Tribal education is a matter of cultural survival: ‘We need to act now,’ leaders tell lawmakers

Navajo, Pueblo leaders urge lawmakers to show they’re ‘willing to invest in the hopes and dreams of Native children’

By: - February 8, 2023 4:30 am
A man in formal attire walks by a group of other people while shaking their hands.

Mark Mitchell, former governor of Tesuque Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, greets New Mexico senators on Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

There is plenty of history between the state of New Mexico and Native nations, and it hasn’t always been very pleasant, said Mark Mitchell, former governor of Tesuque Pueblo.

“There are still some seeds of doubt, distrust, lingering feelings of suspicion, resentment, and still layers of misunderstanding and misinformation about tribes,” said Mitchell, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors. “Who are we? What are we about? And why are we considered sovereign?”

In a statehouse built on the ancestral homelands of the Tesuque Pueblo people, Mitchell and Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren told New Mexico lawmakers that education should be at the forefront of this year’s legislative session.

In their State of Tribal Nations address, Mitchell and Nygren asked New Mexico senators and representatives “to invest in our children today.”

“Today, I propose a new beginning for all of us,” Mitchell said, “a different approach to the ways the tribes and the state Legislature have treated one another in the past.”

Twenty-four tribal nations were represented inside the Roundhouse on Friday. They included Navajo Nation, Fort Sill Apache, Mescalero Apache, Jicarilla Apache, 19 Pueblos, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso.

A man in formal attire speaks into a microphone while standing at a podium.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren addresses a joint session of the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives on Feb. 3, 2023. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

The relationship between the state government and Native nations has greatly evolved over the decades in many profound and productive ways, Mitchell said, listing agreements governing taxes, the environment, water, social welfare, health, law enforcement, and human services.

“No one party, Democrats or Republicans, in the Legislature or the executive, can lay claim to have been the sole architects behind these developments,” Mitchell said. The truth of the matter, he added, is that it happened as a result of bipartisan efforts in collaboration with tribal leaders.

He called for the state and tribes to develop a new set of standards for how they treat one another, to revive and resurrect time-tested traditional values of respect, trust and common courtesy.

“We have come a long way, but our work is far from over,” Mitchell said. “I would like to have us treat one another as equals, recognizing our sovereignty, seeing our values in one another, building on the strengths, and fulfilling the purpose of government: namely, that we can and should be forced to improve the quality of people’s lives. That we should create an opportunity for those who have none. And, we should protect the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Newly elected President Nygren thanked the Legislature for previous investments in education, for passing a state law last year that mimics — and some say even improves upon — the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.


Nygren said the gathering on Friday was meant for Indigenous people to celebrate where they’ve come from and how they continue to protect their languages, cultures and ways of life passed down through grandmothers, grandfathers, and traditional healers.

“Let’s continue to hold onto it so that our generations ahead of us can enjoy the language and culture that really encompass what it means to be Indian, to be Pueblo, to be Zuni, to be Apache, to be Navajo,” he said.

The Pueblos have some of the most ancient and distinct languages in America, Mitchell said.

“Pueblo worldview is contained in our languages,” he said. “Some Pueblo languages are so unique, they are not spoken anywhere in the world.”

But unfortunately, language loss has reached a critical stage, he said.

“Whether our culture, our traditions, will survive will depend on whether our children can speak our language,” Mitchell said.

Students who speak a language other than English demonstrate a sustainable improvement in their academic performance and testing, Mitchell pointed out. Native languages offer a unique thought process, he emphasized, and a tribal way of interpreting the world that can’t be lost.

“We could use the state’s help by increasing funding for our tribal education departments,” Mitchell said. “We do have language programs and preservation programs and efforts in place. However, the issue always is funding.”

New Mexico is benefitting from the leases and extractive activities that pay into the Land Grant Permanent Fund, which was created with 13.5 million acres of Indigenous lands taken by the United States government, Mitchell said.

The Pueblos are asking the Legislature to provide tribes with a greater share of funding under the state Indian Education Act.

The state has a responsibility outlined in the historic Yazzie-Martinez ruling issued more than four years ago.

Passage of House Bill 140, he said, would “ensure tribes that the state of New Mexico Legislature is willing to invest in the hopes and dreams of Native children, that it’s willing to do more than just talk about low proficiency scores or low graduation rates.”

“We need to act now,” Mitchell said. “We know our children can and will exceed academically, and we know they can and will achieve great things. We ask you to share their dreams, and make them a reality.”


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.