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Remembering an NIEA Presidency
By Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), 2013
27 November 2013

      When the 44th annual National Indian Education Association (NIEA) Convention took place in Rapid City in October, more than 1,500 members were in attendance. I couldn't help but recall special memories of a past NIEA presidency.

      I was honored to be elected to the NIEA board in 1992, following in the footsteps of Lakota/Dakota educators such as Lionel Bordeaux, Rick LaPointe, Ken Ross, Lowell Amiotte, Gay Kingman and others, who served as NIEA president.

Dr. Phil Baird

      My time came as a series of exciting developments were emerging in Native education. The U.S. Department of Education released its Indian Nations At-Risk report in 1991. It was followed by the first-ever White House Conference on Indian Education in January 1992.

      The most exciting step for me was being part of NIEA's Silver Anniversary activities in 1993-94. Because it emerged during a time of Indian activism and the advent of the tribally-controlled education movement, the organization celebrated two benchmarks.

      In 1969, an American Indian education conference was called together in Minneapolis by Will Antell, Rosemary Christenson, Bill Demmert and others. The purpose was to explore how to impact the teaching and learning of Native American students (Conference registration was a mere $3).

      NIEA was incorporated in 1970 during a convocation at Princeton University. The leadership expanded to include Rupert Costo, Sparlin Norwood, Marigold Linton, Hershal "Ace" Sumaunt, John Winchester, Elji Raymond, Roger Buffalohead, Richard West, Dave Risling, Dillon Platero and Ned Hatathli.

      These milestones were celebrated during the 1993 Silver Anniversary Convention at Mobile, Alabama, followed by a Silver Anniversary Year culmination in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

      Twenty-five years and thousands of members later, NIEA reflected on its history and its accomplishments. Here follows some memories about the Silver Anniversary.

NIEA President-elect

      The NIEA Silver Anniversary board of directors was a unique collection of Native people: Ron Andrade (CA), Mary Jo Cole (OK), Art Hill, Jr. (OK), Marion Holstein (NEB), Caleb Roan Horse (NM), Bird Runningwater (OK), Russell Swagger (WISC), Allen Tsinigine (AZ) and myself.

      I first served as NIEA secretary in my first board position in 1992. At that time, the organization needed stronger information outreach. United Tribes Technical College extended its support and published three editions of the NIEA newsletter that year.

      A forward-thinking NIEA board provided for the succession of organizational leadership. This led to establishing a president-elect position during the presidential term of Loren "Bum" Stiffarm's (Gros Ventre-Cree). In contrast to the sometimes volatile dynamics of tribal elections, this step assured smooth leadership transitions. I was honored to be chosen as the first president-elect in 1993.

      One of the key roles of vice president was to oversee the development and coordination of the annual convention. That year, the nation's tribal educators traveled to Mobile, Alabama for the Silver Anniversary gathering. What I remember most distinctively about this event was the 3,000+ audience listening intently to the keynote message of national AIDS/HIV spokesperson Lisa Tiger of Oklahoma. Stricken by the disease through a heterosexual relationship, this young Native woman spoke courageously about her situation, facing an unknown future. HIV/AIDS was a serious threat in Indian Country. She tugged a lot of hearts that day.

Indian Education "Red Book"

      The NIEA President-elect also served to network with many tribal organizations nationwide to develop a consistent national message for Native American education.

      NIEA reached out to Gaiashkibos (Lac Courtes O'Reilles Ojibwe), president of the National Congress of American Indians. The charismatic tribal chairman from Wisconsin was very supportive of the coalition idea and the first to sign the inter-organizational agreement with NIEA.

      Other major groups soon joined, including the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians (Alvin Schuster), American Indian Higher Education Consortium (Veronica Gonzales), Association of Tribal Community Schools (Roger Bordeaux), and the National Indian School Board Association (Carmen Taylor) along with state Indian education associations.

      The effort resulted in the "National Indian Education Red Book." It became the common source for describing and explaining the various dimensions of American Indian education. The Red Book asserted that the education of Native Americans was a special responsibility of the federal government, as articulated in treaties, executive orders and Congressional legislation.

      The book also outlined the federal-Indian consultation process (interpreted by the Tribal side), the need for and place of culturally-relevant curricula, issues related to Native education research, and the appropriateness of local tribal control of education.

      At one ‘Red Book' meeting at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C. about 75 tribal leaders gathered and passed sage around the circle to smudge. Loretta Avant, White House policy liaison, reminded us there was no smoking in the building. Someone quickly referenced the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and that was that. The sage continued around the room.

      NIEA Executive Director Lorraine Edmo (Shoshoni-Bannock) was one of the key leaders in gathering and integrating the many dimensions of the draft Indian education platform. Little did we know how much work it would take among the many different intertribal interests. But when it was ready for ratification during the Silver Anniversary Year in October 1994, the document with the red cover was approved by consensus by over 125 Indian Nations and Tribal organizations.

Tribal Education Agencies

      During NIEA's history, Native educators sought to have tribally-controlled education. Once maintained by Indian Nations, education systems were broken down by Christian doctrine, federal assimilation policies, boarding schools, and public school education. The NIEA leadership had the opportunity in the early 1990s to advocate for Tribal control of education when the U.S. Congress considered Indian Education amendments during reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

      Based on the research of long-time legislative consultants Karen Funk and Carol Barbero, the term "Tribal education departments" (TEDs) was successfully inserted into the law by members of a very active NIEA Legislative Committee. This came despite opposition within the ranks of Indian education. With 90 percent of Native students served by public education, some sentiment remained for working through state education agencies (SEAs).

      But TED advocates on the political relationship of Tribes with the federal government and its responsibility for the education of Native students. Few states were responsive to the needs of Indian children as state citizens, let alone to the concept of local Tribal control. About the same time, several Indian Tribes worked closely with the Native American Rights Fund to establish Tribal education codes with oversight by Tribal education departments. NARF attorney Melody McCoy (Cherokee) conducted the research to justify the position. Native educators eventually came together over the need to build relationships with both state and federal governments. TED advocates took another step and established the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA) to specialize in their work supporting Tribal Education Agencies (TEAs).

Indian Education Blueprint

      Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller once said: "Whoever controls the education of our children will control the future of our Indian Nations."

      Contemporary tribal educators, most notably Lionel Bordeaux, have advocated for a holistic view in the implementation of a 21st century tribal education system, saying it should encompass our lives from "pre-natal to our final spiritual journey."

      Developing a "national Indian education blueprint" could provide guidance for how tribal people could regain control of the education of their children. The steps will have to be interdisciplinary and strategically integrated, bonding every facet of how we want to live as tribal descendants.

      Focused on this objective, NIEA leadership began changing the format of the annual convention to include discussion forums about necessary changes and potential solutions. These continue today and a blueprint is emerging but there is much work to be done.

Just the Beginning

      I stepped down as NIEA President in 1994 at the close of Silver Anniversary ceremonies at Minneapolis-St. Paul. My family members of Sinte Gleska University and the Sicangu Oyate humbled me with an eagle feather staff and a very generous giveaway. There was no precedent for a leaders-transition ceremony and the late Albert White Hat helped me with a Lakota prayer and eagle feather to pass-on the gavel to president-elect Lorena Zah-Bahe (Dine). She, in turn, presented a Navajo blanket with a prayer and corn pollen. One chapter closes, another begins.

      As I reflect on NIEA's 44-year history, I am honored by the associations and friendships made on the path. I now better understand the courage, commitment, the sacrifice of family time, and the spiritual nature of our work carried throughout Indian Country and beyond.

      I remain a student of the many great Native leaders among the Four Directions and in the Spirit World, too numerous to mention lest we forget some. NIEA presidents of the past were very supportive of our work. As Silver Anniversary gifts, some left us with video testimonies that will hopefully pass on to the next generation.

      To be sure, there are outstanding young leaders coming up through the ranks. The message I offer to them is the same as past presidents: We need to cultivate the life-long learning of our children inside and outside the classroom in culturally-relevant contexts.

      Today, I have "takojas" (grandchildren) at home, watching me in my present work among tribal colleges and universities. Through my own life experiences, including an NIEA presidency, I am reminded again there is no end to our work in education. It's just the beginning.

      Mitakuye Oyasin (All My Relatives).

- Dr. Phil Baird is Vice President of Academic, Career and Technical Education at United Tribes Technical College.


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