By Ahniwake Rose, Executive Director National Indian Education Association
My daughter graduated from 5th grade last week. She proudly walked across the stage in her tear dress, listening to her family hoot and holler as she took her place with her fellow graduates. For our family, it wasn’t about the grade level she had completed, it was about her journey- this graduation is a stepping stone, a small part of a longer journey, made even more remarkable as a young Native woman.
Graduation ceremonies are a milestone, they represent different things for each student. For some it fulfills the hope of an entire family, for others it’s an expectation, for many it’s an achievement they’ve been unsure could be accomplished. Hopefully, your newsfeeds are filled with pictures of students in beaded caps and gowns and congratulatory posts of pride and admiration for friends and loved ones.
Students are continuously told that graduation from an institution, high school, or college is a doorway to a world filled with increased opportunities for learning or earning potential. This doorway is often what lifts and shapes a student’s identity, defining not only how the student is perceived by others but how their family and community are viewed as well. No community has been shaped and haunted by ideas of academic success like Indian Country. As the Executive Director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and one of four founding partners of the First Kids 1st Initiative, I advocate for equitable educational opportunities for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students. My greatest hope is for our students to thrive in the classroom and beyond. Every day, I see the doorway to this world of opportunity become harder and harder to open.
When I’m asked about why graduation rates for Native students continue to lag behind their peers, I vehemently defend the need for increased tribal control of education systems and implore policymakers to remember the importance of culturally responsive teaching. Immersion programs, from Wisconsin to Hawaii, keep Native cultures and traditions alive, and in those capable hands, our students and communities thrive. Policy changes in states like Washington and Oregon demonstrate the value and impact Native history and culture has on Native and non-Native student’s cognitive and social development. Culturally responsive curriculum and teaching strategies are implemented in classrooms to remind educators and students that Native people exist and thrive in the modern era.
As we celebrate the 2017 graduation season, we should celebrate the success of our students as an example of the success of our tribal nations, a victory for tribal sovereignty, and a celebration of the tribes, schools, and communities that have supported our students. Education is the only way to secure the safety and security of Native traditions and cultures. To protect tribal sovereignty and to promote the economic security of our nations, we need the intellectual curiosity of our greatest resource, our youth. Our graduates are an act of resilience: they have overcome tremendous odds, resisting a long history of discriminatory policy against Native students. With their accomplishments, we continue to move forward, step by step, towards a future where our students become the decision makers.
There are some who say we’ve not come far enough and that we must do better. We agree there is still work to be done. There are others who will continue to only focus on statistics, looking at deficiencies rather than accomplishments. Not us, not this time. This success is yours and something to celebrate. Feel pride and hope in your accomplishments. Congratulations graduates, we look forward to seeing where you go next.
About First Kids 1st:
The First Kids 1st – Every Child is Sacred Initiative is a national collaborative effort and is comprised of leading Native American organizations, allies, and partners from all backgrounds, focused on changing national, tribal, and state policy to create conditions in which American Indian and Alaska Native children can thrive. We are working to cultivate and nurture strategies and policies that build and strengthen equitable and local supports for vulnerable Native children in their communities. To learn more visit www.firstkids1st.org.
About The National Indian Education Association (NIEA)
NIEA is the Nation’s most inclusive advocacy organization advancing comprehensive culture-based educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. Formed by Native educators in 1969 to encourage a national discourse on education, NIEA adheres to the organization’s founding principles- to convene educators to explore ways to improve schools and the educational systems serving Native children; to promote the maintenance and continued development of language and cultural programs; and to develop and implement strategies for influencing local, state, and federal policy and decision makers. For more information visit www.niea.org.