The State of New Mexico’s Indian Education

Dr. Ted Jojola
Dr. Ted Jojola’s keynote presentation

By Dr. Ted Jojola

Excerpt of an editorial by Ted Jojola; 1993, Albuquerque Journal

A startling incident at the Head Start at one reservation community recently came to light. Barely two days before the small children were to be ushered into their new school year, a young married couple from a Native American reservation community broke in, robbing and vandalizing the school.  

If it was not for the alert tribal police—who caught the culprits red-handed (so to speak)—the children would have begun their education in a place that had just been violated. As it turned out, the staff rescued the situation, using personal time over the weekend to clean up the classrooms and to restore the integrity of the first day.

What makes this incident particularly distressing is that this was not an anonymous crime but a crime committed by members of the same community. It was not just a simple case of petty theft. Rather, the incident reflects some serious aspects of Native American society gone awry and the value, or lack thereof, of education to our youth.

Considering that Indian education among those my age and older was largely assimilative and punitive in spirit, then there is almost no reinforcement of the role which education plays in our communities. In fact, it appears that this legacy has also affected the manner in which educational values have been transferred between parents and their children.  

Our communities are sending out mixed signals to our children. Elders begrudgingly hold onto the vision that education in tribal language and culture belongs in the home. Older parents still perceive education as a restrictive chore limited to the basic 3-Rs. Younger parents are just as inclined to leave it at the curb. In all of this, children are getting less and less feedback about the role of education as it relates to themselves and, more importantly, to their community.

Each successive generation has had a profoundly different experience with education. My own immediate family serves as a case in point. My maternal grandfather had no formal schooling. My father was kidnapped by truant officers at the village plaza and was forced to attend an Indian boarding school. My mother and older brother attended parochial schools. I attended public schools. My son is currently enrolled in a private school.

And if you consider that other tribal leaders, educators and parents all have different educational backgrounds, then it is no wonder that our perspectives of tribal policy and education are in such a mess. In short, the education experiences of Native Americans have been less than stellar.  

In just the past year, there have been distinct rumblings within some of our own tribally controlled schools regarding the self-centered and condescending attitudes that some of the native youth are beginning to bring to school. Teachers decry the fact that the mass media now exerts more influence on youth behavior than the parents. Dropout rates among Native American youth continue to be the highest among all groups. Dropout children—especially those with an attitude—will certainly pose even more of a challenge for the future of our tribal society.

At a recent meeting of the New Mexico Legislative Education Committee, Native American representatives reflected concerns that there appears to be little or no support in the state education system to rectify this situation. Instead, it is perceived as a “reservation” problem and out of the loop of public concern.

Perhaps to some extent it is. After four generations of partial successes, there is still no real sense of Native American education. Instead, we see parents pulling their children out of culturally inactive reservation schools and mainstreaming them into the surrounding public schools. It is a cycle which has often been repeated by parents when we lose faith in the system. And it is being repeated by our children when they lose faith in the value of education.

Of course, the scariest part of this scenario concerns our inattention and ineffectiveness as educators to the relationship between parents and their children. If left unchecked, it will continue to lead to failure among our Native American youth and result in the demise of the Native American community as we know it. The robbery at the Head Start, as such, was no fluke.


The New Mexico Indian Education Act of 2003 was passed in an effort to ensure equitable and culturally learning environments for Native students in public schools. Its goals:

  • Develop and implement positive educational systems
  • Enhance educational opportunities for students
  • Develop culturally relevant materials for use in nm schools
  • Develop strategies for ensuring the maintenance of native languages
  • Increase tribal involvement and control
  • Increase parental involvement
  • Cement a formal government to government relationship between the tribes and the state (i.e., creation of an advisory council to oversee the Indian Education Act)

The purpose of the New Mexico Indian Education Study, 2025 is to investigate and determine a long-range plan for Indigenous education in New Mexico and among its tribal communities. The Indigenous Education Study Group (IESG) of seven research scholars and 10 student assistants—most of whom are native to New Mexico tribal communities—are all accomplished educators and scholars in the field of Indian education.  

The study was contracted by the Eight Northern Pueblos Council in 2007 and completed in 2010. Focus groups were conducted in five school districts and two charter schools. Only the Zuni School Board declined to participate.

We asked, “What should Indigenous education look like in the year 2025?”

Policy Recommendations (only highlighting two segments):

Schools that foster the Educated Native Person are those that,

  • strengthen cultural identity by promoting and supporting strong Native American values, traditions, culture and language at the local level;
  • have Native American adults from local communities who serve as role models and mentors to students;
  • provide a foundation for lifelong learning;
  • create bridges to successful postsecondary opportunities by using college bridge programs and conducting summer visits on college and tribal community college campuses; and
  • work with the tribal government to connect careers with community development.

Vision entails:

  • promoting and nurturing students’ demonstration of their knowledge, ultimately toward their future as a gainful professional;
  • inspiring a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn in a manner that values individual intellect as well as maintaining his/her cultural identity;
  • anticipating and incorporating the newest technologies;
  • continuing to build and maintain quality learning physical environments for active learning and engagement; and
  • developing proactive and reciprocal relationships between administrators and tribal leadership in a manner that advances the future goals and needs of the community.

The issue at hand is enabling schools’, communities’ and students’ ability to define and create culturally responsive schools. The study is revealing that cultural responsiveness is more than being sensitive and aware of a student’s cultural background. It is also recognizing how cultures are contextually based, and it necessitates educators become culturally competent in order to meaningfully and appropriately incorporate students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds into their teaching.

The drive for high-stakes school accountability creates obstacles implementing the New Mexico Indian Education Act (IEA) and even violates its tenets for placing Native students’ home cultures, experiences and knowledge within the public education system. This conflict highlights the importance of developing formal agreements between tribal communities and public schools to ensure that accountability includes Indigenous knowledge, culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy.

And as articulated in my 1993 editorial, even within our communities we are waging an uphill battle largely because of demographic factors.  

Central among this:

By 2025 it is projected that 84,710 American Indians will be 18 years and younger. For 2025, it is projected that the share of the 0-18 age group among American Indian/Alaska Natives (AIAN) will be 30.2 percent. This is a decline of 9.5 percent from year 2000.

Factors that are contributing to this:

  • Lower fertility rate among Pueblo families
  • In 1990, the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) per AIAN women aged 15 to 44 was approximately 3.71. This decreased in 2000 to 2.65 per woman, a decrease of slightly over 30 percent.
  • From 2000-2010, 10 out of 18 pueblos showed a decline in the absolute numbers of children between 0-17.
  • Based on the projected population, the overall share in the state decreased by only two-tenths of a percent. Nevertheless, this does not minimize their impact on the school-age population. In 2025, it is projected that about 85,000 AIAN children, an increase of about 9,000, will be in the school system in one way or another.

However, these children will represent a “new face”:  a higher proportion of children from mixed races (especially to non-Indians).

A greater proportion will be children with a different tribal membership status (such as ascendancy).

And the trend among young Native families of moving back and forth to urban areas will only increase (yet to be seen in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census).

In any case, it is introducing a new factor in the population equation—mobility and migration. Migration behavior is especially key in understanding how families respond to poor educational facilities or low educational attainment.  They play a “shell-game” by moving children in and out of various school systems rather than by trying to reform a school through local engagement.

Seventh Generations Model

Healthy Community = all voices adding to a vision

Some things that are resolute for the long-term:

Our Pueblo identities are intrinsically tied into

1) our languages

2) our cultural roles, and

3) how we make and maintain our places (especially our built environment)

Schools have been integral not only in educating our people, but also in shaping our environments.

I would argue that schools and their facilities are the single biggest factor in providing the foundation of our local economic and political development. Yet this continues largely to go unstated. Schools have become foreign places in our communities!

I will leave you by stating what is the main challenge of this convocation—too answer this following question: How is education an act of Sovereignty or more specifically, for us, an act of Pueblo sovereignty?

Otherwise (quoted from a Pojoaque School parent): The day might come when everything is so contaminated with the air, the water, the land, that they’ll come to the pueblo and tell us, ‘You know what? You guys— sorry to tell you this—but your land is condemned and if all of you decide to stay here, you’re on your own!’

And so, my question is, ‘Where do we all go—a group of 3,000 of us—to live where we can still live and know who our neighbor is; know who lives behind us, in front of us, or in back of us? Where [can] we all live together where we can still speak Tewa, where we can still be uncle and aunt; that we’re not living, like, in Albuquerque or in Minneapolis, where we don’t know who the neighbors are across the street?!’ We’ll have no idea about language, songs, dances, culture, nothing. It’s just erased. I want our children to be totally reaching their potential, but also hanging onto who they are because I think that’s important; not only for our survival; I think that it’s the survival of the whole world. That’s just the way I see things—that’s what I would like for 2025.

Thank you!

Dr. Ted Jojola (Isleta Pueblo) is distinguished professor and regents professor in the School of Architecture and director of the Indigenous Design and Planning program at the University of New Mexico. 


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