Oklahoma has a tragic history when it comes to Indian education. Here’s how we’re turning it around.

Bah-He-Toya-Mah is an OK Policy summer intern. She has a political science degree from Oklahoma City University and is completing postgraduate studies at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Tribal Administration and Governance program. Prior to OK Policy she worked at her tribe, The Apache Tribe of Oklahoma. She has interned with the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education in Washington D.C.

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900)
Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania (c. 1900)

When President Obama visited our state recently, his first stop was the Choctaw Nation in southeast Oklahoma. The Choctaw Nation covers some of the poorest parts of the state – where 32.3 percent of children live in poverty and unemployment rates are well above the rest of the state. Because of the serious economic struggles of the region and the strong partner that the federal government has in the Choctaw Nation, the area has been included in the first round of President Obama’s Promise Zones, where local and federal resources will be concentrated to improve human development and well-being.

Part of the Choctaw Nation Promise Zone initiative is an intensive summer school program for 4-year-olds to third graders, including both American Indian and non-American Indian children. It will be a new test of the U.S. government’s ability to partner with a tribe to improve education for all children. That partnership builds on Oklahoma’s recent successes with Indian Education. We have become a good model for the nation as a whole of how to begin overcoming our tragic history of using education in ways that damaged American Indian communities and culture.

As of 2013, 15 percent of students in Oklahoma public schools are identified as American Indian, which put them tied with Hispanics as the second largest group of students in the state. Oklahoma’s American Indian students have outperformed their counterparts in other states for some time. In 2013, Oklahoma’s American Indian students scored better on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) than American Indian students nationally in all subject and grades tested that year.

While we don’t know exactly why Oklahoma is doing better at educating American Indian students, we can point to a few successful policies in recent years. In 2010, Oklahoma lawmakers created the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education with HB 2929. The Council brings together representatives from numerous tribes and public educators to make recommendations, evaluate, and report on the effectiveness of the public education system in meeting the needs of the Native American students in Oklahoma.

In 2014, the State Department of Education introduced the Oklahoma Indian Education Resource, an online hub of education guides and lesson plans for teaching about Oklahoma’s Indian tribes in ways that meet the state’s Academic Standards. Users can even upload lesson plans in a variety of subject areas that are designed to meet the cultural needs and learning styles of American Indian students. Dwight Pickering, the director of Oklahoma’s Office of American Indian Education, said that the resource “will be an ongoing repository that will change as history changes, along with additional information that is brought forward by our tribes. This is one step toward a much bigger project: ‘Indian education for all.’”

[pullquote]“This is one step toward a much bigger project: ‘Indian education for all.’”[/pullquote]These efforts to create an informative, culturally-inclusive curriculum on American Indian issues is a stark contrast to how Indian Education was handled earlier in Oklahoma’s history. Beginning with the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, which was enforced even though it was never ratified by the tribes, many American Indian families were required to send their children to attend non-Indian, federal government-sponsored schools. These schools forced children forced to abandon their Native American identities, including cutting their hair, changing their names, and forbidding them from speaking their native languages. Native American children were being taken from their families to boarding schools well into the 1970s, and many of the children who attended those institutions are still living in Oklahoma as elders in their tribal communities and parents and grandparents to American Indian students in Oklahoma schools.

Thankfully today we have moved to more collaborative and inclusive policies for Indian education. But given our troubled history, we must be vigilant to keep ensuring that communities are not intentionally or unintentionally marginalized.

Another area where tribes and the state are working together to bolster education is through funding compacts. In 2004 Oklahoma voters approved State Question 712, which extended an offer to gaming tribes to pay exclusivity fees, with the majority of funds earmarked for education. In 2014 the Gaming Compliance Unit reported $122.6 million given to the state from tribal gaming, with the Education Reform Revolving Fund 1017 receiving $107.6 million.

The tribes’ contributions to state education funding are in addition to support tribes often give to schools in their communities. Many tribes offer resources to enhance education and assist students through incentive programs, tribal grants, tutoring and scholarships. Some tribes give students a clothing stipend at the beginning of a school year. Others might offer a cash incentive for good grades or resources for students to attend educational activities, such as a robotics competition, academic bowl, conference or cultural event. Tribe-sponsored camps during the summer time are also fairly common, with a focus that may include diabetes prevention, environmental issues, cultural history, and safety.

Tribes are showing a growing to commitment to investing in education for the whole state. On the other hand, it is alarming that Oklahoma has made large cuts in education spending when millions are being contributed each year via the state compacts. As Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. pointed out during OK Policy’s State Budget Summit:

“What I think is the tribes have helped pay for [Oklahoma’s income tax cuts], and we didn’t want to pay for those tax cuts. … Part of the fundamental aspect of State Question 712 is that we would be partners with the state, and what we wanted is that the revenues we would generate would help add to what the state could do — to help the state do more for the health, the education, the housing and economic development for the citizens of the state of Oklahoma. Because, guess what, 150,000 of those citizens are also citizens of the Cherokee Nation, and thousands more for the other Indian nations. That was the bargain that we had hoped for, and what we’ve found is that we helped pay for some of these tax cuts.”

There is also growing concern that American Indian students are not college-ready. In 2014 the average ACT score for American Indian students in the state was 19.3, which is below requirements to attend or receive academic scholarships at many universities. An Oklahoma City Community College report identified their American Indian students as among the least college-ready, with nearly 68 percent requiring developmental courses before they can begin a degree program.

Tribes exist today as active cultures and sovereign states that make important contributions to our shared experience as Oklahomans. So what exactly do tribes expect from the state’s education system? Of course this is going to vary by community, but one common factor is that, like all Oklahomans, we want our children to get a good education, have qualified instructors, and experience minimal incidents of bullying or harassment, no matter what school they attend. American Indian students have the best opportunity to succeed academically in Oklahoma compared to anywhere else in the country, but we must keep building on this achievement through strong collaborations with tribal governments and individuals.

2 thoughts on “Oklahoma has a tragic history when it comes to Indian education. Here’s how we’re turning it around.

  1. Great post. I absolutely agree, solving the many issues that Native Children in OK face, will take a unified response from all tribes. I had no idea the full scope of the disparity in the education system, so thank you for shedding light on that. Hopefully this begins a greater dialog between tribal leaders and OK law makers to find a permanent solution.

  2. Excellent article. There could a part two to this article which could discuss other important Indian Education issues to include the recent Oklahoma charter school law which allows tribes to be sponsors, the effort by OCIE (Oklahoma Council for Indian Education) to hold a State Capitol Indian Education Legislative day, the emerging tribal colleges, the growing acceptance of TEDs/TEAs (tribal education departments/tribal education agencies) by local/state agencies, the effect of the BIE reorganization plan on Indian Education in Oklahoma, Title VII/JOM programs (the Title VII Indian student count reflects a much larger Indian student population than listed in article), the use Impact Aid funds generated from Indian lands and employment on federal land by parents, and lastly, the great need to fund the Office of American Indian Education (Mr. Pickering operates a one man office which serves all of Oklahoma, the state with the largest Native American student population in the US). A request for more funding was made to a group of Oklahoma legislators via a legislative study meeting. The amount requested was about one percent of the total dollars tribes contribute annually to the state budget. (one per cent funding for fifteen percent of the student population). A future effort for increased funding will be made by a team of concerned Indian Educators.

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