Taos Pueblo’s educational director, Bettina Sandoval, started her job in August 2018, the month after a judge in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit found that New Mexico wasn’t providing a sufficient education to Indigenous students.
In that time, a lot of progress has been made – even if at a snail’s pace – in education in the pueblo, she said, including advances in hiring Native language teachers, getting the ball rolling on a tribal library and implementing culturally relevant curriculum in nearby schools.
But there’s still a long way to go in all those areas, Sandoval said, and the pueblo needs more help to improve the education of its students.
“There just needs to be support for tribal education departments to grow how they need to grow,” she told the Journal in an interview. “It can’t be directed by the state to say ‘this is what a tribal education department should look like.’ It needs to be based on the community. It needs to be driven by us.”
The issues Sandoval highlighted are among those tribal leaders across New Mexico have long deemed as priorities through the tribal remedy framework, a set of educational and funding recommendations jointly developed and approved by the vast majority of the sovereign nations in New Mexico.
But Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said there’s still hesitation from state lawmakers and education leaders to fully accept the framework, which responded to the findings in the lawsuit.
“There has been a lot of apprehension (in) wanting to embrace that tribal remedy framework that has been their brainchild, their gift to trying to change education for their own students,” he said.
Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus has said the state has had several productive meetings with tribal leaders, and that New Mexico shares their priorities to preserve Native languages and cultures.
He added that the state will make sure to include the wishes of tribal leaders in its response to the findings in the lawsuit, and that state leaders are still willing to sit down with them on anything that’s been left out.
“They’re sovereign nations. And a part of, in my humble opinion … sovereignty means respecting their knowledge and wisdom to implement education programs that are best for Native American children,” Steinhaus said during an interview in late July.
In a presentation to the Legislative Education Study Committee Sept. 8, state Public Education Department leaders indicated the department is approaching a finish line in its action plan responding to the findings in the lawsuit.
This month, the PED will rewrite the action plan based on feedback it received for an earlier draft released in May. The department will present the updated draft to stakeholders and the governor at the end of the month and release it in October or November.
Conroy Chino, a member of the Tribal Education Alliance, which contributed to the 94 total responses the PED received on its initial draft, said the plan needed to be more focused on strategies – much like the programs and services laid out in the tribal remedy framework.
“While it lists all the funding and appropriations that have been received by the PED, there doesn’t appear to be any real connection to goals or to strategies,” he said of the draft plan. “I’d like for the state to recognize that there’s validity in this tribal remedy framework, that it’s not just another outside group that has produced a set of strategies instead of solutions, but has truly come from within.”
There are three main pillars to the framework, former Cochiti Pueblo governor Regis Pecos said: building capacity in tribal communities, which includes staffing, educational programs and physical infrastructure; implementing culturally-relevant curriculum for Indigenous students; and investing in higher education to improve the staffing pipeline, like Native language teachers.
The framework has been embraced by state legislation in several ways, Lente acknowledged, like when lawmakers in 2019 passed a bill that strengthened the 2003 Indian Education Act by requiring school districts with significant populations of Indigenous students to assess and prioritize their needs.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature also approved $12 million to be used for planning and designing tribal libraries, according to the PED’s current draft action plan. Taos Pueblo recently applied for roughly $140,000 to design a library, Sandoval said, adding she hasn’t gotten an award letter yet.
But oftentimes, money set aside for tribal education departments ends up getting reverted because of the bureaucracy involved in spending it, Lente said.
That’s part of why he and other advocates are proposing a $200 million to $250 million tribal education trust fund that Lente said could be made up in part by money that’s reverted to the general public education reform fund or the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which has seen explosive growth in previous years.
The proposed trust fund, Lente has explained to lawmakers, would essentially be a pot of money set aside for local initiatives from which money would be distributed every year.
“It creates a revolving fund that tribes can rely on to build capacity to build programming within their own community that is not driven by paternalistic measures of ‘We know what’s best for you, Native Americans, or we know how to teach you best,’” he told the Journal.
A trust fund would also help solve a larger problem of initiatives, programs and funding that help some students, but aren’t focused enough to do so for those who are Indigenous, Lente said.
One example of that, he said, is extended learning time – which alongside K-5 Plus programs has seen a collective $400 million in state funds passed up by schools, Legislative Finance Committee analysts have said.
“Extended student services are a great thing for students that live in urbanized centers that have access to a school that’s maybe blocks away from where they live,” Lente said. “But for that student that lives … an hour bus ride away … it doesn’t work that way.”
That’s the case for many Indigenous students.
The majority of them, Pecos said, are bused to school an hour or more away from their communities. That means that when they’re taken back home at the end of the day, they’re far from the nearest educational amenities. Lente said those can include internet access.
For example, of Taos Pueblo’s roughly 275 kindergarten through 12th graders, only about 70 in total go to school in the pueblo, Sandoval said. The rest do so in the town of Taos.
While the town isn’t all that far, she said, it can be dangerous for students to walk there, making the public library, for example, hard to access.
That’s why educational infrastructure needs to be built on their home turf, Pecos said.
“That is … a significant part of building new systems and institutions that are totally absent today,” he said.
While Taos Pueblo has covered a lot of ground in making its language accessible in education, Sandoval, who also runs the pueblo education division’s language program, said she needs more support than she’s getting.
Over the past four years, she said the pueblo has hired three new Native language instructors to help teach Tiwa, the pueblo’s native language. That’s been a big lift, she said, because oftentimes instructors are fluent in Tiwa, but they’re not educators.
But the pueblo still needs more instructors, she said. And on top of that, she added, is the struggle to develop curricula for language instruction since Tiwa is not a written language.
According to PED grant data, the pueblo was awarded $50,000 this year for Tiwa language curriculum.
But Sandoval said she needs that funding to happen consistently to be enough.
“We need that on a regular basis – 50,000 isn’t much,” she said.
Anja Rudiger, another member of the Tribal Education Alliance and an analyst of the tribal remedy framework, said the Indian Education Act is primarily aimed at ensuring an equitable and culturally relevant education for Indigenous students.
But the act, passed nearly two decades ago, has had meager appropriations to the fund attached to it until just recently, she said. She added that the PED is often only able to give out one-off, short-term grants.
“It hasn’t been an appropriate way to fund Indian education, which doesn’t receive any targeted funding through any other sources,” she said.
This year, the Legislature approved $15 million for the Indian Education Fund, according to the PED’s current draft action plan – triple the amount it received the previous fiscal year.
“In order for our children to be civic ready … they also have to be fluent in their languages, … they also have to be knowledgeable about their history,” he said. “When language dies, and culture diminishes, our children will not be able to sustain Indigenous governance systems and a way of life.”
“That’s what we’re fighting – literally, for cultural survival,” he added.