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Lakota Country Times: Great Plains tribes halt BIE reorganization

Isna Wica Owawaya, Loneman School, is a Bureau of Indian Education institution on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Photo from Facebook
Plains tribes stop BIE reorganization
By Brandon Ecoffey
Lakota Country Times Editor

RAPID CITY—A recent effort by the federal government to centralize the Bureau of Indian Education and closure of several reservation based tribal education offices has been thwarted by a coalition of Lakota stakeholders.

“Efforts by tribes and tribal schools in the Dakotas to halt the reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) in the Dakotas have been successful, with the help of the efforts of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association, pending litigation in the federal courts, and members of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee and the U.S. Senate,” said GPTCA Executive Director Gay Kingman.

In 2013, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell along with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created a study group intended to identify the shortcomings of the BIE’s managerial structure and to develop a plan to reform the BIE to “ensure all students attending BIE-funded schools receive a world-class education.”

After several listening sessions with Native American education stakeholders the study group produced a Blueprint for Reform. Based off the conclusions of the Blueprint for Reform Secretary Jewell issued order 3334. The order was intended to reorganize the BIE in a way that federal reps said would move the BIE “from a direct provider of education into an innovative organization that will serve as a capacity-builder to tribes with BIE-funded schools.”

As part of the realignment the BIE planned to create several high paying positions in Washington D.C. as well as other urban areas. To do so however 22 existing Education Line Offices located on reservations would have been replaced by multiple Education Resource Centers located in urban centers. The consolidation was theory supposed to ensure that the BIE be more efficient in serving the needs of students and tribes but this proposed change was met with resistance from plains tribes and educators who saw the move as a way of removing local control from the individuals who understand the needs of Lakota children the best.

​ “Most of the tribes and tribal schools were against the BIE reorganization, and this was expressed in several different GPTCA resolutions,” said Kingman.  “The tribes and tribal schools understood the reorganization to mean taking support services off of the reservations and moving them to urban areas, and reducing the actual support tribal grant and contract schools would receive under the reorganization.”

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Kingman said that litigation filed in 2006 in federal court resulted in a Settlement Agreement in 2007 that is still enforceable.  

“This Settlement Agreement, and the recent motion to enforce it filed in US District Court by the Rosebud Sioux Tribe’s attorney Charles Abourezk, along with the litigation filed by the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in federal court in Pierre, convinced the Congress to approve the reprogramming of monies for the BIE restructuring along with a specific condition that the restructuring not impact any areas of the country affected by current litigation,” said Kingman.

Chairman Ken Calvert of the House Appropriations Committee specifically stated, as one of the conditions of the settlement that “every effort be made not to proceed with components of the reorganization at the field office level that may be directly impacted by pending litigation.”

​“I think now the tribes and tribal schools have some time and breathing room to refine their own plan on how to best help the tribal schools in the Dakotas,” said Kingman.  “If self-determination means anything at all, that plan has to come from the tribes and tribal schools, not from BIE administrators in Washington, DC.  Our tribes and tribal schools were very concerned about the BIE’s lack of meaningful consultation with the tribes regarding education.”

The support from Rep. Calvert essentially has stopped BIE in its efforts to undermine the self-determination of tribal-nations on the Great Plains.

​ “We are grateful to the House and Senate for their intervention on behalf of the tribes in the Dakotas,” said Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele, also the current chair of the GPTCA.  “They heard us when we said that we want tribal education support services left on the reservations for the benefit of our tribal children.”

  The successful opposition to the restructuring of the BIE is considered a victory for tribal-nations as they continue to fight for more local control of federal programs.

“The days of Washington, DC bureaucrats imposing their will upon tribes went out with the beginning of the self-determination era back in the 1970s,” said Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Steele.  “Our tribal leaders and tribal educators know best what our own children need; they just need to be listened to by the BIE.”

In April of last year BIE representatives held a consultation meeting with local tribal education stakeholders, however, many in attendance felt that the gathering was not approached by federal authorities as a true government-to-government encounter.

“The BIE came up with their own plan in 2006, it was rejected by the tribes and initially by the federal courts, and then we reached a settlement agreement which specifically promised that the tribes in the Dakotas would be left out of the BIE’s reorganization plans in the rest of the nation.  Despite that, the BIE kept coming back with the same plan with slight modifications, and it continued to be rejected by the tribes.  Consultation does not mean to tell tribes what the BIE is going to do and then do it; it means the BIE must jointly deliberate with tribes and tribal schools to come up with the best possible solution for the serious educational and socioeconomic issues faced by reservation schools.”

(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at

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