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Tribes and Tribulations

The history of Indigenous peoples in the United States is replete with genocide, erasure, and forced assimilation. Oppression of Indigenous peoples has been pervasive, especially in the all-important domain of education. Originating with boarding schools’ forced cultural assimilation, Indigenous education today has become decrepit schools delivering sub-standard education. Federal education policy shows a consistent lack of reparative concern for the well-being of Indigenous students’ education. The institutions that uphold schools for Indigenous Americans necessitate complete restructuring and reformation.

In 2006, President George W. Bush created the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) with the goal of promoting educational success for Indigenous students. The BIE currently supervises 183 schools, 53 of which are directly managed by the Bureau. These schools are plagued by poor infrastructure and a low quality of education. Former Minnesota Representative John Kline testified at a Congressional hearing in 2015 about the current state of reservation schools: “You’ve got collapsing roofs, leaking roofs, buckling floors, exposed wires, popping circuit breakers, [and] gas leaks.” The most basic level of repairs for schools under BIE management is estimated to cost $1.3 billion, and the graduation rate at BIE schools is only 53 percent—28 percent lower than the national average. Students at BIE schools score between 22 and 14 percentile points lower on standardized reading and math tests, respectively, than Indigenous Americans at traditional public schools. Moreover, BIE schools teach little outside the scope of what’s necessary for standardized tests; they recently lost a lawsuit holding that the BIE “failed to expose children to subjects like science, social studies, and physical education.”

It would be easy to trace back these discrepancies to underfunding, but BIE schools are better funded than most public and charter schools in the United States. The Cato Institute estimates that the BIE spent $20,000 per student in 2014; the average public school spent $12,400. Instead, the most blatant cause of this educational failure is corruption. The BIE was placed on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) 2017 high-risk watchlist of programs most vulnerable to “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” A 2014 report from the GAO found that the BIE knew of almost $14 million in unallowable expenses that it failed to prevent.

Even worse, the funds that aren’t misused rarely improve educational outcomes. Local school officials are often unable to navigate the bureaucratic maze regulating BIE purchases, and the aforementioned 2014 GAO report identified “administrative woes caused by overlapping offices and bureaucratic red tape” as one of the main problems with the agency. Even Keith Moore, the Director of the BIE from 2010 to 2012 called his own organization “an inefficient, ineffective, poorly structured bureaucracy.” With the education of over 40,000 Indigenous students at stake, it’s obvious that major reform is needed.

The Obama administration started a minor restructuring of the BIE that it hoped would increase tribal influence and clarify administrative roles, but that marginal change is an insufficient response to such a significant problem. While the Trump administration has supported increased funding for the BIE, it too has proposed few substantive changes. A school voucher program supported by the late Senator John McCain has gained traction, but it would require dialing back funding for the BIE. The McCain program would put students who are unable to attend traditional public schools due to geographic or cultural challenges in a worse position than before. When an organization is riddled with corruption, fraud, ineffective leadership, and unclear order, any impactful solution must take drastic steps to completely reorganize and restructure that agency.

Created without any Indigenous input and misplaced in the Department of the Interior (DOI)—a department dedicated to conservation of America’s resources—the BIE may have been doomed from the start. An imperative element of the BIE’s transformation should be its relocation from the DOI to the Department of Education (DoEd). While the DOI does house the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it makes little sense for a department devoted to the preservation of land to oversee all programs relating to Indigenous Americans.

This separation would not be unprecedented; for example, the Indian Health Service is located in Health and Human Services, not in the DOI. By relocating to the DoEd, the BIE would benefit from shared institutional knowledge and a clean administrative slate. BIE schools face challenges that are admittedly different from those faced by traditional public schools, but to suggest that such challenges require complete isolation from the federal department tasked to regulate education is ludicrous. Urban schools differ greatly from rural schools, yet city schools are not placed under the control of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The separation of the BIE from the DoEd isolates Indigenous American decision makers from the DoE’s resources, including new research about education. The US has historically othered Indigenous American populations, and the decision to place the BIE in the DoI represents a continuation of this trend.

A move to the DoEd would facilitate important reforms needed within the BIE, including a transfer of management from the BIE to tribal authorities. Already, 130 of 183 BIE schools are managed by tribal authorities, and the remaining 53 cannot continue to suffer under the bureau’s mismanagement. Traditional public schools are run by local school districts, and for good reason: Localized education is superior to federal-run education in its personalization. Job prospects, local culture, and other factors all influence what students value, and a national approach to education cannot account for these nuances between localities.

Transferring control of reservation schools to tribal authorities allows for the much-needed inclusion of Indigenous cultural education. In American Indian Educators in Reservation Schools, education professor Terry Huffman argues that “strong cultural identity is essential for academic success for American Indian students.” One Montana reservation school principal whom Huffman interviewed expressed concern about the prevalence of students who are “ashamed to be Indian.” As one student expressed, “They always talk about us being dog eaters and make fun of us being poor…and being dumb.” Most of the principals Huffman interviewed agreed that Indigenous cultural education in schools would strengthen local identity and contribute to greater educational success. Some may argue that teaching tribal history, culture, and language would take away from a practical education. But any curricular addition capable of promoting student engagement, self-esteem, and cultural belonging is far more important and more likely to facilitate student growth than rote memorization assessments—the current norm.

Local tribes are also more effective administrators than the BIE because they are more connected to the communities they serve, and consequently will have a more substantial relationship with students and their families than a federal BIE administrator. Moreover, the tribal administrators can be held accountable in a way that a distant federal employee or department cannot, reducing corruption and mismanagement. Tribal authorities can avoid the overlapping regulations that hinder effective spending by the BIE and target funding to programs that encourage student success. Increasing connections between tribal communities and their educational administrators could also encourage parental involvement in shaping policies. While the transition from BIE control to tribal control would undoubtedly be difficult, the BIE has developed a framework for supporting administrators during the transition of the other 130 schools already managed by tribal authorities.

Even when US policy toward Indigenous peoples has been well-intentioned, the paternalistic inclination to command rather than suggest has produced disastrous results. By forcing Indigenous peoples through a corrupt, bureaucratic, and ineffective educational system, the US government’s trend of harm towards them only continues. The federal government has a reparative obligation to ensure that Indigenous students receive quality education. It’s time for the BIE to serve as a resource for Indigenous students, rather than a flawed institution restricting their academic success.

Photo: Visit of Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to the Tuba City Boarding School

About the Author

Jackson Segal '22 is a Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Jackson can be reached at