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Tribal education issues aired for cabinet duo during landmark visit

Aug 11, 2013 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

Both Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said federal budget sequestration has affected education negatively.

In an unprecedented event, two members of a standing White House cabinet came to Fremont County and the Wind River Indian Reservation at the same time Thursday afternoon.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shared center stage with a group of Wind River Indian Reservation educational leaders at the Robert A. Peck Arts Center in Riverton for an hour-long forum.

Major issues raised in the forum centered on the quality of education provided for American Indian youth, problems in surmounting poverty, and the damage federal budget sequestration has done to educational funding on reservations and military bases across America.

Duncan opened the forum with remarks on the state of education in Indian Country and in the United States at large.

"The only way for strong communities is high quality education," Duncan said. "Ensuring that all students have access to a world-class education is our goal."

In deference to the concept of central control coming from Washington Duncan said, "You know the challenges and issues better than anyone. When we do this together I'm convinced our children will meet us more than halfway."

Secretary Jewell's remarks brought applause from the crowd of approximately 350 people when she said, "I've made every effort to keep our trust with native people."

Jewell also focused on the role of the Department of the Interior in its management of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and in providing quality education to students on reservations.

"We need to ensure quality cultural education. We in the federal government are very supportive of Indian education," Jewell said. "We're committed to moving forward on economic development, heath care and education for Native American youth."

Echoing Duncan's statements, Jewell said, "You know what's best for your people."

Eastern Shoshone Tribal Council vice-chairman Wes Martel opened comments from the panel by praising the two secretaries.

"I'm pleased to hear of your dedication to the 567 recognized tribes," Martel said. "Water, energy and land are the three most important things we have. We're just a smaller version of Wyoming."

Northern Arapaho Business Council member Ron McElroy expressed concern on how students from the Wind River reservation transition to college.

"Education has always been a priority of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. Education is our economic development," he said. "Native students entering college have to take a lot of remedial courses."

McElroy also was concerned that Wyoming has no provisions for teaching students across the state about the tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Recent Wyoming Indian High School graduate Shoshanna Miller shared her experiences as a high school student.

"School was difficult for me, but with the help of teachers, friends and family I was able to get through it," she said.

Northern Arapaho tribal education director Alfred Redman had pointed remarks on graduation rates and societal conditions on the reservation.

"Graduate rates are very low in Indian Country," Redman said. "Alcoholism, drug addiction and other ailments in parents lead their kids to not care about school. We have to find a way to educate children. Jobs will support their families. Students going on in their education are not prepared for college."

This year, 10 reservation students graduated from Central Wyoming College, two received bachelor's degrees, and two earned master's degrees.

"Schools excel in sports but very few get scholarships," Redman said. "Education is the civil rights issue of our generation."

Harmony Spoonhunter, director of the Eastern Shoshone Education Department, questioned how the federal government consults with tribal education departments.

"The goal is not consultation, it is action and improving our children's education," Duncan said. "The sequester has had a destructive impact on native education and on the children of military families, and that's a tragedy. "

St. Stephen's Elementary School principal Elma Brown questioned the efforts of the federal government in supporting native culture at federally funded universities.

"The political leadership in Washington needs to understand how damaging the sequester is to children," Duncan replied."The effects of poverty are devastating, but poverty is not destiny."

Sandra Iron Cloud, board secretary for the Wind River Tribal College commented on the role of tribal colleges in native education and asked what role the federal government would take with them.

"Education is a treaty right," Iron Cloud said. "As a tribal college we provide opportunities to our children. American Indians have the highest dropout rate in the nation."

Retired Fremont County School District 14 superintendent Michelle Hoffman presented a handout in addition to her remarks.

"We have many bright, articulate students, but they are often two to three years behind academically when they enter school," Hoffman said. School District 14 "lost $2.5 million in impact aid, and the reservation as a whole lost $7 million. We request adequate impact aid."

Hoffman commented on the perils of standardized testing as well.

"All children are not the same, and they don't learn at the same rate. There is more to Indian education than casinos, Sacagawea and poverty."

Duncan said conflicts in Congr-ess affect education negatively.

"The goal isn't to go back to pre-sequester levels but to educate our way to a better economy," he said.

said. "There is a fundamental philosophical difference with many in Congress. Education is not an expense, it is an investment. I'm not interested in a single test score or a cut score."

The panel adjourned with Duncan and Jewell traveling on to St. Stephen's and Arapahoe schools for a basketball camp and an awards ceremony.