Ongoing Injustice: The Bureau of Indian Education
October 2015. This month Sandy Sorensen, Director of our Washington DC office, lifts up the disparities faced by Native communities particularly in the area of education and encourages us all to learn about these historic and ongoing injustices as we prepare to observe Native American Heritage Month.
In the coming weeks we will mark Indigenous Peoples Day and Native American Heritage Month. While these occasions present us with a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the history of Native American communities and celebrate the richness of native cultures, the present-day challenges faced by American Indians are often overlooked.
The relationship between Native American communities and the U.S. Government is defined by a series of treaty agreements. The federal Indian trust responsibility, a legal obligation of the U.S. government, recognizes certain federal benefits, services, and protections for tribes.
The relationship between the U.S. government and native tribes was and continues to be significantly shaped by the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery is a theological document that originated in the early European church and was (and is to this day) used as a legal basis for ignoring Native American claims to indigenous lands, territories and resources.
The impact of the Doctrine of Discovery goes far beyond property claims. It sets the historical and theological context for injustices that continue to be expressed in public policy and which undermine the well-being, vibrancy and sovereignty of native communities. These resulting policy disparities impact a broad spectrum of issues from health services to voting rights to policing, but they receive little attention and are often disconnected from their historical context.
The Bureau of Indian Education
In recent years interfaith advocates, including UCC members, have teamed up to address the condition of schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education. The BIE oversees nearly 200 schools and serves approximately 50,000 Native American children in 23 states, as a federal trust responsibility. The Government Accounting Office has determined that 30 percent of the schools are in such poor condition – with collapsing roofs, exposed wires, gas leaks and buckling floors – that replacement is preferable to repair.
The Bureau of Indian Education schools and Department of Defense schools are the only federally-run school systems in the U.S. The Department of Defense, with the same number of schools under its funding jurisdiction has a five-year, $5 billion replacement program for its schools. In contrast, the BIE receives $39 million for its five-year school replacement program. Responding to criticism, the BIE hired a school replacement planner involved in the successful DOD school replacement program, but the significant funding disparity continues. Native American advocacy groups, joined by the faith community, are calling for $263.4 million a year as part of a five-year replacement plan.
This funding disparity has a real life impact on the students who are struggling to learn in these dilapidated schools. Research has shown that Native American students are fairing much worse than their white peers in reading and math. Underfunded schooling leads to a decrease in high school graduation rates. Roughly 51 percent of Native American students in the class of 2010 earned a high school diploma. This reflects a drop out rate that is twice the national average.
The funding disparity that impacts Bureau of Indian Education Schools is simply one of many present-day policy realities that reflect the ongoing legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery and history of injustice perpetrated against Native peoples.
Truly Honoring Native Communities
In order to fully honor and celebrate occasions like Indigenous Peoples Day and Native American Heritage month we must understand the historic injustices that continue to shape our public policies and impact the lives of our Native brothers and sisters. We must engage in learning, reflection and work for concrete policy change.
Some ways to engage:
- Engage your congregation in a study to learn more about the Doctrine of Discovery and it’s lasting impacts.
- Give to the Neighbors in Need Special offering – a portion of your gifts help to sustain our UCC Council for American Indian Ministries.
- Team up with Native Advocates in your community and work in solidarity with their efforts. Stay tuned to the Justice and Peace Action Network for future opportunities to take action on federal legislation that impacts Native American communities.