State Rep. Patrick Goggles and Wes Martel, a member of the Joint Business Council, were on the panel with Sally Jewell Secretary of the Interior and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education. (Susan Benepe photo — click to enlarge)

Jewell and Duncan tackle big issues at Native American Education Conference

By Ron Feemster
— August 7, 2013 
 
A critical audience at the Native American Education Conference in Riverton warmed to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell when she called for renewed respect for Native trust and treaty rights and cheered Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as he blasted the federal sequester, calling it an “unmitigated disaster” that hurts no one more than the schools in Indian country.

The two cabinet members probably made history on Thursday just by sharing a stage at an Indian education event. Both had other business in Jackson, but happily arranged their trips to meet for the fourth annual conference, according to organizers. Duncan was vacationing with his wife and two children.

Some 400 people turned out for the 1 p.m. panel discussion. Ten members of the education community and tribal government participated in the panel. Dozens more joined a basketball clinic and an awards ceremony on the reservation, as festivities went on all afternoon. But before the fun started, the cabinet members addressed some of the big issues that face educators on the reservation.

Sally Jewell and Arne Duncan with Darwin St. Clair, the chairman of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. (Susan Benepe photo — click to enlarge)

“I just want to quickly apologize for the sequester,” Duncan said in answer to one panelist’s question about funding education. “The sequester is the height of dysfunction in Washington. The people who are hit the hardest are the Native community and the children of military families. These are children that deserve the best.”

Duncan was referring to “impact aid,” special compensatory federal funding for schools that cannot levy property taxes on federal land like Indian reservations and military bases. Impact aid was cut by $7 million on the Wind River Indian Reservation last year.  Some school districts lost more than 15 percent of their budgets.

“Too many folks in Washington think of education as an expense that can be cut,” Duncan said later. “I think of it as an investment. People in Washington need to get out here and understand what’s happening when Head Start is being cut back, teachers are being cut off in K-12, when there are less Pell grants. The kids who need the most help are seeing a reduction in their resources. Why?”

Jewell also sees education as an investment, but one that must be made with sensitivity to the cultures of Indian families.

“Education is how we lift people from poverty to a bright future,” she said during the panel discussion. “Poverty is an enormous problem as we’ve heard here today. The only way to lift people out of poverty is to give them an education that honors their culture, their identity, and who they are as human beings.”

After the panel discussion and a brief press conference, Duncan and Jewell changed into gym clothes and joined 35 youngsters for a basketball workout at the St. Stephens School gym.

Tahnee Robinson, left, and Arne Duncan coached children at the N7 basketball clinic at St.Stephens School. (Susan Benepe photo — click to enlarge)

Duncan got out on the floor and ran drills with the elementary and middle school children. He later coached and refereed one of the five-on-five scrimmages. The event was sponsored by N7, a nonprofit foundation affiliated with Nike that raises money and returns it to reservation communities around the country. One of the other coaches was Tahnee Robinson, a Wind River reservation native who was drafted by a WNBA team and went on to play professional basketball in Israel and Bulgaria.

“The kids can play,” Duncan said. “I grew up playing like a lot of these kids. Basketball kept me out of trouble. I tried to talk to these kids about dreaming of the NBA and the WNBA, but getting your education, too.”

Duncan was a first-team Academic All-American at Harvard University and played professional basketball in Australia for four years. He has played with and against President Barack Obama since they took the court in a Chicago men’s league a decade ago.

Jewell and Duncan met privately with the teachers and staff of St. Stephens School for about 15 minutes after the basketball workout. St. Stephens is a contract school in the Bureau of Indian Education system and depends for funding on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, which Jewell heads.

“We told her about the delay in funding,” said Mike Hejtmanek, superintendent of the school. “We told them about having a brand new school with no vocational training and no fine arts classrooms. Jewell was receptive. Duncan too. They asked the teachers what they thought. The fourth grade teacher talked about needing more preschool, and about how children are not coming to kindergarten prepared for school.”

The final event of the day was a celebration at Arapahoe school. Chantell Denson, superintendent of Fremont County School Board #38 called it a mini powwow. Dancers in full regalia escorted the cabinet members into the gym in a grand entry. Duncan and Jewell later handed out awards for the reservation’s students of the year.

The winning students danced around the gymnasium in a circle and accepted congratulations from the community in an informal receiving line. Nearly 100 people joined hands in a final “intertribal dance.” Jewell, who wore a colorful native shawl, danced along with Duncan’s family and Jim Rose, the former interim director of the Department of Education, and Richard Crandall, the governor’s choice to succeed him. Administrators held hands with teachers, elders, students and parents as a Northern Arapaho drum group pounded out the beat.

Asked how the conference could build on this event next year, Keja Whiteman, a Fremont County commissioner and one of the chief organizers of the event, threw up her hands: “I don’t think we can top this unless we get the president.”

— 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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