When recent high school graduate Chaslyn Tafoya of Taos Pueblo was asked in a public forum with New Mexico’s education secretary what she loved most about where she called home, she pointed to her culture, her language, and her tribal community. When asked what threatened what she loved most, she replied, “public education.”
Her response echoed the verdict issued by New Mexico’s First Judicial District Court in its 2018 Yazzie/Martinez ruling: Indigenous students “will be irreparably harmed” if the State does not enact a comprehensive overhaul of public education. The Court ordered the State to implement the New Mexico Indian Education Act of 2003, which requires the New Mexico Public Education Department to collaborate with Tribes in providing a culturally and linguistically relevant education to Native students.
Public education has long posed an existential threat to our Native children and to the cultural survival of Indigenous peoples. The recent discovery of mass graves at Indian boarding schools exposes only the most egregious atrocities committed in the name of Western education. After boarding schools came the forced integration of Native children into public schools. Designed to erase differences and impose the presumed supremacy of Western culture, public schools embody the cumulative harm inflicted by systemic and institutional racism. Countless public investigations and judicial rulings have surfaced the trauma caused by “Indian Education,” yet the assimilation paradigm persists.
Three years after the landmark Yazzie/Martinez ruling, Native students are still waiting for meaningful change. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic is exacerbating education inequities. Native students have suffered disproportionate learning loss as they lack the technology infrastructure for distance learning. Even before the pandemic, Native students were a third less likely than White students to graduate on time.
Disparate academic outcomes are routinely presented as a liability for New Mexico, indicative of the clichéd “Indian problem.” Yet as the Yazzie Court reminded, disparities are the result of systemic failures, maintained by an education policy steeped in the legacy of colonialism and racism. While Native students struggle with racial bullying and biased curricula, they are rarely supported by teachers that share similar experiences. In the school district that serves almost exclusively students from the Jicarilla Apache Nation, only 1 in 10 teachers are Native. There are over 1,000 teacher vacancies across the state; to close the diversity gap, each and every new hire would have to be Native.
The failures of our public education system are harming the minds and souls of Native children. Tragically, our Native youth are a third more likely than their peers to take their own lives. It reflects a sense of hopelessness.
Solutions to this unconscionable crisis are right before us. The Tribal Remedy Framework, developed by tribal communities and Indigenous education experts, has been endorsed by all of New Mexico’s Nations, Tribes, and Pueblos. It is a comprehensive plan for a balanced, culturally and linguistically relevant education that meets the needs of Native students. Three strategies undergird this plan: increasing the capacity of Tribes to share responsibility in public school governance, investing in tribal community-based education, education infrastructure and harnessing the expertise of Indigenous higher education faculty to train Native teachers and assist school districts and Tribes.
Native American state legislators, most notably Rep. Derrick Lente, have repeatedly introduced bills to implement these solutions. Legislative action is needed to make targeted investments in Native students and fully fund the New Mexico Indian Education Act. However, state officials have yet to act on the proposals contained in the Tribal Remedy Framework. Recent piecemeal reforms failed to match the magnitude of the problem and across-the-board funding increases have bypassed Native students. The State’s failure to listen to Tribes is perpetuating the same institutional racism that lies at the root of this crisis.
Yet Indigenous peoples remain resilient and will persevere. We will not accept the slow death of our cultures, languages, and way of life. Chaslyn Tafoya’s voice joins a growing chorus of Indigenous advocates who insist the time for change is now. Until tribal communities gain greater control over the education of their children, and until Indigenous cultures and languages are fully integrated into schools, and have access to the necessary education infrastructure, tribal youth, their families, and their communities will continue demanding an overhaul of public education.
Regis Pecos is a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, which provides a forum to discuss the most critical policy issues that impact the Native tribes of New Mexico. The views in this column are the author’s alone and do not reflect the views or opinions of New Mexico In Depth.