The Institute of American Indian Arts, one of three congressionally chartered colleges in the United States, has been immersing students in Native American contemporary arts and culture for more than 55 years, Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 9, 2019. Julie Taboh/VOA
The Institute of American Indian Arts, one of three congressionally chartered colleges in the United States, has been immersing students in Native American contemporary arts and culture for more than 55 years, Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 9, 2019. Julie Taboh/VOA

WASHINGTON - Some Native American children fear bullying and harassment so much, they hide their ethnicity at school, according to an education expert. 

“A lot of Native students feel invisible,” said Katrina Boone, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit whose mission is to change education and life outcomes for underserved children.

Boone said many students have told her they don't feel comfortable letting their teachers know they are Native American because they have “been harassed and bullied, not just by peers, but by teachers in school.”

Native American students languish in schools across the country and often face worse outcomes than their white, black and Latino peers, she said. And the rates of high school and post-graduation trends are below the rates of their peers.

The suicide rate for Native youth exceeds the rate of their peers, Boone said. And national data indicate that rates for illicit drug use and tobacco use are higher for Native youth than for their peers, she said, citing the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

False history
 
Native Americans have been discriminated against “for hundreds of years,” Boone said, and forced to assimilate into a Euro-centric American culture. 

“A lot of people view Native people and their socio-economic challenges and think the cause is Native people themselves,” she said. “But the actuality is that of course these challenges aren’t inherent to Native people. These are the effects of centuries of our government being terroristic, genocidal, and just generally unfair to Native American people since European first contact.” 

Schools were used as a tool of assimilation, Boone said. “Very thoughtfully and very strategically by the government to destroy Native culture, to destroy Native language, to separate Native people, and to erase their cultures as they originally existed before first contact," she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Native children were sent -- often forcibly -- to Native American boarding schools where “they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture,” according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Carlisle Indian School in 1884; 375 students. (John N. Choate/Courtesy image)
Carlisle Indian School in 1884; 375 students. (John N. Choate/Courtesy image)

When they returned to their families, “they were so completely Americanized that they couldn't speak the language of their families and had lost their culture and traditions,” Boone said. The outcome is poverty, poor physical and mental health issues and subpar education outcomes “that we see in Indian country today."

Native schools

But Boone is quick to point out that there are pockets in the country where Native students excel.

“The schools where Native students excel acknowledge those students’ culture, they acknowledge those students’ Native languages, they involve communities in really rich ways, and usually those schools are controlled and run by Native people,” Boone said.
 
She points to the Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School in northwestern Wisconsin, where students thrive in an academically rigorous environment that leverages the myriad assets of their Native culture and language.

There is also the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), a 56-hectare (140-acre) campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where approximately 500 students are immersed in contemporary Native American arts and culture.

Members of about 100 tribes attend the school, President Robert Martin, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said. "So that's a lot of diversity,” he said, but the school’s main mission he points out, “will always reflect that indigenous or Native perspective.” 

Dolores’ story 

Native American and IAIA student Dolores Scarlett Cortez studies printmaking and photography. She said using those mediums allowed her to explore her roots. Cortez said she spent this past summer photographing members of her community, and in the process, found her calling. 

Dolores Scarlett Cortez, a senior at the Institute of American Indian Arts, hopes to use her talents in printmaking and photography as an art therapist to help members of her indigenous community,in Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 9, 2019. (Julie Taboh/VOA)
Dolores Scarlett Cortez, a senior at the Institute of American Indian Arts, hopes to use her talents in printmaking and photography as an art therapist to help members of her indigenous community,in Santa Fe, N.M., Oct. 9, 2019. (Julie Taboh/VOA)

“With my own indigenous cultures and especially coming to the school, I do feel like there's not enough resources on reservation land that caters to indigenous people,” she said. “I think it's really important to bring that representation back.”

The power of film

Anthony Deiter, who graduated from IAIA 25 years ago and is now a professor of virtual gaming and simulation at the school, teaches a new concept in filmmaking: moving images viewed on a spherical screen rather than a flat one.

He said he thinks the arts -- especially film -- are a powerful platform to help students understand their history, and they provide an opportunity to correct it where they can.

“We often look at those movies and go, ‘Well, that’s sort of not us,’ and I’m going ‘Well, maybe we need to start putting that voice out there. Maybe we need to take a place, like the Institute of American Indian Arts, [which] has the platform to jump off to tell our own stories,’” Dieter said.

Political push

“What I really feel needs to happen is we need to have more Native Americans in roles that we don't necessarily see them in now, or roles that we are a vast minority in,” said U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland, a Democrat who represents New Mexico's 1st congressional district and is one of two female Native American legislators elected to Congress.

At the University of New Mexico School of Law where Haaland graduated in 2006, she lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill giving Native Americans in-state tuition regardless of their residency. She paid out-of-state tuition at University of New Mexico School of Law because she resided in California several years before enrollment. 

“I felt that I'm a Pueblo woman, and my family's been here since the 1280s, and that made me a 35th generation New Mexican. And it just seemed wrong that I had to pay out-of-state tuition," Haaland said.
 
She said she would like to see more Native Americans in leadership roles, especially women. 

“We need more Native women CEOs. We need more Native women in public office. We need Native Americans in high military positions. We need to ensure that we are giving opportunities to not just Native Americans, but minority students all over the country," Haaland said.

Walking in two worlds

Boone, of Bellwether Education Partners, said she thinks that in order to succeed, Native Americans have to first be fully grounded in their own culture.

"New students have to understand that they live in, for better or worse, the country that we all live in today, and that there's a real need to be able to navigate that society, but with the strength within them from their first culture," she said.

"That's not different for any other kid in school," she said. "I saw in my teaching experiences that kids really need to be rooted in their families and their communities, and have some sort of cultural base.”

“Those are the kids who are the most successful," Boone said