WASHINGTON - Native American children are languishing in schools across the country, and often face worse outcomes than their white, black and Latino peers, says Katrina Boone, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, whose mission is to change education and life outcomes for underserved children.
Boone wrote that in a blogpost for the organization a year ago, but told VOA in a recent interview that not much has changed.
"A lot of Native students feel invisible," she says. Based on her field research, Boone says many students have told her that they don't feel comfortable letting their teachers know they're Native, because they've "been harassed and bullied, not just by peers, but by teachers in school."
It shouldn't come as a surprise she says, that the rates of high school and post-graduation trends are below the rates of their peers.
Also, she notes, the suicide rate for Native youth is higher than the rate for any of their peers, and drug use -- alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs -- are among the highest, according to national studies.
That follows she says, given how the education system has discriminated relentlessly against Native Americans "for hundreds of years."
"I've learned over the past two years of working with native advocates and in Native communities that a lot of people view Native people and their socio- economic challenges and think the cause is native people themselves."
"But the actuality is that of course these challenges aren't inherent to native people," she says. "These are the effects of centuries of our government being genocidal, and just generally being unfair to Native American people." Something that started she points out, "since the first European contact."
That "false history" she adds, "is being taught to our kids every single day in schools."
"I see that happening with my first grader and it's horrifying to see firsthand as a parent, the malicious lies that are sprinkled throughout the curricular materials that our students have access to."
"Schools were used as a tool of assimilation," Boone says, "very thoughtfully and very strategically by the government to destroy native culture, to destroy native language, to separate native people, and to like to by the end of their cultures, as they originally existed before first contact.
Kill the Indian, save the man
It all started, she says, with the concept of Native American boarding schools.
"They were designed around this model of 'Kill the Indian, Save the man;' that was the school's motto."
"If you read about Native American boarding schools, the real desire was to remove -- sometimes forcibly remove -- Natives from their homes. Send them to these native boarding schools where it was illegal to practice their religion, to practice their ceremonies, it was illegal to speak their languages, it was illegal to use their native names.
"And so they were completely Americanized and by the time they went back to their families they couldn't speak the languages, they didn't know the culture and traditions, and they were the next generation of Native people and so those cultures, those languages, a lot of times were lost."
Boone argues that that systematic terror and trauma that's been enacted on Native people has resulted in poverty, poor physical and mental health issues and subpar education outcomes "that we see in Indian country today."
The good news is...
What gives her room for hope she says, is seeing how an increasing number of Native Americans are helping one another succeed.
"What I've learned about Native communities over the last two years is that when we look at some of these educational challenges, every solution, every one of those challenges is within native communities themselves," she says.
"So they don't need a hero, they don't need a rescuer, they don't need these sort of external solutions. Native communities, native families -- just like any other family -- is super invested in the education of their children."
There are pockets in the country, she points out, where Native students are really excelling.
"The schools where Native students excel acknowledge those students' culture, they acknowledge those students' native languages, they involve communities in really rich, rich ways, and usually those schools are controlled and run by Native people.
One such example is the Institute of American Indian Arts, a 56-hectare (140-acre) campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico where about 500 students are being immersed in contemporary Native American arts and culture.
It's the only college in the U.S. like it, which could explain why it attracts both native and non-native people from across the country-- and overseas -- who wish to explore their artistic abilities while learning more about their roots and those of other native cultures in America.
Members of about 100 tribes on average attend the school, says its President Robert Martin, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation.
"So that's a lot of diversity," he says, but the school's main mission he points out, "will always reflect that indigenous or Native perspective."
"I think that's [an] important aspect of what we have here; a sense of community, almost a sense of family."
Senior student Dolores Scarlett Cortez is exploring her ancestry through printmaking and photography.
"I came to the Institute of American Indian Arts, primarily because it was a small institution," she explains. "It was what I wanted it to do, which was the arts, and it would also allow me to also come back to my roots."
Her father is originally from Puebla, Mexico, her mother from San Salvador, El Salvador Cortez explains, but growing up, she adds, "not a lot of their indigenous ancestry was talked about because all of my mother's family was buried in an earthquake in El Salvador in 1988.
"And so, growing up I felt like I was really missing that kind of side of me because my parents never talked about it, which is why I came to IAIA."
Cortez says she spent this past summer photographing members of her community, and in the process, found her calling.
"With my own indigenous cultures and especially coming to the school, I feel like there's not enough resources on reservation land or indigenous people that caters to indigenous people," she says. "I think is really important to bring that representation back."
"One in five Americans will be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, some form of mental illness," she points out, "but for indigenous people it's one in three. So that is just so much higher than the average U.S. population."
"Suicide and depression are really big in native and indigenous populations," she explains. A problem exacerbated in Native teenage populations, she adds, because of their collective history.
"I think because not only are you accounting for the normal things that teenagers go through -- depression and anxiety, especially with social media. But then you get introduced to the historical and generational traumas that haven't been talked about -- with boarding schools, and that whole history, and now you're supposed to deal with what your ancestors have gone through."
It makes young people question their identity she says, and make them wonder how they're going to fit into society.
"This whole back and forth of 'am I urban or am I native, but why can't I be both?' So that whole acceptance thing is why people need to deal with those issues."
Cortez wants to help people deal with those issues, so she's hoping to go to graduate school to train as an art therapist.
"I want to go into art therapy because I really feel like it's important to have people who relate to their communities as a way of kind of saying, 'I went through this and I can help you.'"
The power of film
Many of IAIA's graduates return to teach at the school years later.
Anthony Deiter, who graduated 25 years ago, teaches a new concept in filmmaking; a digital dome where viewers watch moving images on a spherical screen rather than a flat one.
He believes the arts - and especially film -- is a powerful platform to help students understand their history, and provides an opportunity to correct it where they can.
"People understand Native Americans through movies," Deiter says. "And I think in a lot of cases Native Americans First Nations people have not been able to say it for themselves.'
"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 has the platform to jump off to tell our own stories.'"
President Martin echoes those sentiments.
"Here there's no boundaries," he says. "They can experiment, they can learn, they're exposed to not only our faculty and staff and other students, but also we give them the opportunities for internships and service learning outside of here as well as in places such as Venice, Italy."
The schools also sends students to Disney, where they opportunities to work in Imagineering (the research and development arm of The Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation, design, and construction of Disney theme parks and attractions worldwide).
"We also have Imagineers come here," Martin points out. "So we try to expose them to as much learning as possible, not just what they learn here in the classroom."
"I think IAIA is a wonderful school, and yes it helps so many Native students to find success, to hone their focus on the things they'd like to do," says U.S. Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM), who represents New Mexico's 1st congressional district.
"And 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 you know we are a vast minority in."
In addition to a good education, she points out, is the ability to work hard; something she's living proof of.
"When I was almost 28, I was working in a bakery, working very hard having to get up at 5:00 am every single morning, and realized, 'should I do this for the rest of my life, or should I go to college?' and I answered my own question by enrolling at the University of New Mexico."
After earning a bachelor's degree, Haaland decided to attend law school, and graduated from UNM School of Law in 2006.
It was there, where she advocated to the state legislature to get a bill passed in New Mexico that would give Native Americans in-state tuition regardless of their residency.
"I had to pay out-of-state tuition when I went to UNM School of law because I had lived in California for several years prior to the time I enrolled," she recounts. "So 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."
"I felt like Native Americans -- the most underrepresented group of people in higher education -- always should be encouraged to further their education," she says. "And so I passed that bill."
She recounts an encounter she had with a Navajo woman she met while she was traveling out of state. "She mentioned to me that her brother, who was the only Native American in medical school at the University of New Mexico, was here because of the bill I passed."
Haaland says she'd like to see more Native Americans in leadership roles... especially women. "We need diversity in every facet of our country -- in business and education, in politics."
"We need to have more Native Americans in roles that we don't necessarily see them in now, or roles that you know we are a vast minority in. 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."
She hopes her own path to success will inspire not just Native girls and Native women, "but women of color all over this country, to step up and feel like they have a place."
Respecting the past, embracing the present
Regis Pecos is the former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and founder and co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico.
He says that in order to succeed in school, and beyond, young Natives have to hold strong to the core values of their connections to place, people, culture and way of life.
"When one leaves home to other places where you are a super minority, one can only survive drawing from the strength of where you grow up," he says. "For most young people pursuing higher education, one of the most critical elements of success in pursuit of a rich academic experience is really to be grounded in who you are and never become the subject of questioning your own self-worth.
It does take a village
"To achieve success," Pecos adds, "is to draw deeply from the rich cultural heritage of one's roots, and embrace as best as one can, the white man's world," he adds.
"My grandfather -- who passed when he was 99 years old, blind for most of his life -- used to say, 'you are entering a world that is going to take both the maintenance of all of the things that we have given you... but you also must commit your life to developing the skills and the tools necessary of [what he called] the white man's world.'"
"'And it's going to take equal commitment and value to both, to create a balance in your lives, to fulfill your responsibility to the well-being of the people who have nurtured you, who have raised you, who have enriched your life."
Walking in two worlds
Katrina Boone agrees.
"I think being Native is just as much of a culture as it is an ethnicity, as it is like a sort of political identity. And so, I think, new students have to be super grounded in that culture, first, but also 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."
If we can't get that balance right, she warns, we're going to continue to see Native students struggle.
"I'd add that that's not different for any other kid in school... 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."