RIVERTON, Wyo. — Sandra Iron Cloud spoke patiently to the panel gathered Thursday in the theater at Central Wyoming College.
Education is a Native American treaty right that’s not being met, she said with added emphasis. The two top Obama administration officials sitting a few feet away from her on stage seemed to agree. Both Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan repeatedly voiced their commitments to upholding the U.S. government’s end of the bargain with native people.
But after plenty of talk at the fourth annual Wyoming Native American Education Conference, Iron Cloud said, now is the time for results.
“Maybe they do want to make a difference,” Iron Cloud, board secretary for the Wind River Tribal College, said of the federal leadership after the meeting. “But what are we going to do after this? I hope to see a commitment from what they stated here today, that they actually follow through.”
The hour-long discussion between the two cabinet secretaries and tribal leaders, students and educators from the Wind River Indian Reservation highlighted the first day of the Wyoming Department of Education’s two-day conference in Riverton. Jewell and Duncan played basketball with students at St. Stephens Indian School and attended a cultural dance at Arapahoe School, in what White House staff call the first meeting in history between the two department heads to discuss Native American education.
Talk, but few concretes
Jewell and Duncan reiterated their vision for native involvement in national education affairs throughout the panel discussion Thursday.
The crowd of educators, students and tribal leaders gathered to hear them speak erupted into occasional applause throughout the conversation, including Duncan’s personal apology for what he called the devastating and disproportionate effects of the federal sequester, enacted earlier this year when Congress could not reach an agreement regarding federal debt ceilings.
“Sequester is the height of dysfunction in Washington,” Duncan said. “There is no upside there.”
The across-the-board cuts in spending disproportionately affected native populations, he said. To brace for the sequester’s 5 percent reductions, health programs on the Wind River Indian Reservation stopped hiring, preschool and day care services cut hours and school districts faced more than $500,000 in budget reductions. The sequester laid $126 million in budget cuts on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which in conjunction with tribal governments, finances child welfare, schools and law enforcement, among other services, for 566 federally recognized tribes nationwide.
Duncan suggested the White House may begin thinking differently about how to better preserve and revitalize language and culture in education, a far cry from government boarding schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s that forcibly removed native children from their families and enforced strict punishments for speaking native languages or practicing native culture.
“We know we have a lot of work to do,” Duncan said. “I continue to believe the only way that we have strong communities is if we have high-quality education. It is impossible to break these cycles (of poverty) without giving children a chance for world class education.”
Duncan added that native schools should prepare native students to pursue a technical education or a two-year or four-year degree after high school. Those types of students, he said, should become the norm, not the exception. Better high school graduation rates and a rigorous, but culturally appropriate, education are immediate goals for his department, he said.
“Indian education is not where any of us want it to be,” Jewell said. As head of the department that runs both the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Education, Jewell promised to be engaged when necessary, and out of the way when appropriate. She said President Barack Obama recently issued an executive order creating the first White House council on Native American affairs, and that he asked her to chair the council, which is comprised of federal cabinet secretaries.
“I want to be helpful, but you are the experts,” Jewell said during her opening remarks before the rest of the panel members spoke. “I’m all ears.”
The significance of the two secretaries’ joint visit to the Wind River Indian Reservation was not lost on Iron Cloud. Speaking after the conference, she said she sincerely hoped the officials were ready to make a difference in education on the reservation, where high school dropout rates are the higher than any other demographic and colleges must lobby for funding every year.
But a significant question lingered in her mind.
“What we have here, this discussion, this opening a doorway to issues that are important to our people, important to our committees — where are we going to take it?”