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American Indian Schools Connect for the 21st Century

Remember President Clinton’s State of the Union Address in January 1997? It’s the one in which he challenged America to connect every classroom and every library to the Internet by the Year 2000.

Did he mean American Indian schools, too? It would be a challenge indeed to connect all 185 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools–serving 51,000 children across 23 states on 63 reservations–by the year 2000.

The challenge is this: Many of the American Indian children who go to these schools have no electricity in their homes and little or no access to phones. Their schools have electricity, but they certainly have no computers. In fact, many of their communities are pretty well isolated from the rest of the world.

Havasupai Day School, for example, sits at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Rocky Ridge Day School, deep in the interior of the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, is so remote it can only receive radio telephone service.

Nevertheless, on September 26, 1999, Cibecue Community School in Cibecue, Arizona, became the 150th American Indian school to be connected to the Internet. The school serves students in grades kindergarten through high school on the Fort Apache Reservation.

The Goal Is All Schools

With this news, BIA also reports 90 of the 185 schools are a part of EDNET, a special network that connects all BIA schools. By the spring of 2000, BIA expects to connect all 185 schools to the Internet and to EDNET.

By anybody’s measure, this will be–and is already–a remarkable achievement. How did it come about?

It happened because President Clinton issued an Executive Order and a personal challenge on behalf of American Indian and Alaska Native education. It happened because federal workers at the Department of the Interior–home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs–were determined that American Indian children would not be left standing empty handed on the side of the Information Highway.

And they have not been. Employees in BIA’s Office of Indian Education Programs and Interior’s Office of Information Resources Management, along with tribal leaders, educators, and industry volunteers are taking part in Access Native America, a partnership that grew out of President Clinton’s special challenge. Access Native America is one of Vice President Gore’s 340 reinvention labs.

Companies and foundations, starting with Microsoft in 1997, and most recently, the Global Commercial Foundation, formed by Cabletron Systems, have made significant donations of computer hardware and software to the effort.

Integrating Culture and Technology

Learning possibilities on the Internet are endless, especially to children who have had few opportunities for field trips to museums, libraries, and other cultural centers

A group of BIA-funded schools, with the help of the Office of Indian Education Programs, received a Technology Innovation Challenge Fund Grant from the Department of Education. For Native Americans, the tie to tradition is as important as technology. This grant funded the 4Directions Project, which focuses on integrating Native American culture with technology as part of the children’s education.

The project, developed by a consortium, includes 19 schools. It is administered by the Laguna, New Mexico, Department of Education, but project schools span the width of the continent, from La Push, Washington, to far eastern Maine. This community of learners is using the Internet to communicate, assist each other, share in the diversity of cultures, and ensure that Native American voices are heard on the Internet.

The Potawatami American Indian Bands in the U.S. and Canada inspired another initiative. Over the years, the Potawatami have worked hard to preserve their ancient language from extinction and incorporate it into the high education standards of their classrooms.

Their efforts got a boost from a partnership with the World Wide Web Consortium, worldwide disabilities organizations, and Access Native America. Together, they built the Potawatami Language Multimedia Web Textbook. The multimedia capabilities of the web are a proving to be a perfect tool to support the oral language tradition.

The effort has caught on among the tribes and may have global application. It brings together children, elders, and community members, including those with disabilities. Even children who are blind and elders who can’t "point-and-click" a mouse, can use these lessons

Connecting to the 21st Century

By joining forces to foster community solutions, BIA, academia, and industry are readying American Indian schools and children for a 21st century education without sacrificing closely-held values and traditions.

So, what at first seemed almost impossible is about to be achieved–almost a quantum leap out of isolation into the 21st Century.

And what’s the worth of it? "To look into the eyes of these children is to see the future of the American Indian people," said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Grover.

For More Information

For more information, visit:

Department of the Interior

Bureau of Indian Affairs

4Directions Project

Contact: William J. Mehojah, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Indian Education Programs at (202) 208-6175.