Native youth kick off Generation Indigenous challenge

By Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Janay Jumping Eagle is on a mission to curb teen suicide in her hometown on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Dahkota Brown of the Wilton Band of Miwok Indians in California wants to keep American Indian and Alaska Native students on track toward graduation.

The teenagers are at the heart of Generation Indigenous, or Gen-I, a White House initiative that kicked off this week with a brainstorming session that happened to coincide with tens of thousands of indigenous people gathering in New Mexico for the Gathering of Nations, North America’s largest powwow.

The Generation Indigenous program stems from a visit last year by President Barack Obama to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Meetings followed, the president called for his cabinet members to conduct listening tours, tribal youth were chosen as ambassadors and a national network was formed.

The goal is to remove barriers that stand in the way of tribal youth reaching their potential, said Lillian Sparks Robinson, a member of the Rosebud Sioux and an organizer of Thursday’s Gen-I meeting.

“This is a community-based, community-driven initiative. It is not something that’s coming from the top down. It’s organic,” she said.

The teens are coming up with their own ideas to combat problems in their respective communities.

For example, a string of seven suicides by teenagers in recent months has shaken Pine Ridge, and close to 1,000 suicide attempts were recorded on the reservation over a nearly 10-year period. Jumping Eagle, a high school sophomore, said her older cousin was one of them.

“That was really devastating. I just wanted to at least try to stop it from happening and I’m still trying,” she said, noting that a recent basketball tournament she organized as part of her Gen-I challenge to bring awareness and share resources with schoolmates was a success.

Brown, 16, said he sees Gen-I as a tool to “shine a light on the positive things that are happening in Indian country rather than all the other bad statistics that go along with being a Native teen.”

From New Mexico’s pueblos to tribal communities in the Midwest and beyond, federal statistics show nearly one-third of Native youth live in poverty, they have the highest suicide rates of any ethnicity in the U.S., and they have the lowest high school graduation rate of students across all schools. And for American Indians and Alaska Natives overall, alcoholism mortality is more than 500 percent higher than the general population.

Federal agencies are working with the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute to pull off Generation Indigenous, and the White House is planning a tribal youth gathering in July in Washington, D.C.

In one of her last tasks before passing on the Miss Indian World crown, Taylor Thomas spoke to Gen-I participants Thursday. She shared with them her tribe’s creation story, which centers on the idea that every animal, plant and person has a purpose. She encouraged the teens to be leaders.

“No matter the difficulties we have in our communities, we have so many bright lights shining from all over Indian country. And when I say that I’m talking about all of you,” she told the crowd of about 300.

What to know about federally run Indian schools

In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2014, students walk between buildings at the Little Singer Community School in Birdsprings, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation. Like other schools in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education, remoteness, extreme poverty, bureaucracy and a lack of construction dollars have enhanced the challenges at Little Singer. The Obama administration is pushing ahead with a plan to improve the schools that gives tribes more control. But the endeavor is complicated.

In this photo taken Sept. 25, 2014, students walk between buildings at the Little Singer Community School in Birdsprings, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation. Like other schools in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education, remoteness, extreme poverty, bureaucracy and a lack of construction dollars have enhanced the challenges at Little Singer. The Obama administration is pushing ahead with a plan to improve the schools that gives tribes more control. But the endeavor is complicated.

By Kimberly Hefling, AP Education Writer

WINSLOW, Ariz. (AP) — The federal government finances 183 schools and dormitories for Native American children on or near reservations in 23 states. The schools are some of the nation’s lowest performing.

An effort is underway to improve them.

Five things to know about the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education schools:

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THE IMPROVEMENT PLAN

The Obama administration wants to turn day-to-day operations of more of the schools over to tribes, bring in more board-certified teachers, upgrade Internet access and make it easier to hire teachers and buy textbooks. The plan also seeks to provide more support to schools to advance American Indian languages and culture.

But many the schools are in poor physical condition. An estimated $1.3 billion is needed to replace or refurbish rundown facilities, and not much money is coming from Washington. There also is much mistrust of the federal government, given the history of forced assimilation.

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TAINTED HISTORY

The system of government boarding schools to educate Native American students was established in the 19th century as part of an assimilation policy to “eradicate Native cultures and languages through Western education,” according to a government study group.

One of the first to be run directly by Washington was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which opened in 1879. It was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, an Army officer who said, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” according to Jon Reyhner, an education professor at Northern Arizona University.

Many commissions have called for improvements to Indian schools. One, in the 1920s, said the students should be treated as “human beings.”

In 1966, what was then called the Rough Rock Demonstration School opened in Chinle, Arizona, a prototype of the schools that are today owned by the federal government but run by tribes.

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MODERN HISTORY

While about 7 percent of Indian students attend a bureau school today, the great majority are at traditional public schools.

Only a few bureau schools fully immerse students in a Native American language or culture. Others offer them in lesser degrees. But this type of instruction is a draw for parents.

About 6,900 students live in dorms operated by the bureau.

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ONE SCHOOL

Little Singer Community School outside Winslow, Arizona, was the vision in the 1970s of a medicine man who longed for area children to attend a local school. Today, it serves 81 students and school leaders emphasize a nurturing environment. But the rundown classroom buildings have problems with asbestos, radon, mice, mold and flimsy outside door locks. The school has been on a government priority list since at least 2004 for new construction.

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PERFORMANCE OF NATIVE AMERICAN STUDENTS

Indian students overall score higher overall on assessments than those who attend bureau schools.

Native American students overall have high school graduation rates that are lower than the student population as a whole, 68 percent compared with 81 percent, according to government figures from 2011-2012. They also lag peers on a national assessment known as the “nation’s report card” and have lower rates of college completion.

In a 2011 survey conducted as part of the national assessment, 56 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students reported knowing some or a lot about their tribe or group’s history. The rest reported knowing little or nothing.