Today, Native Americans are leading the way in environmental issues, but struggle to overcome an achievement gap among their youth.
“There is a vibrant Native American population here. It’s not a community or a history stuck in the past that when you go to museums it’s just something that you tell your kids, ‘Oh, you know, this is what used to be here,’” said Ernest House, executive director of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs. “We still are here — the continuous, longest residents of the state.”
The Increasing Opportunities for Native American Students Conference brought together over 200 Native American students, educators and advocates to address issues and inspire one another.
The conference was held May 3 and 4 and was the first of its kind hosted by the Region VIII Equity Assistance Center at MSU Denver. It was co-sponsored by the Colorado Indian Education Foundation, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and the Office of Institutional Diversity at MSU Denver.
The conference included keynote speakers, a panel on Native American education and sessions on pow-wow etiquette, language, and dance demonstrations.
Joyce Silverthorne, director of the U.S. Office of Indian Education, said the large, persistent achievement gap is not necessarily associated with poverty, but is linked to students’ heritage.
“Once people identify as American Indian, then you’ll see the data that follows and shows that there is an achievement gap and that it is large,” Silverthorne said.
The U.S. government is responsible for providing an education for American Indian children, targeted to meet their needs in elementary and secondary education. Title VII of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act is part of federal legislation that intends to level the achievement gap between them and other U.S. students.
Conference attendee Rose Marie McGuire, Denver Public Schools Indian Education Program manager, said on a local level, many Native American students are not receiving all services available to them, especially gifted students.
McGuire said these issues need to be addressed with the administration and school board.
House said Denver is fast-becoming a national hub for Native Americans, making this an important local issue.
Keynote speaker Walt Pourier, the creative director of Nakota Designs and executive director of the Stronghold Society, emphasized the importance of working with youth.
Pourier is originally from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, said more than 50 percent of residents at Pine Ridge are under the age of 18.
“Their numbers are bigger than the baby boomers and their ability to communicate is unlike any generation ever,” Pourier said. “So how do you work with this current generation to be these leaders about knowledge, about education, about anything, but most of all about life as a whole, about this earth as a whole?”
Pourier said having the conference at MSU Denver helped Native youth see opportunities before them and to understand how far they can go.
One theme at the conference was the Native American role in protecting the environment. Pourier said indigenous DNA is embedded with knowledge of what it means to be a caretaker of the earth.
“My theme is ‘red is green,’” Pourier said.
Sky Roosevelt-Morris, another keynote speaker, agreed that Native Americans have this caretaker role and she urged against what she called “invisibilization” of Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Roosevelt-Morris, a senior at UCD, is a member of the Native American Student Organization.
“It doesn’t just affect indigenous people. this is a global issue,” Roosevelt-Morris said, referring to Native Americans’ role in defense of the environment and human rights.
Silverthorne echoed a theme of the conference — that Native Americans have much to offer the nation and the world as mutual participants in the global community.
“We have an incredible, valuable history to offer to other people in this country, and that has never been appreciated,” Silverthorne said. “Our kids are bright, capable young people and they need the encouragement of their whole community.”