Teepee frame reflection
A single teepee frame is reflected in the windows of the Intertribal Education and Community Center at Central Wyoming College. (WyoFile photo/Ron Feemster — click to enlarge)

Two Obama cabinet officials speak at the Native American Education Conference Thursday

By Ron Feemster
— August 6, 2013

History may be in the making at Native American Education Conference at Central Wyoming College in Riverton today and tomorrow, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan shares the stage with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to discuss Indian education.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

“It’s an extraordinary gesture on the part of the two secretaries,” said Jim Rose, the former interim director of the Wyoming Department of Education. “I spoke with the White House staff on Monday, and as far as the policy people knew, this will be the first time that both secretaries will be in Indian country at the same time at the same venue.”

Duncan accepted the invitation to the fourth annual conference well before Jewell was confirmed as Interior Secretary on April 10. She was a late addition to the program, but as head of the department that oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a very welcome one.

“I’m totally impressed that she’s coming,” said Keja Whiteman, a consultant to the Wyoming Department of Education who has been the lead organizer of the conference since it was first held in 2010. Previous conferences have brought together as many as 400 educators and community members to address the challenges and opportunities of Native American students.

“There is such a strong link between the BIA and the daily life of students,” Whiteman said. “They are important in law enforcement, economic development, land management, water — so many daily things.”

The BIA is frequently criticized on many reservations around the country, not least on the Wind River, where problems have arisen with Bureau of Indian Education payments to St. Stephens Indian School and with the management of the Washakie Reservoir for the benefit of irrigating farmers and ranchers. But Whiteman says she hopes Jewell’s visit will be about more than grievances.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell

“I hope we take the time to talk about solutions,” Whiteman said. “There is an interaction with all of the tribal programs. This is an opportunity.”

Jewell and Duncan will be part of a roundtable discussion on Native American Education Thursday afternoon at the Peck Auditorium on the Central Wyoming College campus in Riverton. Rose will moderate the roundtable, which will include about ten representatives of the local education community as well as the state Department of Education.

After setting aside time for a question-and-answer session from the audience, panelists will be pressed for time to address the two secretaries.

“There are folks on the panel who have expectations about raising issues,” Rose said. “But each speaker will have about two and a half minutes.”

Both secretaries are aware of the time constraints, Rose said and will make an opportunity for participants to provide written backup information. “People have concerns,” Rose said. “They have things they want the secretaries to know about. Maybe some positive things can happen.”

Unlike previous conferences, this meeting will include college and career readiness sessions designed for high school juniors and seniors who want to learn about the admissions and financial aid process. Representatives from Central Wyoming College, the University of Wyoming, Casper College, Wind River Tribal College, Montana State University, United Tribes Technical College, Black Hills State and other schools will be available to meet with students and parents.

Guest speakers and local experts have organized breakout sessions to address topics of importance to tribal educators. These range from the effects of historical trauma and “intergenerational post-colonial stress” to the unique health issues of Native students and the role of Native parents in special education.

Another session prepares teachers to conduct interviews with parents in a culturally respectful way, in order to improve relationships with parents and families. Presenters will help teachers learn to gain insight about students’ non-school knowledge and employ that knowledge to make classroom instruction more meaningful.

— Ron Feemster covers the Wind River Indian Reservation for WyoFile in addition to his duties as a general reporter. Feemster was a Visiting Professor of Journalism at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, and previously taught journalism at Northwest College in Powell. He has reported for The New York Times, Associated Press, Newsday, NPR and others. Contact Ron at ron@wyofile.com.
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