The fact that some non-Native politicians at the state Capitol are taking it upon themselves to change the laws around tribal nations and tribal education for Indigenous students is unnecessary, unwelcome and frankly uninformed.
I’ve read the two bills being proposed in the state Senate and House expanding the use of private school vouchers, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, for use at out-of-state private schools as long as the students live on tribal lands or, weirdly, Colorado City, and it strikes me that the proposed solutions show a total ignorance of what solutions already exist, are already working, are preferred by tribal communities, have already been proposed (and ignored), and which do a lot more for Native children than these proposed bills.
“Go and tell the Navajo people that education is the ladder. We should send our kids to school despite what they (the white man) did to us.” Revered Navajo elder Chief Manuelito said this in 1893. And the Navajo people did just that – they sent their kids to school, to government schools and public schools. These final words, expressed within days of Navajo Chief Manuelito’s departure from the Glittering World, or Fourth World according to our Navajo mythology, provided each new generation of young Navajo families with one clear expectation – send your kids to school. So, young Navajo families did just that, including my grandparents, Edward and Ida Francis.
My Navajo grandparents had 8 children. Six of their surviving children graduated from federal government boarding schools – boarding meaning they spent each school semester living in military-style barracks away from home while attending grade school for twelve years. Their youngest child, however, was able to graduate from one of the first public schools built on the Navajo Reservation. She had the privilege of attending school in her hometown, Chinle, AZ. She never had to live in military-style quarters away from home, let alone leave the state. All 6 children graduated from high school and 5 went on to attend and graduate from public universities. All got married, had children and sent their own children to local Reservation public schools. I was one of these children that attended a local public school, as did 22 of my first cousins. All 23 of us graduated from high school; 20 of us graduated from Reservation public schools; and 18 of us graduated with at least a bachelor’s degree from reputable state or private universities.
These new ESA expansion bills are offensive to the legacy of thousands of Navajo families who sent their kids to school, as directed by Chief Manuelito. My grandparents, and also my own parents, sent their children to school with one primary purpose in mind – to have their children graduate from college, return to the Reservation, and take administrative control of the local public schools and run them without continuing interference from outsiders. Today, a good number of our family members are public school teachers or school administrators. This accomplishment exemplifies what’s known as Indian Self-determination. Self-determination was a national policy goal finally implemented by Richard Nixon, a Republican President, in 1970. The policy was intended to get non-Indians out of the business of meddling in Indian affairs, including Indian education policy. Senate Bill 1224 and House Bill 2898 are just more meddling.
Despite the untruths being circulated by the lobbyists and Republican politicians backing this bill, our public schools on our great Navajo Nation have not failed me or the many other Reservation high school graduates. As a matter of fact, we recognize and celebrate our outstanding high school graduates every year. They are Chief Manuelito Scholarship recipients that include graduates from our Reservation public schools. This dispels the myth promoted by Republican backers of this bill that our Navajo Nation public schools have failed and continue to fail our Navajo children.
The Office of Navajo Nation Scholarship and Financial Assistance and members of the 24th Navajo Nation Council recently worked to develop legislation that would set aside $50 million to provide more scholarship opportunities for Navajo students. This would represent the largest financial investment in scholarships in the history of the Navajo Nation.
It’s important to highlight this fact because the Navajo Nation does have the financial wherewithal to set aside and create special scholarship funds for Navajo children who also want to attend private grade schools. The Navajo Nation does not need the state’s financial assistance (state tax dollars) to invest in our kids. In other words, we don’t want or need any meddling in our tribal affairs, including directing us to fund state voucher programs. We’re quite capable of determining what programs should receive priority funding.
If state lawmakers want to help Navajo parents and children, they can pave rural state roads, support our existing public schools, fund the Office of Indian Education and let us determine our own educational futures as Chief Manuelito advised.
Todd Francis grew up on the Navajo Reservation, graduated from Chinle High School, and graduated from the University of Arizona. He is active in organizations and efforts that support Indigenous families and children in Arizona.