Rosalie Lalo was 5 when the U.S. government sent her decades ago to the Phoenix Indian School, more than 200 miles away from her Hopi family home. She was forbidden to speak her native language, her long hair was cut and she was stripped of a traditional Hopi childhood.
At 18, she returned to the reservation, her American “assimilation” finished. Her own children would be sent to the school, too, as were her grandchildren. Like generations of Native American families, they each experienced the same pattern of segregation — a legacy that experts say left a lingering impact on their education.
Arizona has the third-highest population of American Indians in the country and is home to 22 federally recognized tribes. And though it has the second-largest Native American student population in the country, children and teens are failing standardized tests and dropping out of school at higher rates than any other group, according to the Arizona Department of Education’s 2014 Indian Education Annual Report.
“Look at the legacy of the boarding schools. Separation of child from family and community,” said Patty Talahongva, the granddaughter of Rosalie Lalo. “How would your family survive that? How do generations of that recover?”
From the late 1800s for decades after, the U.S. government ran boarding schools across the country with the purpose of assimilating Native American youth to American standards. Originally established to “civilize” American Indians into mainstream society, the “primary difference between Indian boarding schools and the mainstream education systems was segregation,” according to Phoenix’s Heard Museum.
Talahongva, who now works for a group called Native American Connections, witnessed the long-term impact of the Phoenix Indian School through her grandmother.
Talahongva attended the school after it was turned into a high school. She uses her position as community development manager to break down stereotypes associated with Native Americans by educating others about the history of tribal education and current problems facing tribes throughout the state.
“Typically, when I go out, I ask people to name five Native American leaders. Can you name five Native American leaders? And they can’t be dead,” she adds. “Most people can’t name five living Native American leaders.
The Phoenix Indian School, at Central Avenue and Indian School Road, closed in 1990 after 99 years in operation. Tribal youth now have two options for high school: Attend one of five Bureau of Indian Education high schools in the state or go to the public school closest to their home. The Indian Education Annual Report said 71 percent of students opt for public schools near or on their reservations.
More than four decades ago, Jon Reyhner began his teaching career on the Navajo reservation. A history major, Reyhner taught sixth-grade math because the school was so desperate for teachers. He is now a professor of multicultural studies at Northern Arizona University and cites less-than-adequate efforts to include history and culture in education as a main factor for students losing interest in school.
“Language loss is a major issue, and culture loss,” Reyhner said, adding that knowledge of culture and the practice of traditions and language help Native American students better connect better with their heritage – and work harder toward an education.
Talahongva not only wants to raise awareness of current Native American issues, but also is working to remodel the old band building at the Phoenix Indian School, now the Steele Indian School Park in central Phoenix, as a reminder of a time when culture was not allowed to be a part of Native American education. It’s intended to be a center for celebrations of culture, a place for tribal leaders to gather and will include a memorial room dedicated to the history of the closed school.
“I only hope to grow, not only so people understand why Indian School Road is called Indian School Road, but what was the history of this place for 99 years, what was there before Arizona became a state,” Talahongva said.
The Native Youth Know program, a collaboration of local and national programs interested in American Indian welfare, is working to keep students engaged in education programs centered on culture and their tribes.
Projects in the Navajo Nation, for example, involve getting fifth- and sixth-graders to refurbish and manage a greenhouse, and raise funds to give musical instruments to reservation youth. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe is teaching children about ancestral diets, cultural resiliency and the history of their customs and traditions. The Hopi are having their youth develop a park to promote health and wellness in the tribe.
But tribes also are trying to encourage students to leave reservations for higher education. In 2000, the Hopi established the Hopi Education Endowment Fund to help students go to college. It uses income earned from the $10 million fund for an endowment to further education, on and off the reservation
Vernon Kahe, a resource development manager for the fund, said the money has been instrumental in bringing more Hopi teachers back to the reservation. Twenty years ago, he says, it was hard to spot Hopi teachers in Hopi schools. Now, more than half of the teachers on the reservation are Hopi.
Before the fund, Kahe said the tribe was dependent on resources and income from coal mining to support educational efforts.
“We are growing this (fund) for the future and the money that we do have, we’re stewards of it,” Kahe said. “We’re trying to develop a fund that lasts forever.”
Since the fund was created, the Hopi Tribe Grants and Scholarship Program has provided more 4,500 grants to Hopi students at universities across the nation, resulting in 278 tribal members getting higher education degrees, according to its website.
The need for better education on reservations has gone beyond the local and state level. The Obama administration has targeted the issue on a national scale. The White House’s 2014 Native Youth Report pointed to the low graduation rate of Native students nationally — 67 percent — which drops even lower, to 53 percent, in Bureau of Indian Education schools.
The report found that by augmenting support of tribal cultures and traditions, students are more likely to connect with their community, want to improve it and continue their education to reach those goals.
The state Education Department’s report notes that more programs now are available to Native American high school students and those entering college. Most community colleges and all three of the state’s public universities have programs to help retain and graduate Native American students.
“A variety of programs are also offered for Native American students in the elementary and junior high school. For example, the Mesa Unified School District has a unique cultural and educational program that addresses students at each grade level,” the report says. “The purpose of this program is to increase the personal and academic self-efficacy of Native American students while embracing and preserving Native American culture.”
American Indian Student Support Services at Arizona State University has started a program that sends current students to the reservation to recruit for ASU. The Tribal Nations Tour brings one of the largest universities in the country to smaller reservation schools.
Bryan Brayboy, special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow and director of the Center for Indian Education, said administrators agree that not enough is being done, even for ASU’s more than 2,600 Native American students.
“We have to create a climate and an environment at ASU where Native students feel welcomed,” Brayboy said, citing supports such as friends, clubs, teacher relationships and dormitory life.
“The evidence is overwhelming that if you want Native students to do well, cohorts work and really good positive relationships work,” Brayboy said. “We’re not losing students because of some structural component that needs to be tweaked or changed.”
This spring, the state expanded scholarship opportunities to students on reservations. And Arizona now has two tribal colleges to make it easier for Native students to get a college degree: The Diné College and Tohono O’odham Community College have multiple campuses to give greater access to Arizona’s tribal members seeking higher education.
Talahongva said that through the scholarships and the concerted efforts to return to tradition, schools are finding ways to reach children through their culture — and to educate them.
“We have our successes despite what happened to us, despite what happened to our families. And not just one generation or two, but many generations — the schools were open for 100 plus years, so that’s a huge impact,” she said.