Summit to give an update on Yazzie/Martinez case

State Rep. Derrick Lente gives his perspective on the improvements of Native American education in the state.

By: - June 7, 2023 5:05 am

Wilhelmina Yazzie, the plaintiff in a lawsuit that spurned public school reform in New Mexico, poses in Albuquerque, on Nov. 8. 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

The 2023 Institute of American Indian Education (IAIE) is hosting a summit to give an update ahead of the five year anniversary of the Yazzie-Martinez v. State of New Mexico ruling.

In 2014, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) brought a lawsuit against the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) and the state legislature for failing to provide an adequate system of education to all New Mexican students as guaranteed by the New Mexico State Constitution. 

The lack of equal education was among students of low-income, Native American, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, English language learners, and students with disabilities. It was also noted that the state is failing to provide proper funds for programs and services necessary for those students to learn.

In 2018, New Mexico District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state is violating the constitutional rights of these students. The court ordered reform in New Mexico public education to ensure opportunities are made for students to be college and career ready, and to fix the inequities students face.

Fast forward to 2023, this summit is meant to focus on the changes that have been made by that court decision.

New Mexico representative Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) will be one of the speakers for Wednesday’s summit.

He has passed several pieces of legislation in Santa Fe that is intended to help New Mexico meet the requirements under the judgement of the Yazzie/Martinez case.

“It’s been an uphill battle,” he said. 

Lente said there’s been a push to create a tribal remedy framework of policy changes and improvements that were authored and drafted by Native American people in our state. 

“We’re talking about the parents, the students. We’re talking about the tribal leaders, the educational directors, the educational advocates, that live within tribal American, New Mexico, he said. 

Lente has forged relationships with the 23 sovereign nations in New Mexico to build a coalition that will meet the education goals to build true reform.

“We’ve been endorsed by a tribal resolution by the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the Mescalero Apache Nation, and all the 19 Pueblos. So when we’re talking about these initiatives, they’re ones that are built off of our own solutions to the problems that have plagued our educational attainment.”

He said Native Americans need to be able to change things through their authorship of what they feel is best for Native children.

“Not allowing the paternalistic nature of the federal government or even the state government to tell us how we best learn as Natives or how to best teach us as Natives,” Lente said. “We know what’s best for us. So allow us that ability to have that autonomy to do that for ourselves.” 

A challenging part for Lente he said is working with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on how to reform education for Native American children.

“We’ve not always seen eye to eye with the administration of the governor by way of how we’re going to transform education for Native American children. But we will continue to fight this good fight because we think that we owe it to those that are in grade school, middle school, high school now and those yet to be born.”

The state recently changed its graduation requirements by reducing the number of units or credit hours for graduation from 24 to 22. This would give local school boards or charter schools the ability to determine two required units on their own. 

While Lente supports the change in graduation requirements, he said that it’s going to take some time to see how the changes affect our children.

“We’ve seen COVID come and go and (Native) children are probably one of the hardest hit when it comes to educational opportunities during COVID. Because for those that live in more rural tribal settings, those children were the ones that were left out to dry without the ability to learn and continue to learn like their peers, because they didn’t have access to Wi Fi.”

Lente said the lack of education for Native Americans didn’t just start with the Yazzie/Martinez case.

“It’s infuriating because it didn’t just start five years ago or ten years ago or twenty. It’s been going on for a long, long time.”

He further explains how the establishment of the head start program in the 1990’s were run with the intent to assimilate Native children.

“A lot of times those types of programs were just simple tactics to try to assimilate children to be more like mainstream America, and create the loss of language, the loss of culture, and the loss of identity,” Lente said. ”To make us more like Anglo people. When we talk about the head start philosophy of the federal government, what was it a head start to? No one can really talk about that.”

But Lente agrees that times are changing.

“We’re trying to evolve and take our own destiny into our own hands,” he said.” How are we going to do this so that my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and everyone else’s children will have a fair shot?”

He says Native children should have equal rights and opportunities to go to a school that is safe, appreciates their culture, tradition, languages while also having the resources to continue our educational traditions.

“Also create an environment where we are not only just college and career ready, but as Native Americans that are also civic ready. We are as Native Americans, we have three citizenships. United States citizenship, state citizenship and tribal citizenship.” 

Lente is seeing the change on a state level through policies made and implemented through advocacy by promoting education in tribal communities.

“It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening, because now we have programs within tribal communities where our children are learning their language again,” he said. 

Lente is proud of the work he’s been a part of to help improve Native American education in New Mexico.

‘It’s much different than the status quo that has been done. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the legislature during this really important time in our history.”

The 2023 Institute of American Indian Education will be on Wednesday, June 7th from 9AM to 2PM at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

Speakers will include Wilhelmina Yazzie, Melissa Candelaria, Alisa Diehi, Preston Sanchez, Regis Pecos, and NM Representative Derrick Lente.

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Jeanette DeDios
Jeanette DeDios

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. Jeanette can be contacted at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.

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