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Can the U.S. restructure schools to nurture Native American students?

The high school graduation rate for Native Americans is the lowest of any ethnic or racial group in the United States. How can the government assist reservation schools while respecting autonomy of tribes? Judy Woodruff talks to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell about a series of initiatives announced by the president on how to undo deep-seated education challenges for Native Americans.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now the substantial problems that Native Americans in the U.S. face, particularly with education.

    That was the focus of a new report issued today and a meeting President Obama had with Native Americans in Washington. The president announced a series of initiatives to prepare young American Indians for college and the work force.

    They include a push to strengthen tribal control of education on reservations. The Federal Bureau of Indian Education is responsible for educating nearly 50,000 students in 23 states. The high school graduation rate is for Native Americans the lowest of any ethnic or racial group. The bureau is part of the Department of the Interior.

    And Interior Secretary Sally Jewell joins me now.

    Welcome to the “NewsHour.”

  • SALLY JEWELL, Secretary of the Interior:

    Thank you very much.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, we know the problems in the Native American community, they’re deeply entrenched. They go back a long time, to the very beginning of this country. What are just a couple of the ways the administration thinks it can make a real difference?

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    Well, the report that the White House just issued on Native American youth does a very good job of chronicling the challenges.

    And they are deep-seated. They have been around for, not just decades, but literally hundreds of years, policies that tried to kill the Indian to save the man, policies of assimilation, of squishing cultures. And, in so doing, they really diminished the confidence and the pride of Native Americans.

    What the president has done — and he’s charged his Cabinet with this — and this was really powerfully brought home to him in a visit with young people at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe — is that he doesn’t want to stand by and let this happen anymore.

    So, he’s charged his administration very directly with being part of the solution, with charting a different course. And that’s what we’re doing.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And the challenges, we know because of all the attention on it today, facing young Native Americans particularly tough. I was reading that more than a third of them live in poverty. The statistics, we just reported them, are really discouraging.

    First of all, how did it get so bad after all this time? And, again, how can the administration make a real difference this time?

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    Well, the short answer is, there have been reports that have gone back for decades.

    There was a major report under President Kennedy’s leadership on Indian education that showed many of the same problems. And the difference today, and the difference that we believe strongly in, is around turning over control of these schools to tribal leadership and giving them the tools they need to figure out where are the bright spots, what’s going well and why, so that we can help them bring those lessons to their schools, and yet they have accountability.

    You mentioned 23 states. That’s 23 different sets of rules, very, very difficult for us to administer, and a lack of accountability because, you know, we’re a federal bureaucracy. Tribes will hold people accountable for doing the right job for their kids, and that’s the basic premise here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What makes you think that’s going to work?

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    We have some great bright spots out there.

    The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians has done a wonderful job with tribal control of schools. They hire a director, reports to the tribal council and the tribal chief. And they have done a great job. And I visited their reservation and I saw it in action.

    I have been to many schools where the kids are wonderful. The kids are curious. The kids don’t know how the deck is stacked against them. And we need to nurture that. And I see individual schools working hard to do that. But I see them doing it in crumbling facilities, and I see them doing that without the kind of support that they need from us.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we know that some Native American leaders point — they point to these years of promise — you mentioned the Kennedy administration — about children getting a better education. They’re saying many of those promises have been broken.

    I was reading today a Minnesota newspaper editorial written on behalf of an Indian reservation. And they said the Obama administration — quote — “has ignored the fundamental need for safe, functional schools.”

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    So, the — in Minnesota, they’re in the middle of a series which I would say is very helpful, because it’s shining a spotlight on the challenges we have.

    Of the schools that I administer through the Bureau of Indian Education, it’s about 183 of them, one — fully one-third of them are considered in poor condition. One of them was a school I visited up there, the Bug O Nay Ge Shig School.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    None of us would want our kids to go to school there. It’s not safe. It wasn’t designed for that purpose. It’s too cold. It’s too hot. It has no labs for science. It’s not serving children well.

    So we need support in our budget to be able to do that. We need to get creative, which I’m getting, in figuring out what other sources of support might there be, in the private sector, in the philanthropic community, in states, but also stepping up to our obligations as a nation and putting money in the budget to take care of these schools, which we’re obligated to do, but we’re not funded to do.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, we know it’s a tough set of problems.

    And I want to — I also want to ask you about another part of your portfolio, another test, tough set of issues. And that’s energy. We know both the oil and gas industry and environmentalists separately are very anxiously awaiting final rules on hydraulic fracturing, fracking, on public land.

    The environmentalists say they’re worried this is going to destroy the environment, do terrible damage. The industry is saying, no, if you don’t do fracking, you’re going to cost all these jobs. How do you strike the right balance here?

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    Well, first, I’m an environmentalist, and I’m also a petroleum engineer. I started my career working for Mobil Oil. I have personally fracked wells before.

    So, fracking can be done safely and responsibly, but it needs to be regulated in a modern way, because fracking has gone a long way since I was in the industry. So we’re modernizing our regulations. There are three key things that we’re looking at in the regulations. The most important thing is wellbore integrity.

    If you have got a good wellbore integrity and the fracked fluid has gone where it’s supposed to go, it can unlock resources with a very small footprint on the land. That wasn’t true when I was in the industry. You drilled individual wells as soda straws. Now you can drill directionally and you can frack horizontally.

    But you need to know what’s being put down the hole. You need to have good wellbore integrity. And you need to know what’s happening with the fluids as they come back. And that’s what our regulations are addressing.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And — and those are coming out just in the next few weeks, we understand.

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    We haven’t set a date, but we have taken comments twice, over a million comments. And we’re synthesizing those. And we hope to have them released in the relatively near future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And when they do come out, we hope you will come back and we can talk to you about it.

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    That would be great. Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, thank you.

  • SALLY JEWELL:

    Thank you.

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