Native American youth in 'national crisis' - White House

Native American youth in 'national crisis' - White House
A White House report on Native American students said they face educational, socioeconomic, and health barriers that are “nothing short of a national crisis."

Based on information gathered during the Annual Cannonball Flag Day Powwow at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation in June, the ‘2014 Native Youth Report’ is intended to expand opportunities for young Native Americans.

Back over the summer, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama met with Lakota young adults privately. What they heard troubled and upset them enough that back at the White House, Obama ordered his cabinet to come up with a plan for new avenues of opportunity for Native American youth.

READ MORE:Native Americans unite to fight pipelines, including Keystone X

At the Tribal Nations Conference on Wednesday in Washington, DC – when the report was released – President Obama made reference to his past meeting.

And these young people could not have been more poised and they could not have been more thoughtful. And they talked about their families, and their friends, and their dreams for the future,” he said.

But they also talked about the pain in their hearts, and the obstacles they had had to overcome, and the problems they had seen with loved ones who had been brought down by drugs or alcohol or violence or poverty.”

Thirty-nine percent of the Native American and Alaskan Native population is under 24 years of age, the report states, compared to 33 percent of the total population in the United States. Additionally, 15-19-year-olds make up 42 percent of the Native American population, compared to 34 percent for in the US.

More than one in three American Indian and Alaskan Native children lives in poverty. Their school graduation rate is 67 percent – the lowest of any racial/ethnic demographic group across all schools. And suicide is the second leading cause of death – 2.5 times the national rate – for Native youth in the 15 to 24 old age group.

One young man was raising his four little brothers by himself,” Obama recalled. “All of them knew somebody that they loved who had attempted suicide, committed suicide, died in a car accident before their time. Some of them had spent time living in a bus. And there were tears in that room pretty much the entire conversation, and the sense that schools weren’t always preparing them properly and that they weren’t sure about the possibilities of a better future.”

The report authors acknowledge the United States “owes a trust responsibility” – based on treaties, agreements, statutes, court decisions and executive orders - to Native American tribes. They also acknowledge the country’s deeply troubling and destructive federal policies and actions that hurt Native communities, exacerbated inequality and accelerated the loss of tribal cultural traditions, particularly through federal policies regarding the education of Native American children which continue to have effects on their communities.

READ MORE: Leonard Peltier in solitary confinement

The education of Native American children meant sending them to boarding schools to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” where their hair was cut, they were forced to wear school uniforms and change their names to common Euro-American names, and were punished for speaking their native tongue. These schools were also meant to teach them “English, Christianize them, inculcate within them the values and beliefs of possessive individualism, and ultimately prepare them for American citizenship.”

The report’s other findings included the fact that 92 percent of Native American youth attend regular public schools, but the schools lacked “culturally relevant curriculum and culturally competent staff that understand how to reach Native youth.” Other schools, meanwhile, are in need of repair and renovation.

READ MORE:Native Americans ‘slaughtered, sacrificed, fenced in reservations’ in US

Ahniwake Rose, executive director for the National Indian Education Association, told the Huffington Post the report and its recommendations are "unprecedented," and “is the first time that a sitting president has talked about Indian education since Kennedy.” Still, she said it was just an important first step and that significant progress needed to be made.

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

The report makes several recommendations. Obama’s entire cabinet is going to meet with Native young people and hear firsthand about their lives. The Department of Education is working on a new initiative – Nation Youth Community Projects – which will give support for nutrition programs, mental health needs and creating a culturally relevant curriculum. The report recommends that schools and colleges work to revitalize Native American history and languages in school curriculum.

We know that learning about the history and language and traditions of one’s people can make a huge difference in a child’s education,” said Obama.

READ MORE:Seattle to recognize Indigenous Peoples’ day on Columbus Day

Through a program called Generation Indigenous, a National Tribal Youth Network will connect and support talented young people in Tribal Nations. A Tribal Youth Gathering will take place in the White House next year.

READ MORE:Native American tribes denied easy access to polls

Obama will also present to Congress in February a request for investment in connecting tribal schools to high-speed internet, and reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act, which guarantees housing.