Education agreement at Tribal Council

Deanie Smith came across an interesting and important federal law that has to do with tribal languages and public schools.
Deanie, the tribal Language Program director, attended the National Indian Education Association conference last October in Portland.

At one policy session, she met a group of Hawaiian Natives who shared information on how they have been working to keep their languages.

They shared with her a copy of the Native American Languages Act of 1990. Here is some of the language in the law:

“The traditional languages of Native Americans are an integral part of their cultures and identities, and form the basic medium for the transmission, and thus survival of Native American cultures, literature, histories, religions, political institutions and values…”“It is the policy of the United states to preserve, protect and promote the rights and freedom of Native Americans to use, practice and develop Native American languages…”

The federal government “encourages all institutions of elementary, secondary and higher education, where appropriate, to include Native American languages in the curriculum in the same manner as foreign languages, and to grant proficiency in Native American languages the same full academic credit as proficiency in foreign languages.”

Deanie and June Smith, both on Education Committee, met with Tribal Council last week for an update on the education agreement. The current agreement—among the tribes, school district 509-J, and the BIA—is set to expire this summer.

The Tribal Council, Education Committee and community have been talking for about a year on what they would like to see in the next agreement. At last week’s meeting, Deanie provided the Tribal Council will copies of the Native American Languages Act.

“There is some powerful wording in this law,” she said. “I think the language is clear, and I think this is something we can implement.”

It will take some time to figure how best to implement the law, “and we’re 26 years behind,” Deanie said. But the time is right—with the tribes and school district negotiating toward the new agreement—to focus on the issue.

The Culture and Heritage Department teachers do a great job of teaching the tribal languages to young people, at the Early Childhood Education Center, the Eagle Academy, high school and Central Oregon Community College.

A question going forward with the school district negotiation is what more could be done to better bring the language, culture and heritage to the Native students of the district.

The Education Committee has conducted public input sessions on what the community members would like to see added, or different in school programs.

A consistent response is that the tribal culture should have a greater place in the schools. This could help address absenteeism, and the drop-out rate.

As an example, the Education Committee asked community members what were among their best experiences at school.

Many of the people said the best part was when they finally felt like they belonged at the school, “whether it was through sports, a club, or something else,” Deanie said.