Tim Giago*

Reprinted from Native Sun News, June 8, 2009

The Office of Indian Education became the Bureau of Indian Education on Aug. 29, 2006. There are those Indian educators who wonder whether changing the name also changed the direction or succeeded in repairing the inadequacies of the former system for Native American students. School is still out on that one.

Last year the new Bureau funded 184 elementary and secondary schools located on 64 reservations in 23 states and served approximately 48,000 Indian students. Of these, 59 were BIE operated and 125 were tribally operated under BIE contracts or grants. The Bureau also funds or operates off-reservation boarding schools and peripheral dormitories near Indian reservations for students attending public schools.

The BIE also serves Indian and Alaska Native post secondary through higher education scholarships and handles support funding for tribal colleges and universities. In fiscal year 2009, it provided funding to 26 tribal colleges. The Bureau also operates two post-secondary schools: Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kans., and Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque.

This, in and of itself, is a huge responsibility on the BIE for the education of Indian students. Statistic after statistic will tell you that the system is failing. Native Americans have the highest dropout rate in every state with large Indian populations. It appears to be one of the horrific statistics that the high muckety-mucks of education cluck and tsk! tsk! about but accept as an inevitable fact that will never change. Native American educators unanimously decry this lackadaisical attitude on the part of those most responsible for solving this age old problem.

The Bureau of Indian Education, or at least its predecessor, is part of the problem, and it is not, at least not so far, a part of the solution, because it is part of an unwieldy bureaucracy that sustains itself on worthless statistics. Like every bureaucracy, it feeds on the misery of minorities, and the bureaucrats know damned well that they will always have jobs as long as Indians are held apart as victims.

The game playing of the status quo in Washington must change. President Barack Obama promised change, but he is only one man, and if the bureaucracies are left to their own devices, the game of musical chairs in every bureau will continue. One incompetent bureaucrat will change chairs with another incompetent bureaucrat and the beat goes on.

President Obama is about to appoint a new leader to head up the BIE. It is time to reach outside of the familiar D.C. circle and bring in a director who knows Indian country. The BIE needs to break the mold and appoint a teacher/administrator who has lived and taught at tribal schools and in the Indian communities. It is the charge of the BIE, when educating Indian children, to consider the whole person by taking into account the spiritual, mental, physical, and cultural aspects of the student within the family, tribe and village context. A person born and raised in this environment is crucial to changing a system that has defied change for much too long.

In searching my memory banks, I can think of only one person that can realistically fill the position as director of the BIE. That person is a man I have known since he was a boy. He has risen through the ranks of Indian education by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. He is now the president of the largest Native education program in America, the National Indian Education Association.

He is an Oglala Lakota named Robert Bryan Cook. He attended Brigham Young University, graduated from Black Hills State University with a degree in secondary education, and earned his master’s degree in education administration from Oglala Lakota College.

I could fill these pages with his accomplishments, so I will just name a few. He was Little Wound School Educator of the Year in 1998 and 1999, Lower Brule Teacher of the Year in 2000-2001, South Dakota’s Milken National Educator in 2005, Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation American Indian 2006 Teacher of the Year, and NIEA’s 2006 Teacher of the Year, and in 2008 he was named one of Black Hills State University’s 125 Most Accomplished Alumni.

With Mr. Cook, the BIE would get two-in-one, because his wife, Daphne, an Oglala Lakota, presently serves on the Rapid City School District School Board while raising their two sons, Lamont and Caleb. She is the first Native American ever elected to serve at the school board level in Rapid City, a community trying very hard to lift itself out of the clutches of overt racism.

I can only recommend, and that is it. I hope there are educators and others in power that know Robert and can willingly and gladly throw their support behind his nomination to be the next director of the Bureau of Indian Education.

If a system that has been at odds with the education of Indian children for more than 100 years can change, Robert Bryan Cook is the man that can bring about that change. Are you listening, President Obama?

*Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the publisher of Native Sun News. He was the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association, the 1985 recipient of the H. L. Mencken Award, and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard with the Class of 1991. He can be reached at


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