The future of the educational landscape for children of the Navajo Nation could be largely improved thanks to the fervor and dedication of one UNM Native American Studies professor and her mother, Dr. Delores Greyeyes. It’s an effort that researcher Wendy Greyeyes says is long overdue within the classroom. 

“This was a much more grounded issue that goes very deep in the history of education for American Indians,” Greyeyes said. 

Recent research and feature publications of Greyeyes dives into the treatment of Native children in schools. The facts and figures are alarming. Gallup-McKinley County schools, which enrolls the largest number of Native students in the U.S., also has the highest total frequency of student discipline in the state since 2016. New Mexico In Depth reported the county also accounted for the 90% of Native student expulsions–211– in that same time frame. 

“This is a step towards showing the high number of expulsions and suspensions in many of our public schools,” Greyeyes said. “But what we want to find is which districts don't have high expulsions, what are they doing differently and best practices.” 

The problem goes on. Children who are expelled are more likely to avoid college, and more likely to get arrested. More American Indian students in that high school age group, in fact, go to prison than going to college. 

“I think what's hard for many folks to understand is that there is really an entrenched, institutionalized racism,” Greyeyes said. “When you look at data, it tells a story and it definitely demonstrates there is a pathway of school to prison pipeline.”  

There’s also an unfortunate domino effect when it comes to the impacts on tribal sovereignty and preservation.  

 “Arresting our native students hurts tribal nations. It takes an economic, social and cultural toll. I think schools that spend that time to get the teachers to think through that the consequences of their action,” Greyeyes said. 

There is also a layer to the problem which stems from the history of Native treatment and education. From the push of the U.S. Interior Department and its Secretary and UNM alumnus, Deb Haaland, it was revealed tens of thousands of Native American children were made to suffer in an estimated 400 boarding schools from 1819 to 1969. In addition to the obsolescence of Indigenous language and culture, these children were brutally punished and sometimes killed. 

“It will take generations to heal and fix these issues,” Greyeyes said. “I think right now the evidence is there, and very clear.”  

Subconscious bias and blatant racism persists today, Greyeyes says. The American Public Health Association refers to it as a public health crisis.  

 “We need more info to really get at the heart of this. I know people will say this isn't racism, but when you look at the aggregated data as a whole it’s saying there is a systemic issue that needs to be understood,” she said.  

The Bureau of Indian Affairs reports 29 to 36% of all Native American students drop out of school, between 7th and 12th grade. Native American students also have the lowest graduation rate out of any other student group. 

“Everything is such a delicate dance for our communities, and we need to be able to keep our communities intact. In expelling, we’re too small to go down this path,” Greyeyes said. “These students are nation builders, and they're going to go back and be a contributor or be those who become dependent on their tribal nation.” 

It’s worth noting, there have been small steps to repair the treatment of Native students in schools. However, they have either been court-mandated or funneled through a strong federal government effort. 

“The system is not built for us little Navajo boys and girls or their parents, and we need to change that rhetoric." – Professor Wendy Greyeyes 

The solution is not so simple as retraining teachers to lose bias, or funding school districts which have more Native students fairly.   

“I think people hide all the time behind ‘there's not enough money.’ It’s more about the schools that have clarified their school policies and have made it hard to expel a student,” Greyeyes said. “It’s having an individualized lesson plan, working with students and actually understanding and training teachers to understand culture.” 

 Greyeyes points to the Navajo Nation Code for answers. School districts like Gallup-McKinley County rely on a method of discipline for these students, from the code. 

It reads now:

“School  disciplinary  procedures  should  be corrective, based upon a disciplinary action plan incorporated into the code of student conduct.  The disciplinary action plan should provide for notification and  involvement  of  parents  from  the  earliest  stages  of  the  disciplinary process.

That’s not specific enough to prevent what is oftentimes overly harsh punishment, Greyeyes says. 

 Although Greyeyes and her mother Delores presented research on this harsh punishment to the  UNM Institute for American Indian Education (IAIE), their definition of ‘corrective discipline’, or any improved definition has to be in writing in the Navajo Nation Code. 

“There's no clarity to the idea of what it means to be accused of disorderly conduct,” she said. “It’s open to any interpretation.” 

Amending Code 10, requires the approval of the Navajo Nation Council, now under a new administration. It’s a meeting Greyeyes is getting on the calendar, and is determined to make a reality.  

 “Right now with the new leadership, it's really just sitting down with the new council,” she said. “They provide a resolution to amend the code, and we propose amendments to the law. In doing that, we need to actually go out and hear from Navajo people and bring forth data and the facts.” 

Once the code is updated, it’s up to each district to have discussions on implementing the more specific code of conduct definition. 

“There's an apathy there because they are supposed to be the defenders of these children. It's frustrating and sad but are they silent because of fear? I just really don't understand.” Greyeyes said. 

Still, solutions can start at the very first chapter, before students even walk into the room. 

“The two most influential people that impact a person's life chances and opportunities are the school teacher and the parent. There's a lot that can be used to teach the teachers how much power they have in shaping these students and their life changes,” Greyeyes said. “I really think in terms of the College of Education & Human Sciences, and what they are pushing for, will create the people that are going to change the dynamic.” 

Read more about the situation in Native-serving schools at ProPublica. Learn more about how UNM is helping the future of Indigenous populations in the College of Education & Human Sciences