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Ryan Wilson: Native language immersion programs need support

Filed Under: Education | Opinion
More on: bia, bie, doi, languages, leech lake, minnesota, ryan wilson, sally jewell, self-determination

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell with students from the Bug-O-Ney-Ge-Shig School in Minnesota. Photo from Facebook

The following is an open letter from Ryan Wilson, the president of the National Alliance To Save Native Languages, to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Dear Secretary Jewell,

Your visits to Indian Country are appreciated by everyone and I thank you for the unprecedented commitment you and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have demonstrated to Indian education. I write to urge you to address a persistent blind spot of the Obama administration concerning support for Native language immersion schools and programs.

As you visit Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig on the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation you will discover a true hidden treasure in America. Within the school, you will find the Niigaani Ojibwemowin Immersion Program, where you will witness Ojibwe children ascending both the academic and fluency ladder because their Ojibwemowin language is being used as the medium of instruction in all academic content.

Niigaani founders recognized that language instruction as a 50 minute course makes no impact on fluency levels and little if any academic benefit. They made the bold move to full immersion in 2003. The original cohort of students represents the first generation of new Ojibwemowin speakers in more than 50 years on the Leech Lake Reservation. This is in fact truly remarkable. Niigaani has received many awards and recognitions for this effort including the prestigious National Indian Education Association Cultural Freedom award.

Efforts such as Niigaani are growing throughout Indian Country against all odds. Tribes are moving with urgency and purpose to save their languages. Some of these efforts include immersion programs within Bureau of Indian Education schools. Additionally, community based immersion schools are attempting to partner with BIE schools in this crucial campaign.

I regret to report to you that the Obama administration has not been supportive of these efforts. At times, the administration has even been hostile towards immersion schools.

I recently facilitated a meeting between BIE Director Dr. Monty Roussel and Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School / Niigaani leadership. Dr. Roussel explained during the meeting that the BIE would make no effort to identify potential carryover funds to support Niigaani operations -- Niigaani functions without Indian School Equalization Program funding.

At the recent administration-sponsored Native Languages Summit, Dr. Roussel delivered what started out as a powerful speech but ended in a whimper when he explained that the BIE would not provide additional budgetary support for immersion schools.

Because BIE schools are already dangerously underfunded, immersion support cannot compete with school operation needs, placing immersion at the bottom of all priority lists. We understand the tight budget climate and need for austerity. What we do not understand is the packaging of incentive grants (Sovereignty in Indian Education Competitive Grants) to tribes with BIE schools and why the BIE is promoting “Best Practices” without including immersion schools. Research submitted to the Obama administration clearly demonstrates immersion schools as a best practice in the field of Indian education. Congressional testimony submitted by administration officials to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs corroborates immersion schools as a best practice as well.

Exacerbating on already unconscionable omission, the Obama administration -- including your Secretarial Order and the Indian Education Blueprint for Reform -- continues to tout “Native Language Instruction” as the administrations’ demonstrated commitment to culturally based education. Native language instruction for 50 minutes a day is profoundly different from Native languages being utilized as the medium of instruction to deliver core academic content as they are used in immersion settings.

The many venues of tribal consultation, tribal leader advisory boards, round tables, meetings, summits and so forth demonstrate a clear record of Indian Country requesting that President Obama, his Cabinet, and Indian team keep candidate Obama’s promise to support Native language immersion schools. This is what the President promised in his 2008 Native American platform. Provisions in the Secretarial Order and Blueprint do not come close to delivering on this promise. The president's own budget does not come close to delivering on this promise and the president's Indian education policies do not come close.

At a recent Tribal Interior Budget Council meeting tribal leaders voted unanimously to request that appropriations for immersion be included in the Presidents FY16 and FY17 budgets for BIE schools. The House Interior Appropriations Committee report language for FY 15 included this statement supporting immersion: “As alternative proposals are considered, language immersion should be carefully considered as a serious option for improved language development and student outcomes."

The National Congress of American Indians has requested through resolution that the Obama Administration identify funding for BIE immersion efforts. As momentum builds, the administration becomes more estranged from both Indian Country on this issue and its own stated policy mandates included within the Obama Indian Education Executive Order which promises Native children “an opportunity to learn their Native languages."

Impactful BIE reform must include support for existing immersion programs and the development of new immersion programs. Rather than promoting impediments and promulgating a climate of fear, the BIE needs to transform into a supportive organization promoting immersion. This will not happen without a directive from you or the White House. The flexibility contained within the Secretarial Order and existing statutes authorize such actions and we urge you to utilize these tools.

Tribal control of BIE schools becomes meaningless if tribes are relegated as surrogates in executing predetermined federal and state mandates. This approach is coercive and directly attacks treaty based educational rights and treaty based appropriations delivered through the Department of Interior. Self-determination in BIE school systems has to be supported with budgets that meet the challenges and promote tribal flexibility to advance an education vision. This must include budgets that support immersion.

During your tenure as Secretary of Interior you have requested hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding to protect America’s treasures including historical sites, rivers, parks and many other monuments. Native languages are America’s treasures as well, they are spoken nowhere else in the world and are woven deep into the fabric of America’s sacred heritage. Only through immersion can we save these treasures for future generations and increase academic engagement.

If the administration is sincere in its commitments to truly reform BIE schools they will see immersion support as a necessary precursor to enlightened research based Indian education excellence.

Thank you,

Ryan Wilson (Oglala Lakota)
President, National Alliance To Save Native Languages

Ryan Wilson, an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, is the President of the National Alliance to Save Native Languages. He participated as a member of the First American’s for Obama campaign in 2008. He is a past President of the National Indian Education Association and current Board member of NIEA. Ryan has served as both a formal and informal advisor to the Obama Administration on Indian Education issues.

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