Remember the past and look to improve the future during Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage Month.
Senator Carlyle Begay
Special to Blakpac
I was born and raised on the Navajo Nation, one of eight tribal communities that I represent as an Arizona state senator. The traditions have taught me cultural relevancy and the importance of working together to continue the advancement and purpose of those I serve.
We must give thanks to the leaders that have served before us like the great Navajo Chief Manuelito, who led the Navajo people home from the brink of extinction. Hwéeldi, or The Long Walk, was much like the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears, a harsh experience for the Navajo people. Two thousand of my Navajo ancestors perished during Hwéeldi as they were starved into submission and forced to surrender. They were then marched to a confined area so that settlers could have the finest grazing land and mineral-rich areas in Arizona.
Many tribes have similar stories of attempts to strip them of their identity, but we as Native people persevered and survived the systematic attempt to terminate our languages and cultures. The tragedies of the past have taken an obvious toll that continues to effect many tribal children today.
I recently spoke to a high school class within a tribal community in Arizona. I will never forget the response of a student when I asked, “What are your goals and aspirations in your life? What are your plans after high school?”
One student said, “Why does it matter? Why do you care? No one cares about me or my people so what does it matter what I want to do or what I end up doing?”
As disheartening as it is, he represents perhaps the feelings of many of our Native American children living on reservations. He feels invisible, unimportant and alienated. This teen carries the burden of hopelessness so common in modern day reservation life.
That exchange forced me to take a deeper look at how we can better educate our Native American kids. The sad reality is that in Arizona, we as Native people are dead last in both math and reading proficiency scores, according to the latest Annual Report on Indian Education released by the Arizona Department of Education.
Across America, we have the lowest graduation rate of all other ethnicities at 67 percent. Arizona fairs even worse with a graduation rate of 64 percent.
The education being provided to students at tribal schools is akin to modern day Hwéeldi. While our ancestors suffered and were forced off their lands, the reverse effect has taken hold — our students suffer while remaining on our lands, but assigned to attend low-performing schools, resulting in poor educational outcomes and limited economic opportunities to creating positive change
This is why I was inspired to help expand school choice on tribal lands and offer new educational options to our students. Empowering tribal parents’ with the ability to customize their child’s education or obtain access to new quality options is a way to build up Native American communities through education.
This is possible because to this day, I truly believe that Indian Country and we as Native people are in a new era to become stronger Native communities. We are in an era of self-determination — and that begins by providing our children access to a world-class education.
So this month, I encourage all people, whether a member of a tribe or not, to celebrate your heritage, to give thanks to your ancestors and to embrace a future where all children receive access to a quality education of their parents’ choice.
Carlyle Begay is a state senator from Ganado, in northeastern Arizona.