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Native Wisdom

A new NMSU program helps American Indian educators earn doctorates — and change how their people have been taught.

By Jeff Berg

 

"The goal, from the beginning of attempts at formal education of the American Indian, has been not so much to educate him as to change him."

— 1969 Kennedy Report from TEDNA
(Tribal Education Departments National Assembly)
archives

 

As with almost everything else the US government has tried to do with or for the Indian "problem," the educational system has never worked. Part of the problem is historical, since even before the reservation system, assimilation has always outweighed education.

Countless documents show that the "assimilation" process was fueled by greed, a way to grab more Indian land and natural resources. Between 1778 and 1871, the year the very last treaty was signed, tribal nations ceded nearly a billion acres to the US government. By 1871, the US had signed nearly 400 treaties committing to provide for Indian people — including teaching them.

Glenn Haven a high-school principal in Newcomb, NM, is earning his doctorate through the program. (Photo courtesy Glenn Haven)

In my numerous visits to various first nations around the country, especially the Crow Nation in Montana where I worked for several years, I seldom saw Indians teaching Indians.

But a new program at New Mexico State University, although in its infancy, is a dramatic attempt to change that. NMSU's College of Education has expanded on the simple idea of preparing "American Indian educational leaders to serve American Indian students," starting a program called American Indian Education Executive Doctorate (AIEED).

The goal is to "provide a collaborative, comprehensive approach" that will give tribal members the chance at earning a doctoral degree in educational administration. They would then return to reservations to help improve the educational system there.

Coordinated by Gary Ivory, the academic department head for Education Management and Development, and Dana Christman, associate professor of the College of Education, with Deb Phillips as the administrative assistant and "go-to" person, the program recently obtained funding to carry it through 2010.

The doctoral AIEED program is an extension of sorts of another NMSU program geared for Native American educators, Model of American Indian School Administration (MAISA), which received funding to provide master's degrees with the same idea in mind: American Indians teaching American Indians.

The current AIEED program has 16 students from a number of different tribes/pueblos, including Dine (Navajo), Santa Clara, Zia, Laguna, Jemez, Cherokee (Oklahoma), Muskogee-Creek and the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) of North Dakota.

The AIEED is a doctorate in education (EdD), Phillips explains. It is focused on preparing people to be education practitioners, not scholars. It is the appropriate degree program for American Indian educational leaders for these reasons, she says:

AIEED coordinator Gary Ivory recalls how NMSU President Michael Martin got the ball rolling: "Dr. Martin always wanted an American Indian doctorate program. And it all started one day at lunch." Martin wondered what it would take to get such a program underway, and soon he was looking over proposals, with Ivory coming on as department head, and Dana Christman and Anthony Fairbanks, an assistant professor with expertise in Indian education, promoting the idea to American Indian communities around New Mexico.

They already had the master's program to build on. "The MAISA program went very well," Christman says, "and it offered the students of that program good experience that would allow them to go even further."

Once word about the AIEED program got out, there were 50-60 applicants. Originally, Martin had granted funding for 10 students, but Christman worked to get that nudged up to 15, and classes started in January of this year. All of the students, in addition to working full time, and most having family obligations, added the doctorate work onto their busy life schedules.

Requirements for admission to the program include having a master's degree, being a member of a federally recognized tribe/pueblo and a resident of New Mexico, and five years experience in education. And of course the commitment to complete the program and to serve American Indian students.

There are no tuition or book fees, and students can complete the program by taking night, weekend, summer or distance-delivered courses.

 

An issue that has always been a challenge for American Indians is that of "success." Cultural and family traditions can sometimes cause havoc for a young person who has left the "rez" and been able to accomplish something that no one else in the family has done before.

Christman explains how AIEED handles this issue in part: "These students work extremely hard — balancing family and community. It is vital that they remain in touch with their cultures and traditions, to help keep them from getting out of balance. We remind them and members of the community that if they help support them (the students) that they will soon give a lot back to the community."

Ivory adds, "Part of the issue is also pride. When whites first came, the Indian was told, 'We have to give you literacy to change you from what you are.'"

That was part of the idea behind Indian boarding schools, where many American Indian children were sent to change them to "gentleman farmers." The boarding schools, always off the reservations, were started by a military officer, Richard Pratt, who had no training in education, let alone American Indian culture. His school was the infamous Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, and his philosophy on how this policy would work was summed up as "kill the Indian, not the man."

When reproached about his program because it was thought that a military man should be leading soldiers, not students, Pratt fired off a letter to then-President Rutherford B. Hayes stating in part: "Here a Lieutenant struggles to evolve order out of the chaos of 14 different languages! Civilization out of savagery! Industry and thrift out of laziness! Education out of ignorance! Cleanliness out of filth! And is forced to educate the courage of his own instructors to the work, and see that all the interests of his Govt. and the Indian as well are properly served."

The Indian Wars may have ended in the field of battle, but they continued into the mid-1900s in the schoolroom. Approximately 100,000 Indian children ended up in nearly 500 boarding schools, many of which were operated by proselytizing Christian groups. In the schools, American Indian boys and girls were not allowed to speak their native language. They were used as workers and at times "rented" to farmers and others as cheap labor. The Indian children were allowed no privacy, and were given "Christian" names, chosen at random by superintendents or teachers.

Certainly things have changed over the years, but there are many American Indians (who weren't legally US citizens until 1924) whose lives remain affected by these policies and schools. This past is the root of some of the distrust that can still be perpetuated by government policy.

Ivory says, "The family members may be saying to the student, 'You are accepting this thing that we really don't want,' and that comes from the historical baggage that is seen through the lens of cultural imperialism. They also have to work with the idea that individualistic is an Anglo way and the command for Native Americans is to learn to work in groups."

Deb Phillips adds, "We work to explain that enrollment in the AIEED program will give opportunities to others that they will reciprocate."

Phillips serves as mentor, counselor and cheerleader for the AIEED enrollees. She has gained the trust of the students, and says with a smile, "I know where everyone is, or when there is a feast day, or if someone's father is ill. They let us into their lives."

Says Ivory, "It is important to have someone credible and able to give them straight answers."

 

One of the students currently in the program is Glenn Haven, who just recently became the principal of Newcomb (NM) High School. Newcomb is a community about 35 miles south of Shiprock, on the Dine Nation in northwestern New Mexico.

Originally from the Window Rock, Ariz., Haven says his parents were of two different tribes — his mother a member of the Cherokee tribe from Oklahoma and his father a Navajo (Dine) originally from the Toh-la-kai area in New Mexico. Haven, an enrolled member of the Navajo tribe, is the oldest of 10 children, six of whom have college degrees.

His father was the inspirational role model in his life, Haven says: "The story of my father obtaining his bachelor's and master's degrees is a long one but nevertheless the reason why most of my brothers and sisters have received their college degrees and have achieved some semblance of success in our lives and careers. Without him and my mother pushing to reach our potential, I honestly don't believe I would be where I am today as a pretty successful educator for over 31 years."

Haven has been a classroom teacher, athletic coach and now an administrator. "I primarily became an educator because I enjoyed coaching and working with young people," he says. "I also believe that I was an inspirational factor today to a lot of young Native American youth and being that positive male role model that is missing in a lot of their lives."

He's particularly proud of his success as a high-school basketball coach. "The challenge of building basketball programs at a variety of schools is something that I will always be proud of and I now carry that same philosophy to my administrative career.

"Due to the assertiveness that I obtained throughout my coaching career," Haven adds, "I have always been a very conscientious individual and advocate for a quality education for all Native American children. Whether I was a teacher, coach or principal I was always seeking the best that I could obtain for them in order for them to be the best that they could become as individuals through education."

Haven says he derived his own philosophy as an educator from a quote by Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver): "Students will rise to the level of expectations."

The education system has fallen far short of meeting the needs of the American Indian, he believes. "Just like the history of this country, the Native American people have once again become the 'forgotten American' with their academic needs being woefully neglected. The No Child Left Behind legislation has its promising concepts, like making education accountable for its results; however, meeting the needs of the American Indian people still falls extremely short due to its failure to understand and meet the needs of the cultural and language aspects that make our people unique.

"The learning style of the American Indian people seems to be dismissed as insignificant," Haven says, "when it should be utilized as a positive component to improve their ability to also become lifelong learners."

But AIEED is making a difference. "The experience that I have with this AIEED program with NMSU has helped me meet a personal lifetime goal that was also a dream of my late mother," Haven says. "Before my mother died, she asked me when I was going to eventually reach the goal of achieving my doctorate degree. Although my coaching career was very important to me and something that I truly enjoyed with a great deal of passion, I also wanted to please my mother and I started to look into programs that would best fit my needs as high-school principal and my extremely busy schedule. I was very fortunate that I was made aware of the AIEED program through a fellow co-worker who was also considering this doctorial program.

"The challenges that I have encountered so far have been quite a journey for me personally and professionally, and I am really having a great time although sometimes it is a little stressful. The coursework and reading assignments have been very intense, and this also includes doing my job as a high-school principal while being a participant in this doctorate program at the same time. I had been pretty much prepared for the high level of anxiety of the program through previous coursework with another institution, and so the program set up is pretty established with me. I am currently comfortable and familiar with the program in the way it is progressing so far."

In the future, Haven says he'd like to see a mentoring program for aspiring Native American principals. He explains, "There are times that I have observed individuals who are sincere in their hearts and minds for their people's educational attainment, but are not strong enough leaders to be effective leaders in their schools." The only qualification today for administrators, he points out, is to complete the required coursework by respective state educational agencies — without taking into consideration the firsthand experience of being a principal in a school setting. "I believe that an actual experience of observing the role of a principal in a school is vital, so that these individuals can see the whole picture. There are a lot of underlying characteristics behind the scenes that building administrators have to encounter on a daily basis that are not usually seen by the layperson or teachers themselves."

How can schools identify potential leaders for Indian education? Haven says he was fortunate enough to have a mentor who guided him while he was interning as a prospective administrator nine years ago. "Of course my strong personality that was developed as an intense basketball coach has served me well," he adds, "and I have been informed that I am a very strong and effective educational leader in both high schools that I have led so far in my career."

Now, thanks to the AIEED program, Haven is on the way to being an outstanding leader — with a doctorate. The progress made by Haven and others in the NMSU program hold out hope for changing the situation described nearly 40 years ago by the Kennedy Commission: "The classroom and the school have become a kind of battleground where the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of the school."

 

Senior writer Jeff Berg lives in Las Cruces.

 

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