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Tribal educators are ready to turn the page—if state lawmakers let them

As students begin to pour out of the Ohkay Owingeh Community School in the afternoon, several cross the street that separates the school from the P’oe Tsawa Community Library, looking to use the internet; play online games with their friends; browse the bookshelves; and do homework at the study tables.

Every school day, the scene repeats itself as the library’s tables and nooks fill with students.

“They don’t even tell their parents sometimes that they’re coming here,” Assistant Librarian Jennifer Denipah says with a laugh. “Their parents will give us a call asking, ‘Are they there? Are they in the computer room?’ and I say, ‘Yes, they’re here.’ But we’d rather have them here than out there getting into trouble.”

The library operated by the tribe’s education department meets multiple needs for people of all ages. Denipah works with Librarian Rexine Calvert to host classes for community school students every Thursday, and many adults rely on the library to borrow tools and sewing machines, as well as apply for jobs.

“I try to help all of these people I know,” Calvert tells SFR. “A lot of them do their job searches here, their unemployment and Medicaid. Not everybody has the internet at home, and some people can’t even afford to get a computer. This is the place they always come.”

Even as the librarians, both tribal members who grew up in Okhay Owingeh, answer questions for SFR, they assist everyone in their lines of sight—making a copy of one woman’s driver’s license; handing a high-school student papers he left behind another day; and striking up conversations with those who walk through the door.

Most libraries operated by tribal education departments in New Mexico can be described similarly as community hubs. Yet, the essential institutions face uncertain financial forecasts every year. Indigenous education leaders across the state have been pushing for substantial changes in funding and will try again in the upcoming legislative session.

The vast majority of the state’s nearly 48,000 Indigenous students attend public schools; about 14% attend schools that are tribally-controlled or run by the US Bureau of Indian Education.

State lawmakers created the state Indian Education Act in 2003 with the goal of ensuring Indigenous students receive an equitable, culturally relevant learning environment. While both tribal education departments and Native students in public schools benefit from the IEA, small sovereign operations especially rely on it.

Bettina Sandoval, director of the Taos Pueblo Education and Training Division, says IEA funding is the only source of income she knows she will receive each year. And even then, the state Public Education Department notifies tribes of award amounts around May. Since the division’s budget is due to the state in June, that leaves her with less than a month to figure out how she’s going to allocate the IEA funds while also waiting for approval from multiple grants she’s applied for.

“And when we don’t spend all the money in time, it looks like we don’t need as much funding as they give us,” Sandoval tells SFR. “That’s the biggest point, of course—is how they’re funding tribes. I think streamlining would make it a lot easier.”

Melissa Candelaria (San Felipe), who works as an education director and attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, says tribal community partners, leaders and education directors have continuously told its legal team the current funding system doesn’t work.

“Tribes can’t hire staff or plan programs with short-term grants that arrive late in the year from the state’s public education department,” Candelaria tells SFR. “We have also heard the tribes need consistent, predictable funding to hire staff and strengthen their capacity, to provide the programming and services that meet the unique needs of their respective students.”

At an Oct. 18 interim legislative Indian Affairs Committee meeting, a coalition of tribal education leaders, experts and advocates called the Tribal Education Alliance laid out a plan for change in tribal education through a strategy dubbed the “Tribal Remedy Framework,” which aims to provide a pathway to educational sovereignty for Indigenous pueblos, tribes and nations.

The Tribal Education Alliance developed the framework in response to the 2018 court ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, which found the state violated students’ right to an adequate education and in turn ordered New Mexico to transform public education to ensure that at-risk students—including Indigenous students—receive an equitable and culturally relevant education.

The plan calls for the state to move further toward tribal education sovereignty through a Tribal Education Trust Fund to give tribes stable, consistent and sustainable distributions of money each year, with initial funds coming from the state’s surplus of oil and gas revenues.

Jemez Pueblo Education Director Kevin Shendo strongly supports the idea.

“As long as Indian education is tied to the state system,” he says, “we’re never going to, from the tribal level, see the results that tribes want to see.”

Shendo agrees the current funding system makes it difficult for tribal education departments to build capacity for staff and culturally responsive programs, both areas the Yazzie/Martinez ruling targeted for improvement.

“A lot of times, we have been dependent on one-year appropriations from the Legislature—not multi-year and not recurring,” Shendo says. “So, it’s really hard to plan for growth or long-term planning when you’re living off year-to-year grants.”

During the 2023 legislative session, state Rep. Derrick J. Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, spearheaded House Bill 140, which would have established the Tribal Education Trust Fund. It died in the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

Lente tells SFR the state needs the fund because of “the inconsistent nature and lack of any support for tribal libraries, and tribal capacity-building on tribal lands,” and notes his bill received the full support of the Legislative Education Study Committee prior to the last session.

“A trust fund is our attempt to not have to come to the Legislature and ask for $5 million, $10 million…it’s a way for us to avoid having to come year after year with our hands out to receive funding to educate our children the way we best see fit,” Lente says.

Lente plans to reintroduce the trust fund proposal for $100 million in the upcoming session, which commences on Jan. 16.

“That way, the initial investment will be able to fetch the real dollars necessary to ensure programs and projects that are being done on tribal lands today will be able to be sustained for the future,” Lente says.

Lente notes the trust fund would be separate from the IEA, and that funds will be distributed directly to the tribes (rather than disbursed through the Public Education Department or state grants, for example) to develop a more robust tribal education department that promotes linguistic and cultural programs in addition to helping more students.

“We don’t want to have PED dictate to tribes, ‘This is the best way to educate your child.’ We’re looking to have tribes who know their kids, know their communities, know their language and culture to be able to be the ultimate teachers,” he says.

The Yazzie/Martinez ruling also defined what constitutes a sufficient education for Indigenous students—one that prepares them for not only college and career opportunities, but also to serve within the various roles of their tribal communities and tribal governments.

Candelaria says Native parents, community members and tribal governments have welcomed this definition.

“For decades, they have raised the issue that an education for Native American students needs to be relevant to them,” Candelaria says. “We want to be able to bring back our young people to serve their tribal communities and assume various roles with their respective tribal governments because they are the future leaders of our Indian tribes, nations and pueblos.”

Since the ruling, Candelaria notes, the state has taken initial steps to address inequitable education for Native students—a 2019 amendment to the IEA requiring local education agencies to assess and direct funding toward Native student needs; increases in funding; new social studies standards; educator raises and “immersion programs” to promote Indigenous language learning.

Jemez Pueblo stands as a notable example, having used a $200,000 state grant this year to fund a Towa-language immersion program to revitalize language and culture with the younger generations.

“More of our focused efforts have transitioned or shifted to immersion, and really defining education from a Jemez lens, developing our own curriculum, our strategies and utilizing our higher education,” Shendo says.

Tribal libraries often operate as a cornerstone of linguist and cultural preservation for Indigenous communities, with P’oe Tsawa Community Library being a distinct example. The library was named after famed linguist and storyteller Esther Martinez, whose Tewa name was P’oe Tsawa (“Blue Water”). Martinez worked with linguist Randall Speirs to publish a comprehensive Tewa dictionary in 1982. To honor her memory, P’oe Tsawa Community Library has several portraits of Martinez on the library walls.

Calvert says the education division aims to continually add more culturally-focused programs through the library, from making dresses for feast days to promoting weekly Tewa language classes—continuing Martinez’s mission of keeping Ohkay Owingeh’s culture alive.

“We’re trying to get more people to come in to do talks about the history that happened here, to get more [people] educated on our tribe,” Calvert says.

Candelaria agrees Indigenous-led cultural education remains an important priority.

“But, that approach has been limited, and has not resulted in a transformed system that the court has required of the state, nor has it resulted in improved student outcome,” Candelaria says. “We know there’s still an educator shortage, turnover remains high, schools still lack funding for programs, services and transportation…There’s still a long way for the state to go to fully comply with the court order.”

Assistant Secretary of the Public Education Department’s Indian Education Division KatieAnn Juanico (Acoma) says her department has seen steady increases in funding awarded to tribes. In the 2021-2022 school year, the state funded the IEA at $5.25 million. This year, that number jumped to $20 million to further support initiatives for New Mexico’s 23 federally recognized tribes. The PED’s budget request for 2024-25 would add another $4 million for the IEA.

“Money doesn’t fix the problem, but it does support the initiatives in different ways,” Juanico tells SFR.

Capital funding has a big impact too. For example, the P’oe Tsawa Community Library was among libraries to receive a portion of a 2023 $20 million earmark for tribal library construction statewide.

“We got $313,000,” Calvert says. “With that money, we’re going to use it to extend the library, because every library needs a community room. When we have events, we could use that room, because right here [the lobby] is too small.”

The construction money is significant compared to what Calvert typically sees—in 2022, the library reported its annual budget from tribal, state, federal and grant funding as $184,135 in total. With more operating funds, she says, the library could increase staff and wages. When the library had four employees in 2022, about $59,691 of the funds paid staff. Currently, the library can only afford to employ three people, with two of them working on short-term contracts with the state.

The Taos Pueblo Education Department occupies a remote location north of the Town of Taos and shares space with the pueblo’s Red Willow Farmer’s Market, but soon hopes to upgrade from its mobile home to a permanent education center. And Sandoval looks forward to that facility including a library the pueblo has needed for years.

“We don’t have a library. We [the Education and Training Division] kind of have become that already—we have computers that anybody in our community can come in use. They can print, copy, fax and scan stuff,” Sandoval says. “We’re already doing a lot of library service-type stuff; the only thing we need, of course, is an actual library with books and everything like that.”

Recently, Sandoval received state cash through a grant for a “mini library” housed in the current Education and Training Division Center.

“This room is going to become our first version of the library, until the new building is built,” Sandoval says, gesturing toward an area lined with empty bookshelves and boxes of books purchased from the New Mexico State Library. “Building a library, and having the education center and library together is going to help us continue to be a hub for our community.”

Sandoval says the division hopes to construct a 7,000 square-foot building, which could cost upwards of $7 million. However, she says the final size of the building can’t be determined until the division knows how much funding will be available, and she will “work backwards” to construct a building that fits the budget she’s given.

Like many others, she’ll be watching the outcome of the Legislative session with interest.

Shendo says he’s counting on lawmakers to step up, follow the Tribal Education Alliance framework and establish a new fund—a sure way to build tribal education capacity statewide.

“If you’re going to give tribes the flexibility and authority to determine and define education for themselves, you have to not only invest in the funds, but also look at the systems that are impacting education currently within tribal communities,” Shendo says. “Those need to be restructured to support that effort if these funds are going to be most effective in their use.”

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