Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Native Americans see mixed educational success despite Obama initiatives

President’s effort to engage Native American communities isn't being felt everywhere

Native American leaders from over 500 tribal nations gathered in Washington, D.C. on Thursday for the Tribal Nations Conference to discuss a range of issues with the Obama administration.

The meeting is one of President Barack Obama’s many initiatives to strengthen relations between the federal government and the country’s indigenous population. However, not everyone in Indian Country is enamored with the president's work, and stark problems still exist for many — especially in the realm of education, where despite increased funding Native groups report mixed success.

In 2011, Obama pushed for improvements at the Bureau of Indian Education, the federal department responsible for Native American students and schools. Since then, funding for programs at Indian schools has increased, but the distribution of money has been uneven.

Sage Savage, a former student on the Fond du Lac Reservation in eastern Minnesota, said his school benefited from the additional funding.

“There’s a language immersion program they do here. They do activities with wild-ricing and finishing maple syrup. So they do a lot of trying to get kids back into the culture, which, I think is really important for setting up a system for them to go to when they are done with schooling,” Savage said of Fond Du Lac Ojibwe School.

Like other schools, Ojibwe was established to provide a 21st century education for Native American students while also immersing them in their culture. 

The president’s push for education is part of a larger effort to engage Native American communities around the country with major policy changes related to employment, health care and crime.

“He did his part to help us succeed. He helped us with education. He helped us with infrastructure development. We’ve got programs here that are a direct result of the Obama administration,“ said Ferdinand Martineau Jr., a Fond du Lac tribal official.

But not all tribal nations feel the same as Fond du Lac. Just two hours up the road on the Leech Lake Reservation, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School is still waiting for help from the Obama administration. Built in 1984, the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School doesn’t just need repair, it needs to be replaced. 

“This building was not meant to be a school. It’s a pole barn. … It’s not really where I want my children to go to school, but they have,” Shirley Young of the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school board said.

The school's home economics classroom can’t use more than two appliances at a time, otherwise the lights short out. When it rains, school officials use buckets to collect water pouring through the ceilings. 

The school's computer lab is made entirely out of sheet metal, and wires are visible running up the walls. Students also say it gets so cold in the winter, they have to wear jackets for the entire school day.

Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs allocated $830 million for Native American education. The money was spread among 185 schools responsible for the education of 41,000 students nationwide. In comparison, Ohio's Cleveland Metropolitan School District has a budget of $1.5 billion going to nearly the same number of students in just 96 schools.

“It’s a disgrace that we are being left behind when we have new schools all over the United States being built and our children have to come to school in a building like this,” said Young, adding she wants the president to provide more funding so her school board can break ground on a new building.

“I would just ask him right out to give us the funding so we can build a school,” Young said. “And I would invite him here so he can see what our building looks like, that’s what I would do.”

It’s the kind of plea Native American leaders and youth hope the president will hear before he leaves office.

“The success of a reservation has to be with the education of the kids, and if the kids don’t get a proper education … and don’t meet the standards of let's say … state test scores and stuff, you know, what does that say about the future of these reservations?” Savage said.

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