Indian gaming continues to make a difference in the lives of Native Americans across the country. Perhaps the biggest and most important impact gaming has maintained is in the area of Indian education, where Indian gaming tribes have contributed more than $4 billion per year, or 20 percent of gaming revenues, to invest in the future of Native America.

The federal government is failing when it comes to grading its performance in helping Native American tribes with education. The government’s responsibility to Native tribes stretches back hundreds of years, when it signed treaties with Indian nations after forcibly removing tribes from their traditional lands. In the new millennia, these treaties are disregarded and the push for further erosion of Indian sovereignty is quarried by the government.

The fiscal responsibilities of the government are always relegated to tertiary considerations and are often whittled away during budget season (read: budget cuts). Education has always been affected negatively during these funding decisions, often resulting in poor academic performance throughout Indian country, as dropout rates increase and schools continue to deteriorate.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 25.4 percent of American Indian and Alaskan Native students who should have graduated in 1992 dropped out of school. Between 1990 and 2003, these dropout rates for Natives fluctuated, showing no signs of significant trends and further complicating how to address these issues.

School is starting across the country, and Native American families again face the struggles of preparing their children for the rigors of education. This entails the purchasing of school clothes and supplies, and the necessary arrangements to get the kids to school if bus services are not available. Non-Natives often take these considerations for granted because their educational institutions are well funded and operated. As always, Indian country must deal with infrastructure and logistical concerns.

Consider these statistics to get a feel of the challenges facing Native students. According to a National Indian Education Survey from the NCES, about one third of Native students live in poverty (34 percent), another third live in households where the mother has less than a high school education (34 percent), one-quarter live in homes without one parent, and about 1 in 10 (11 percent) were born to teenaged mothers.

While funding to help these students is continually set on the chopping block during budget season, many Indian tribes are stepping up to the plate and supplementing the futures of their children with gaming revenues. And why should they not help their communities in this way, especially when findings from the U.S. Department of the Interior confirm that only 30 percent of the Bureau of Indian Education’s (BIE) schools are meeting standards? In other words, 70 percent of BIE schools are failing our Native students.

Before the invasion of Native America, Indian tribes took care of their own and ensured that everyone in the tribe was educated in tribal customs, prepared for survival in the world and tutored on being a contributing member of the tribe. We strayed from these central tenets when our Indian ancestors were forcibly abducted and taken hundreds of miles from their homes to be “educated.” Their education entailed militant lifestyles, culture shock, haircuts and severe punishment for speaking Native languages or practicing cultural traditions.

Native children were proselytized into accepting assimilation and learning foreign concepts steeped in greed, conquest and the divide-and-conquer mentality that epitomizes the “American Dream.” Today, the onslaught continues and tribes must be vigilant against legislation attempting to outlaw Native languages with chameleonlike legislation that changes yearly, proposing English-only requirements for states.

Gaming tribes have committed to restoring the damage that was wrought upon Native America with revenues that help build new Head Start buildings, day care centers, schools and libraries. Native language preservation programs, after-school activities, scholarships and other academic opportunities to enrich the learning experiences of both young and old have become the new face of self determination. Over 500 years ago, there was no child left behind when it came to the education of future generations.

In 2007, an economic impact report magnifying gaming revenues produced some encouraging statistics. More than 123,000 Native students in Oklahoma were able to apply for higher education funding thanks to the Seminole, Choctaw, Osage and Iowa Nations, which offered financial aid and scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $3,700 per semester for students pursuing college degrees. In California, the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians donated $50,000 each to Murrieta Valley and Vista Murrieta high schools for athletics, scholarships and new technology.

These success stories and countless others have easily demonstrated the positive impact Indian gaming has on education for Native Americans. But in spite of this, Indian children continue to be left behind by their counterparts in high school graduation rates and post-secondary degrees. The challenges remain. For those of us who have lived on Indian reservations, we know firsthand about the dilapidated conditions of our schools and the lack of equipment like computers, science labs and simple textbooks that are required to attain a standard education. Some schools lack the necessary transportation to get students from remote locations to school.

For these reasons and more, students who have succeeded in college and attained degrees oftentimes have a tremendous desire to return to their Indian communities to help their respective tribes. In many ways, the Indian traditions of long ago continue to be taught to the younger generations. While Indian gaming may not solve all of the ailments afflicting the education of Native America, it is making a difference in the lives of many families facing their daily survival with self-determination and honor.

Indian children across the country are on the frontlines of this war for education and equality, refusing to succumb to obsolescence and disregard from the government. Like many tribes have done before, Indian kids today are improvising and working with what they have to get ahead in the world. The National Indian Gaming Association and its associate member tribes will continue to support these efforts and work for a better Native America. We are constantly reminded that our children are our future, and we must afford them the same opportunities we had—and more—to have our voices heard amidst the cacophony in the great halls of American education.

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