Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Tribal education reform bills stalled in New Mexico Legislature

When the Senate Education Committee was over on Friday, March 3, Kaylee Bahe had already been awake for eight hours organizing her thoughts and materials before taking the Rail Runner by herself from Albuquerque to meet with lawmakers.

Bahe (Diné), a sophomore at Eldorado High School, was there to speak up about racism she saw in her advanced-placement textbooks that softened the history of colonialism and, in some cases, justified the brutality people of color faced.

In one example she shared on social media, her world history textbook says there’s “very little evidence” that white settlers intentionally spread disease to Native people.

“When they’re depicted like this in class, it perpetuates the idea that they’re a colonized people without a rich history of resistance,” Bahe said.

Bahe was dressed in the turquoise she inherited from her grandmother as she presented her thoughts to legislators on changing curricula to better represent Indigenous people.

In a flier she made and handed out to lawmakers, she requested that the legislature consider measures such as:

  • Culturally and linguistically relevant education
  • Indigenous-based curriculums, and
  • Implementation of the book “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz as a standard in history classes in New Mexico

She said her current textbooks are not doing a good job of reflecting the realities Indigenous students face.

“These textbooks create an unsafe and neglectful environment for Indigenous students because they include the use of offensive terminology and misrepresent very critical historical events for Indigenous people and speak from a biased perspective,” Bahe told members of the Senate Education Committee. “I don’t believe that it’s right that we’re facing this misrepresentation even from our latest, vetted books.”

Her requests fall in line with the landmark Yazzie-Martinez ruling where a court found that New Mexico was unconstitutionally failing most public school students, including Indigenous students, by not providing a comprehensive, inclusive education.

Democratic lawmakers urged Bahe to contact the College Board, the national organization that administers the advanced placement program, and her school board to lobby for faster change.

Sen. Harold Pope (D-Albuquerque) said that while the Legislature tries to support inclusive education, there is some onus on local school districts to address those issues.

“There’s things that we can do here,” Pope said. “I know we’re making sure we support ethnic studies and things like that and making sure there’s culturally-relevant education, but we also want some of that local control to deal with these issues and make sure that curriculum is based on what’s going on locally in that community.”

Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces), chair of the Senate Education Committee, echoed a similar sentiment and said he doesn’t see it being the Legislature’s role to mandate curriculum.

“Our role is really setting guidelines,” Soules said. “That’s really the purview of the Public Education Department. It’s a multiyear process to get everyone’s input and it could be really contentious.”

Kaylee Bahe, far left, discusses concerns over language in AP textbooks regarding Native American history with, from left to right, state Sens. Shannon Pinto, Harold Pope, and William Soules at the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

He said the decisions about what is taught in schools are divided between the department and local schools to reflect what is best for individual communities.

Sen. Shannon Pinto (D-Tohatchi) said truly comprehensive education is a work in progress, and that one curriculum can’t cover the breadth of Indigenous history and meet the needs of every tribe.

“There’s a lot of catching up that has to happen,” Pinto (Diné) said. “Native American history, to some, the perception is broad but when you talk to individual tribes, nations and Pueblos they recount their history different. And I don’t think people understand the uniqueness in that.”

Meanwhile, two major tribal education bills have died as a result of disagreement between stakeholders, according to the bills’ sponsor Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo). Navajo Nation leaders expressed concern that the funding ratios in the bills disadvantaged their students.

HB 140 would’ve created a tribal education trust fund to support tribes to build infrastructure and culturally-responsive education programs on tribal lands. HB 147 would’ve changed the Indian Education Act to give more money directly to tribes. However, both received criticism from Navajo Nation leadership who said the funding model was unfair.

In HB 140, tribes would receive an equal amount of money to create programs and build capacity. In HB 147, 90% of the funding would be equal among all tribes with 10% of funds based on the size of the tribe.

At the House Appropriations and Finance Committee meeting on Feb. 21, Patti Williams, lobbyist for the Navajo Nation Council, told lawmakers that the council passed a resolution in opposition to the bills.

Williams called the bills “fundamentally unfair” because 75% of the children who would benefit from the bills were Navajo children, but the bills would only give them 11% of the funding.

Even though both bills got the endorsement of the Legislative Education Study Committee prior to the beginning of the session, and HB 147 has sat on the House floor calendar for days, Lente said he would not push for a vote on either.

Lente said the bills would be “better poised” for the next session and anticipates funding from the passage of Constitutional Amendment 1 to support tribal education in other ways.

“Most of that money comes from tribal lands, so we expect to be a part of those discussions,” he said.

Kaylee Bahe poses for a portrait inside the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. Kaylee Bahe poses for a portrait inside the New Mexico State Capitol on Friday, March 3, 2023, in Santa Fe, N.M. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)

As for Bahe, she said this was only her first step in advocating for better Indigenous representation in New Mexico schools. She came up with this plan on her own with the support of her classmates – and some research into the Indigenous Wisdom Curriculum Project – and wanted to use her day at the Roundhouse to collect information to better inform her path.

She will be back again.

“I didn’t like the misconceptions I was seeing,” she said. “I wanted to get more experience, and I just hope to get the word out and bring awareness to what is happening.”

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