Revitalizing Native Cultures
Corey Blankenship testifies before Congress about the need for land for the Cherokee educational village.Corey Blankenship testifies before Congress
about the need for land for the Cherokee
educational village.

Education

One of the ironies in Indian Country today is that the same educational system that once tried to "kill the Indian, save the man" is now expected to save the remnants of tribal languages and cultures. Boarding schools were a government policy of assimilation around the turn of the 20th century.

Perhaps because of that negative legacy, Native Americans lag behind their white contemporaries in educational achievement. Nationally, almost 30 percent of all Indians drop out of high school before getting their degrees, compared to only 20 percent of all students. There are tribes that are doing better. The Cherokee and the Ojibwe each have drop out rates closer to the national average. But the Navajo drop out rate is closer to 40 percent.

Eleven percent of Native Americans earn a college degree, compared to the total population where the figure is 24 percent.

Like many communities, the Cherokee want to educate their children better, but they had to go to Congress to accomplish their goals.

Click here to see what happened in this video.

In the last two decades, the federal government has contracted with sovereign tribes to operate their own schools. As a result, many have emphasized instruction in their Native language. Less than 30 percent of all Native Americans in the U.S. speak their tribal language at home. Native languages carry the cultures because a tribe's ceremonies, prayers, stories, songs and dances are all conducted in the tribal tongue. Language also connects Native people to their ancestors, traditions and history, and losing a language means losing a sense of self-worth and identity for those people. It makes it harder to solve social problems.

To stem the loss, at least 50 tribal groups have established language immersion schools where students as young as three years old hear nothing but Native speakers. Then, gradually in subsequent years, the students are introduced to English. The paradox is that immersion in a Native language before English is producing higher test scores in standardized tests given in English. Studies are showing that immersion programs result in lower drop-out rates and better educational achievement. Native school districts with immersion programs perform better at meeting their Adequate Yearly Progress goals under the No Child Left Behind Act than non-immersion schools.

Immersion schools still face challenges. It's often difficult to find teachers who are fluent in the language and who have also attended a teacher's college to become certified. Or there are qualified teachers who don't know the language. So, some schools are team teaching the classes, pairing certified teachers with elders who are Native speakers.

To date, these schools have been funded by a combination of tribal budgets, some foundation grants and limited federal funds from the Department of Health and Human Services. This program has had a flat $44 million appropriation for the past few years, but only 10 percent of the funds are allocated to language immersion programs. The remaining dollars go to programs for recording and compiling Native speakers for archives, social and economic development programs, healthy marriages programs and environmental programs.

So, in the fall of 2006, Congress was considering a new program in the Department of Education to support immersion programs alone. The Native American Languages Act would create a competitive grant program for language "nests" and language survival schools. In October, the bill passed the House. Action in the Senate is pending.

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