United Tribes News Speech Archives

A View of the Future: American Indian Students in North Dakota

David M. Gipp, President
United Tribes Technical College
P-16 Task Force
Doublewood Inn
Bismarck, ND
Wednesday, April 12, 2006


The mission of the P-16 Task Force states that "the P-16 Education Task Force is committed to involving all essential stakeholders in an open, honest, and respectful dialogue that will result in bold action to create the best possible, rigorous, seamless, uniform, efficient, and measurable education system for all students in North Dakota".

Into this open, honest and respectful dialogue, we would like to call to the forefront a significant population that we believe has been overlooked - American Indian students. In order to reach the ambitious goal set by the P-16 Task Force and create a superior education system in the State, it will be important to deliberately and methodically address the populations for which education systems have been problematic. While "major issues and concerns of Native people" has been listed as a potential future agenda item, the impact of the issues and concerns of the American Indian student population will require more attention.

Since the inception of formalized education for American Indians, there has been a clear and consistent tension between the educational system utilized by mainstream education and the response of American Indian students, educators, parents/caregivers and scholars to that system. This tension has played a significant role in the "success" and/or "failure" of American Indian students and schools. This tension has also become more critical given the rising number of American Indian students in the State's public school systems and the mandates provided for under the "No Child Left Behind" Act.

Issues of American Indian Stakeholders

The State of North Dakota has grappled with the issue of declining overall population, the aging of the state population and the out migration of North Dakota youth for some time. As U.S. Census statistics illustrate, however, the Tribal populations of the state have not followed the same pattern.

As the fastest growing population in North Dakota, American Indian youth represent a significant stakeholder in education in the State. According to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, American Indian students represent nearly 10% of North Dakota's K-12 school population although the entire American Indian population is half of that number. Nearly one-third of these students (29%) are enrolled in schools located in urban, rural, non-public or parochial schools in North Dakota. In addition, statistics also show that, while the overall elementary and secondary enrollments have declined in the state, the American Indian elementary and secondary enrollments have steadily increased since 1988. Clearly, the American Indian student population must be factored into the future of the State.

American Indian students will be a critical part of the future workforce of North Dakota. Statistics support the assertion that most American Indian populations in the State of North Dakota, while migratory in some ways, will tend to remain in the State. Thus, these students will constitute a critical portion of the emerging workforce in North Dakota. It is important that the P-16 Committee address the needs and issues of this population in their important work.

In addition, while the five Tribes in North Dakota have been major employers of non-Native populations in the State for many years, they have increasingly become major employers through their individual gaming operations and other enterprises. The needs of these employers must also be taken into consideration. For Tribes, one identified critical need is for a trained workforce that can work effectively in cross-cultural and multi-cultural environments. The commitment of the P-16 Task Force should therefore extend to directly addressing specific issues related to American Indian students, graduates, schools with significant Indian populations and Tribal workforce professionals.

Issues of Driving Force

One of the major concepts this committee should define is who is the "we" to whom the committee is referring when making statements such as "what we need in our schools is.". Is there a difference in how the private sector describes workforce needs and challenges that postsecondary institutions view? Is our goal to create students who are good workers or lifelong learners? How do we ensure that these goals are not mutually exclusive?

An open, honest and respectful dialogue must occur as to how the committee might effectively address the collective perspective of "we" in the P-16 Task Force. The committee currently consists of employers and certain representatives of business and workforce. It would be beneficial to add the perspectives of parents/caregivers, students, the Tribes of North Dakota, teachers and other key stakeholders. The comprehensive changes that may occur as a result of these Task Force efforts will be either hindered or assisted based on stakeholder accord. Whoever drives the process will make a phenomenal difference in the ultimate outcomes.

Issues of Values

A globally competitive workforce is a workforce that has not only technical skills but also is prepared to interact in a highly diverse world. Thus, there must be a mechanism created for addressing some of the elements of the P-16 Task Force's stated values and current practice and goals. For example, the values state an "appreciation of diversity", "thinking in non-traditional ways" and "working together for the benefit of all", yet the issue of examining the issue of diversity ranked dead-last in the committee's priorities.

To be more specific, one of the primary skills noted for globally competitive workforce is to be bi-lingual yet there has been discussion to curtail foreign language requirements, which include the provision for traditional Native languages. The need to define the skills of a globally competitive workforce is an important first step in determining how to modify the State's education system to attain that goal.

The following are some of the issues that may need to be kept in mind when discussing issues of impact for Tribal populations:

Different standards and expectations between K-12 and Higher Education


Recruiting and retaining quality teachers for all students

Education of parents and the public to support the education system, develop capacity for change, identify needs and gaps and address passivity. Involve all stakeholders.


Help students make better choices, providing better guidance and counseling

K-12 structure

Comprehensive collection of usable data/planning information - better measurement of what is happening and why and developing new ways to address the reasons for negative changes


Demographic changes and economies of scale

Assuring and measuring subject mastery

Tracking/common student identifier/portfolio/links to services

Need for life-long learning and addressing under-employment

Grading system and valuation

Potential restructuring of the entire education system and governance

Improved retention and graduation rates at all levels

Examining the issues of diversity at all levels

Issues of Diversity

There is some concern that using the terms accountability measures, uniform systems, alignment and others similar may stifle creativity in providing education for a diverse student population. Diversity in North Dakota extends far beyond color or race. There are also students who are immigrant, students with disabilities, students who are low-income and students who are "other". How do we specifically address the needs of these students who do not conform to the mainstream standards? What are the alternatives and are we making provisions to include them effectively in discussions? How are the P-16 education tracks coming together to address standards while maintaining flexibility to meet different factors? The term "educational ladder" has been used to describe the intent to create a mechanism for student advancement. We prefer the term "educational lattice", which acknowledges that students should have options for advancing that do not fit the traditional upward climb.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Given the information presented here, it is critical that the P-16 Task Force begin to take proactive steps to address the interests, concerns and challenges of a significant constituent population in the State. Thus, we would make the following recommendations and strongly suggest their immediate adoption:

  1. The P-16 Task Force should actively seek knowledgeable input from American Indian professionals and educators by dedicating at least hour to discussion of these issues at every meeting of the P-16 Task Force.
  2. The P-16 Task Force should begin this process through the inclusion of a special panel of American Indian P-16 educators and professionals, convened by the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, the North Dakota Indian Education Association, United Tribes Technical College and the North Dakota Association of Tribal Colleges, and the discussion of a more detailed position paper describing in more depth the specific issues and concerns of American Indian stakeholders (to follow).
  3. The P-16 Task Force should create a work group intended to address the issue of the role, impact and implications of diversity on all identified P-16 issues, including strengthening the standard for increasing the knowledge of teachers about North Dakota Tribes and populations.
  4. The P-16 Task Force should devote critical time on a future agenda to address and define the critical stakeholders ('we') in this process and identify the perspectives and ordinal value of each. The growing tribal populations and the economic and demographic impacts on North Dakota's future ought to be factors for allocating resources and creating new partnerships between State educational systems and Indian Tribes.