For Native American Heritage Month, we sat down with Diana Cournoyer, Executive Director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), which advances comprehensive, culture-based educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. We recently sponsored NIEA’s Annual Convention and Trade Show with a theme this year of, “Native Control of Native Education: A Time to Lead,” and were excited to chat about her work, her advocacy and the opportunities and challenges Native communities face.
*This interview was lightly edited and condensed for brevity, but all words are from Diana.
On how she became an advocate for Native education issues:
It started when I was in high school [in Dallas]. I was always looking at myself as kind of different. I didn't fit in with this group or that. I started doing my own research and learned I was the only Native student in my school.
I learned in the late 1990s that there was a title [program] at that time, Title VI, [with] money that was meant to support the education of Native students. And I wondered why my district wasn't getting monies, because I was a Native student and I was going to school there! Through research, I found out that money is only given to districts with a certain percentage of Native population.
An activist space within me was birthed. I didn't think that was right. Why? Am I'm not important enough for the federal government for the state and for the district to advocate for me? So I began advocating for myself. I went to college and got a master’s in Indian education. I worked for my own tribe [Oglala Sioux] on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as an education coordinator for a grant program before joining the National Indian Education Association.
On coming to NIEA:
There are problems in the education system for all students. But as a Native person, I see there's a huge gap for Native students and, through research I realized this gap has been in existence since first contact with settlers. But how can I, one person, influence change within a system that was not created with our cultural thought and philosophy in mind? I realized I can't change it at the local level, so I went to the state level. And I figured if I can't do it at any other level, the federal level is the place to be or the philanthropy level and the non-profit level is where I need to be so that I can truly influence change.
At the NIEA, we serve 700,000 students and that tells me that you probably should listen to what we have to say, because we know how to serve these students and we know how to serve the communities where these students come from, and we know how to serve and support those parents. So as educators, you need to include us in conversations.
On issues facing Native communities right now:
Infrastructure policy and resources. You can’t forget we have 574 individual nations, and these nations depend on the federal government through a trust responsibility in exchange for land and resources. The federal government until the end of time has the responsibility to Native nations. And that's on the top of mind for a lot of our Native communities and our Native leaders.
The pandemic exposed a lot of gaps; gaps that we've been yelling about and advocating for years and years and years. Some of those gaps have been closed. But new gaps have developed, and the pandemic peeled back the layers. For example-- in our systems, our school buildings are not properly equipped [with supplies].
Another issue is trauma. Acknowledging the trauma that all our students, Native and non-Native, have gone through [during the pandemic]—in that trauma is not being addressed as they're going back into the school system. It’s back to status quo. There’s also the trauma of the fact that sometimes, we cannot be who we are, and, in a lot of our school systems, we are often told to leave our culture at the door. But what it comes down to is allowing that unique identity of every student to come through in the school. It’s not telling our story to erase someone else’s story. It's to tell all stories. And so NIEA is focusing on that as well.
On great resources to check out:
Our website: NIEA.org. Follow our Twitter feed and our Facebook page. Sign up to become a member and receive our newsletter. We send out four newsletters a month, chock- full of information from the advocacy work we do. We have resources on our website as well. We have curriculum. We have lesson plans.
Our trainings: Native Education 101. Learn how to communicate with Native communities and tribal leaders. We have a Native 101 federal policy seminar to help folks understand or ask those “why” questions. We also do a training that helps unpack the myths of Native communities: whether we pay taxes, get college tuition, casino money, all those misconceptions.
Changing the narrative: Visit Illuminative, an initiative to challenge the negative narrative that surrounds Native communities and ensure accurate and authentic portrayals of Native communities are present in pop culture and media.
For governance issues: National Congress of American Indians to gain a deeper understanding of governance issues, tribal, tribal nation issues and nation-to-nation issues.