Preserving Unique Cultures

A Question of Education

Extrapolating from Experiences of the Hualapai and the Havasupai

Editor’s note: Some information in this article may change based on information provided by the Havasupai.

by M.V. McNamara

    Once one lands in Supai, Arizona, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, by foot, hoof or helicopter, one immediately sees the town center consists of a bright green grassy clearing, a meeting hall,  and a full-sized rubberized ball court.

    Surrounding this central open space is the Havasupai Head Start building, the tourist office, a few duplexes, the grocery store, café and clinic. The biggest building in this town of about 200, the Havasupai Elementary School, goes through the eighth grade and is run jointly by the Havasupai people and a government agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A couple of churches and a hotel are located just beyond the town center, along with an estimated 40 – 45 single family homes.

Kids building with blocks in Peach Springs, AZ. Photo by M.V. McNamara.

Kids building with blocks in Peach Springs, AZ.
Photo by M.V. McNamara.

   But town planning doesn’t lie. And even though the elementary/middle school is the biggest building in town, logic dictates that it would be a stretch for this tiny village in the canyon to support a secondary or trade school. Families who want their children to continue with a “mainstream” academic or trade education have to go outside the canyon to obtain it. And that begs the question of where the teenage students will live.
    Indeed, the Bureau of Indian Education website confirms that it “funds and operates off-reservation boarding schools and peripheral dormitories near reservations for students attending public schools.”
    And according to unsubstantiated information on a number of internet sites, some of the Native American youth — all over the country — whose families must choose to send them to other environments to continue their education, must also live in “peripheral dormitories.”

        Some students live with families so they can receive a “mainstream” education away from  home, says Loretta Jackson-Kelly, director of the Hualapai Cultural Center in Peach Springs Arizona. The Hualapai Nation owns hundreds of thousands of acres of land around the rim of the Grand Canyon, and operates a number of popular tourist attractions that help sustain the community financially.

In fact many Native American families, going back several generations have sent their children to live with other families, say Marcie Craynon and Carrie Calisay-Cannon, also of the Hualapai Cultural Center. Sometimes families of the children were not allowed to visit during the week, or even during the school year, and parents and grandparents would camp just beyond the school limits to get a glimpse of their children. The forced “re-education” of Native children certainly remains a raw memory in American history.

One of those “school-dormitories,” the “Valentine School” — a de facto prison which closed in the 1930’s — lies in garish, haunting semi-ruin in the eye-blink town of Truxton, just a stone’s throw from the cultural center in Peach Springs. Obviously stories from this era became an important part of cultural and individual family lore — and they are equated to a holocaust.

A young Pai girl shows off an art project at Peach Springs Elementary.  Photo by M.V. McNamara

A young Pai girl shows off an art project at Peach Springs Elementary.
Photo by M.V. McNamara

But now, while educational offerings and living situations are better, they are not ideal Jackson-Kelly says. The schools the older Hualapai and Havasupai children attend do include some curricular and extracurricular elements from their cultures, as well as other Native American cultures. But in some ways those “re-education” concepts have not changed, despite newer educational scaffolding, she says, even though those situations may provide some measure of financial relief for some families.

    While making sacrifices for what seems to be a better education, parents still worry about “institutionalizing” their children, Jackson-Kelly says, apart from the fact that “a lot of the children are traveling more than 50 miles per day to receive an education.”

    And while the alternative living situations are seen as something of a sacrifice in the name of education, some say they pose issues in terms of student motivation and performance.

Children wait to board a school bus at Peach Springs Elementary. Photo by M.V. McNamara

Children wait to board a school bus at Peach Springs Elementary.
Photo by M.V. McNamara

Others say the actual education the children receive away from home probably poses the main problem.

    In a late 2013 internet article on the slightly higher Native American high school drop-out rates in South Dakota, the South Dakota Department of Education states that: “Social pressures also come into play. If a student faces racism or feels disconnected at school and unsupported by (their) community and family, will (they) see the relevance of school?”

    An internet article by “American Indian Education” posted on July 28, 2014 states that: “…cultural discontinuity between home and school force(s) Native children to choose between their Native heritage and school success with disastrous results…”

    “Native curriculum needs to be developed… testing needs to be used in schools to help students learn rather than to track them into non-academic programs… and parents need to have the power to demand schools give their children an education that will strengthen Native families rather than separate Native children from their parents.”

Dismantling a Top-down Approach

    An “American Indian Education” July 2014 article goes on to state: “Both on and off reservations, many schools are not providing an appropriate education for Native students. They are denied teachers who have special training to teach Native Students; they are denied a curriculum that includes their heritage, and culturally biased tests are used to push them out of academic programs…”

    “…The idea that Native students are ‘culturally disadvantaged’ or ‘culturally deprived’ reflects an ethnocentric bias that should not continue…When schools do not recognize, value and build on what Native students learn at home, they (the students) are given a watered-down, spread-out curriculum that is meant to guarantee student learning, but which often results in their education being slowed and their being ‘bored out” of school…” 

    “The “traditional school system” has failed (students) rather than (their) having “failed the system.”

   In fact, the unique circumstances surrounding the rebuilding of the New Orleans educational system after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seems to speak to some of the complexities facing the education of Native American children.

    As such, the commentary of New Orleans Picayune reporter Sarah Carr in her book Hope Against Hope, is very relevant here: “Improving education… is a crucial part of reducing inequality… New Orleans schools must evolve in a way that honors the culture, values and history of the students and families they serve.”

A girl stands proudly next to her project display at Peach Springs Elementary.  Photo by M.V. McNamara

A girl stands proudly next to her project display at Peach Springs Elementary.
Photo by M.V. McNamara

    Carr goes on to apply of the wisdom of W.E.B. DuBois in this situation, paraphrasing: “If schools want to succeed in the long run, the education they offer must become an extension of the will of a community — not a result of its submission…However well-intended, top-down accounts of school change too often fail to capture the complex realities…They shatter under the weight of true narratives: the stories of the people.”

The All-Important Language Window

    All of this also is true to some extent in the Hualapai Nation, says Loretta Jackson-Kelly, director of the Hualapai Cultural Center.

         Most Hualapai children of high school age — at least those who live in Peach Springs — attend school either in Seligman, or in Kingman. And of those children, many belong to Native American clubs on their campuses, Jackson-Kelly says.

    But much more is needed in terms of folding Native American culture, lessons and values into the mainstream curriculum, not only for the benefit of Native American students. Keeping the language alive is paramount, and support for that has waxed and waned over the years, she adds.

    At least for now, that support seems to be coming back. Currently, Jackson-Kelly and her staff at the cultural center are working with educators and educational administrators on creating a Native American Language Certification. Current statistics show that Arizona has the third largest Native American population in the country, after the Pacific Northwest and Oklahoma Such a certification for teachers and teachers-in-training would go a long way toward mainstreaming Native American ideas into the curriculum– for everyone’s benefit — as well as helping Native American students identify with their own educational goals.

    Indeed, a Bureau of Indian Affairs website notice this past fall indicated that there would be new federal competitive educational grants coming online to address some of these concerns by “implement(ing) effective educational programs that support, rather than ignore Native heritages.”

    It is also reasonable to ask the publically-funded keepers of public memory — schools and libraries to correct history where appropriate, Jackson-Kelly says, adding that major paradigm shifts are necessary to set the record straight…