian people.
The importance of Indian cultures and values became the conference theme which continues to resonate loudly today.

A year later, in 1970, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the purpose of the second NIEA conference was designed to promote:

Common bonds among those concerned with Indian education.
Opportunity for American Indians nationally to share their ideas about Indian education
Sound and feasible solutions to the existing educational needs among American Indians.

Our founders had a vision of an educational system that is now proclaimed in NIEA’s mission which:

Supports traditional Native cultures and values
Enables Native learners to become contributing members of their communities
Promotes Native control of educational institutions
Improves educational opportunities and resources for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians throughout the United States.

The genesis of the National Indian Education Association was precipitated by a ground-breaking study, an investigation by the United States Senate reported in 1969, on the condition of Native children and Indian Education.

The report titled, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge”, is also better known as the Robert Kennedy Report on Indian Education. This stinging critique of the conditions of Indian Country systematically chronicled the dire situation we were in during that time. Native Americans ranked at the bottom of every social, health, economic, and education indicator in America.

Thirty-nine years later, what is the state of Indian Education?

There are approximately 624,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in grades K-12.
Approximately ninety percent 90% of all Native students attend regular public schools, and 7% attend schools administered by the U.S. government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The number of American Indian students earning degrees has more than doubled at each level of degree since 1976.
We now have 36 tribal colleges and universities throughout Indian Country and the number and enrollment of students continue to grow.
Indian Head Start Programs have graduated thousands of Native American children who do remarkably better than their counterparts who have never had those opportunities to attend Head Start.


The national graduation rate for American Indian high school students was 49.3% for the 2003–04 school year compared to 76.2% of white students.
Native Hawaiian students are the least likely of the major ethnic groups in the state of Hawaii to graduate from high school within 4 years
The gap between the average verbal scores of American Indian and Alaska Native students and those of the total student population tested on the SAT widened from 22 to 25 points in less than 10 years.
Native people are 200% as likely to have less than a 9th grade education.
Only 12% of American Indians residing on reservations have higher-education degrees compared to more than 30% for the entire U.S. population.
Test scores continue to lag behind for students in grades 4-8. In reading and math, American Indian students had lower average scores than all other students in the nation.
Students who attend schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs receive instruction in facilities that are, on average, 60 years old - which is 20 years older than the average public schools serving the general population.

With a membership of over 4,000 individuals, institutions, and tribal governments, NIEA continues to work towards our founders’ vision of educational equity and parity in resources for Native students and to turn these disparaging statistics around.

For the past several decades, educators, administrators, parents, tribal leaders, elders, and most importantly students who make up our membership, have worked relentlessly to protect Native cultural and linguistic traditions and to keep Native America moving toward educational equity.

This includes increased involvement in:

Setting educational priorities for Native students which entails
Preparing our Native students to be adequately prepared for college and/or the workforce and
Preparing our Native students to successfully function in a global society

This also includes:

Increased support and funding for Native education programs
Increased academic achievement
Increased graduation rates
Increased post-secondary graduation rates

NIEA collaborates with all tribes to advocate for the unique educational and culturally-related academic needs of Native students and to ensure that the federal government upholds its responsibility for the education of American Indians. We are making advances in Indian Country, but not at a rate fast enough for our Native children to achieve parity with their white counterparts. Much of these inequities are due to lack of adequate funding needed to provide the best education our students deserve for the most basic schooling needs such as safe schools, current and updated textbooks and supplies, modern laboratories for science, reading, language, computers, etc., reliable transportation, qualified teachers and administrators and school personnel such as nurses, counselors, coaches, and paraprofessionals.

We are very proud that NIEA and its membership made some great gains last year. We strongly advocated restoring funding for critical educational programs such as the Johnson O’Malley program, Native Hawaiian education programs and the Alaska Native Education Equity program. NIEA was part of the effort that reauthorized the Head Start Act and sought to increase the set aside for American Indian and Alaska Native Head Start programs. Lastly, NIEA was proud to lead the effort that resulted in the passage of the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, a bill that increased federal support for Native language immersion programs, survival language schools, language nests, and other activities in classrooms throughout the nation. But even with the great strides Indian Country has made in the area of education, we still have much to do.

NIEA’s vision continues to be one of strengthening the education of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians through effective and meaningful education programs and approaches that reflect Native cultures, traditions, and languages. Currently, NIEA is promoting the following initiatives.

Native Children’s Agenda Initiative
As we all know, education for children does not begin in school. Education begins at home and parents are a child’s first teacher. This education continues and develops with the extended family, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as within the Native community with the elders and medicine men and women.

One of the concerns that Native communities across the country are faced with is providing a safe environment for our children, whether it is in our home, schools or our Native community. To provide this type of environment, a comprehensive agenda is required that holistically encompasses the child’s learning environment. This comprehensive effort takes into consideration their safety, health, emotional and mental well-being, as well as their schooling. Every child should have the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life.

Opportunities to grow and develop into healthy contributing members of our society and our Native communities are lost when we fail to provide an environment where children are nurtured and supported. It is imperative that Native communities become involved at every level of a child’s life. Before a child is born and throughout a child’s formative years, families play an instrumental part in the developmental process of this child’s educational success.

NIEA, along with other national Indian organizations, seeks to look at strategies to comprehensively meet the needs of all Native children through the development of the Native Children’s Agenda. Unfortunately, all too often Native children are born into circumstances that may be rich in culture and love, but fail to meet their basic needs of health, shelter, safety and education.

The following statistics provide a glimpse of what our Native youth face in their battle to survive:

American Indian and Alaska Native teenagers suffer from poverty, suicide, teen birth, and substance abuse at rates higher than the national average.
Native children still face devastating poverty as they begin their journey through life. The 2000 Census demonstrated that 31.6%  of Native children live below the federal poverty level. The rate for children living on reservations is even higher at 44.2% and about 50%of those children are defined as in “deep poverty.”
Tribal youth between the ages of 15 and 24 commit suicide at a rate more than 3 times the national average. In Alaska, Native youth ages 19 and younger make up 19% of the population, but comprise 60% of the suicides in that age group for the entire state. More than 50% of those who committed suicide in Indian Country had never been seen by a mental health provider. Yet, 90% of all teens who die by suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at the time of death.
Healthcare expenditures for Native children are less than half of what our American government spends on its prisoners in the federal prison system. Influenza, pneumonia, diabetes, and tuberculosis are a fact of every day life in Indian Country.
Indian children are 280% more likely to die in a car accident because reservation roads are the most dangerous in this country.

Every Native child should have the right to community based, culturally appropriate services, including education, which allows them to be safe, healthy, and spiritually strong, free from abuse, neglect and poverty.

These startling statistics are impediments to academic success. These conditions are inextricably linked to academic success and academic progress. Over half of Indian children who enter kindergarten will never graduate from high school. Our communities have a vision of a restored healthier Indian Country for our children. Creating safe and supportive tribal communities for our children, today, honors our ancestors as well as future generations.

I had an opportunity recently to visit the Alaska Native Medical Center. This Indian Health Services (IHS) center is a state of the art facility which encompasses the Alaska Native culture and traditions in the facilities and its design, in its educational health programs, its décor, the management of care, the traditional healing practices and traditional medicines, to name a few. It was obvious that with these types of facilities and programs, health care in a culturally sensitive environment improves immensely the health of these Native people. This culturally sensitive environment and “state of the art” medical facilities should be on every reservation today! Our Native children deserve the best! A healthy child is a motivated child – motivated to learn, motivated to excel, motivated to succeed!

High School Policy Initiative:

In the U.S., 1,230,000 students’ did not graduate with their peers in 2007! This is staggering!
While roughly 70% of high school students’ graduate on time, American Indian and Alaska Native students have only a 55% chance or less of graduating from high school with a regular diploma.
Majority of all students drop out at the 9th grade level – this is the critical juncture for high school students.
National graduation rates for American Indian high school students is 49.3% in 2003-2004.
Dropouts are more likely than high school graduates to experience poverty, poor health, and incarceration during their adult lives.
80% of the high schools that produce the most dropouts can be found in a subset of just 15 states. The majority of dropout factories are located in northern and western cities and throughout the southern states. These dropout factories produce 81%of all Native American dropouts.

What does this mean in terms of quality of life for those who do not earn a high school diploma and what is the cost?

Education means better heath. The U.S. death rate for those with fewer than 12 years of education is 250% higher than the rate of those with 13 years of education or more.
High school graduation is positively related to lower mortality rates and lower medical-care time and money expenditures.
Higher levels of schooling among parents are positively correlated with better levels of health in infants and children.
Evidence suggests that the health and well-being of an individual drastically improves just by obtaining a high school diploma. High school graduates live longer, are less likely to be teen parents, produce healthier and better educated children and rely less on social services.
An estimated  85% of current jobs and almost  90% of the fastest-growing and best paying jobs now require some postsecondary education.

The high school dropouts that I mentioned earlier who did not graduate with their peers in 2007:

Cost the nation $329,000,000,000 in lost wages, taxes, and productivity over the course of their lifetimes.
If the likely dropouts from the class of 2006 had graduated, the nation could have saved more than $17,000,000,000  in Medicaid and expenditures for uninsured care over the course of these individuals’ lifetimes.
If the U.S. high schools and colleges raise the graduation rates of minority students, including Native American students to the levels of white students by the year 2020, the potential increase in personal income would add more than $310,000,000,000  to the U.S. economy.
Increasing the graduation rate and college matriculation of male students in the U.S. by just  5% could lead to a combined savings and revenue of almost $8,000,000,000 each year by reducing crime-related costs.

Bringing this a little closer to home:

In my state of Arizona, almost 8,000 teachers will not be returning to the schools where they taught last year. Replacing these teachers could cost the state up to $88,000,000! Arizona is one of the 10 states with the highest Native student population.
Arizona spends over $104,000,000 each year to provide community college remediation for recent high school graduates who did not acquire the basic skills necessary to succeed in college or at work. California spends $688,000,000 each year.

Due to these reasons, NIEA has joined the Campaign for High School Equity and developed an initiative to focus on the dropout crisis in Indian Country. NIEA is working with Indian Country to develop policy recommendations for garnering wider implementation of best practices and college ready policies.

Specifically, NIEA is focusing on redesigning of the American high school to promote the use of instructional practices based on rigor, relationships, and relevance designed to meet the needs of Native students while preparing them for college and work after high school.

NIEA believes there needs to be:

Increased attention on the national, state, and district levels for Native students needs in states and school districts with high Native populations to increase retention and graduation rates of Native students.
Supportive federal and state policies to increase Native student access to rigorous curriculum and inclusion of native languages, cultures and histories to improve student achievement and attainment.
Quality schools that better serve Native students through access to rigorous curriculum, and adequate support to ensure they can meet higher expectations including culturally relevant curriculum.
Accountability in graduation rates that provides for accurate data regarding Native students must be included in the reporting requirements.

Although Native students have the highest high school drop-out rates and the lowest college completion rates of any group in the United States, there are many practices emerging that have demonstrated success for Native students The Early College High School Initiative, an innovative program supported by the Center for Native Education at Antioch University in Seattle, Washington, is a program that provides students with culturally relevant, academically rigorous, small high schools, while blending local cultural content, and college requirements in their curricula. These programs require the involvement of community partners, input from tribal leaders, commitment from the parents, and a partnership of a local university. All of these groups are coming together to create a supportive and healthy environment in which students are able to succeed.

No Child Left Behind Initiative

NIEA’s top legislative priority is to strengthen the education of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians through effective and meaningful education programs and approaches in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NIEA is committed to strengthening NCLB for Indian Country through provisions that provide for meaningful tribal involvement in setting the educational priorities for Indian students and the inclusion of Native language and cultural instruction.

As an organization of Native educators, NIEA supports high achievement standards for all children and holding public schools accountable for results. Further, NIEA lauds the goal of Title VII of NCLB to meet the unique cultural and educational needs of Native children. Title VII affirms the Federal Government’s support for culturally based education approaches as a strategy for positively impacting Native student achievement. NIEA desires to strengthen NCLB to better serve the needs of Native communities, particularly those who live in remote, isolated and economically disadvantaged environments.

NIEA’s Amendments to NCLB focus on several key categories which includes:

Improving Title VII to Address the Unique Cultural and Educational Needs of Native Children;
Strengthening NCLB to Provide Support for Instruction in Native American Languages;
Improving Cooperation Among Tribes, States, and the Federal Government;
Improving Support for Teachers of Native Students;
Improving Opportunities for Parents, Families and Tribes and other Native Communities to Participate in the Education of Native Children
Improving the Measurement System for Adequate Yearly Progress
Requiring the Collection of Data and Research on the Education of Native Children
Funding for NCLB, especially Title VII.

Current research demonstrates that cultural education can be successfully integrated into the classroom in a manner that would provide Native students with instruction in the core subject areas based upon cultural values and beliefs. Math, reading, language arts, history, science, physical education, music, cultural arts and other subjects may be taught in curricula instilled in Native traditional and cultural concepts and knowledge.

Outside of Bethel, Alaska, in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, a rural area that requires special modes of transportation to reach, the Yup’ik Immersion School has made Adequate Yearly Progress for four consecutive years using instructional methods steeped in their Native language and culture. The principal of the school, Agatha John Shields knows that the funding and resources provided to her school cannot compare with that of cash rich school districts, but she does know her students can compete in society based on the education they are receiving in her school.

NCLB was due to be reauthorized last fall and has since been postponed. Nevertheless, NIEA continues to obtain additional information to strengthen NCLB for our Native students.

Funding Native Education and Programs
What is the status on funding Native Education and Programs?

One week ago, President Bush submitted his budget request for Fiscal Year 2009 and once again the First Peoples of this country seemed to be the last on the list of priorities.

A pattern has developed in recent years where Native education programs get smaller increases in years where overall funding is up and bigger cuts in years when overall funding is down. This is unconscionable and must be corrected!

Over the years, the President's budget requests have proposed many significant cuts in Native education, which have deepened the negative effects of previous cuts. If these cuts to Native education are not reversed, then Native children and Native communities will be further harmed as well as future generations.

Given the cuts in Indian School Construction, the proposed elimination of critical programs such as the Johnson O’Malley Program, Post Secondary Scholarships for Native Students, funding to Tribal Colleges, the Alaska Native Education Equity Program, and the Native Hawaiian Education Program, NIEA firmly believes the federal government has not upheld its legal and moral obligations to provide sufficient funding for the education of Native American students.

The continued decrease in Indian education funding is a direct violation of the federal trust responsibility. Every year our funding is decreased and the educational mandates that we must meet are increased. Native students cannot make Adequate Yearly Progress, if education funding does not make Adequate Yearly Progress!

The issues impacting our Native students are overwhelming! But as my great great grandfather Chief Looloma stated, “Let us not be afraid.” We must for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren and our great great grandchildren persevere in balancing and preserving our culture, traditions and our Native way of life with the Pahaana’s knowledge so that our children and our people succeed in educational attainment at all levels.

                    Dr. Willard Sakiestewa Gilbert

National Indian Education Association -


[Note: Some text is replaced with numerical equivalents for ease of reading]

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