When Robyn Bigback-Ruiz’s family settled in Vancouver when she was a child, they believed it meant better opportunities to grow up off reservation. But, Bigback-Ruiz, who is Northern Cheyenne and Apache, said that came with a cost: “We were taken off our homeland,” she said.
There was one bright spot: the Native American Indian Education Program, a federally funded program offered by area school districts for Native students. It gave Bigback-Ruiz an opportunity to build community and connect to her history, she said.
“You always had that support, that backbone,” she said. “You know there are other Native kids in the community, struggling through the same things.”
So when Bigback-Ruiz recently enrolled her own three children in Evergreen Public Schools and learned the program had been eliminated, she was devastated. Following the 2016-2017 school year, Clark County’s largest district ceased applying for federal funds to provide that after-school programming for Native American students.
From 2000 onward, Evergreen Public Schools was the fiscal agent for a multi-district partnership to provide services to Native American students. Neither the Vancouver nor Battle Ground school districts, which were participating in the consortium at the time, took up the cause to apply for the grant when Evergreen stopped applying for the funding.
District officials say they’re better equipped to serve Native American students through other federally funded programs, rather than an after-school program trying to attract students from across Clark County. The three districts continue to offer campus-based additional tutoring for eligible students.
“We were all feeling like it was a better use of time and funds rather than trying to have a center,” Evergreen spokeswoman Gail Spolar said.
When the Native American Indian Education Program was at its most robust, Evergreen Public Schools hired a full-time staffer in the district office to oversee the program. That person managed tutoring and educational programs for students and worked with the Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington to coordinate cultural programs for students. That included the popular annual student powwow, which has run for more than a decade.
Following the 2016-2017 school year, however, the district stopped pursuing grant funding under Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which addresses the educational needs of American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaskan Native students. The district received $58,000 in federal funding that final year of the program.
Officials say the district is better able to serve Native American students using funding from Title I, which targets low-income students, and Title III, which targets English language learners.
“We had to look at whether were kids being supported,” said Jey Buno, the district’s executive director of special services and federal programs.
Of Evergreen Public Schools’ 25,489 students in the 2018-2019 school year, 114 identified as American Indian or Alaskan, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Vancouver reported 109 Native students with total enrollment of 23,342 students, and Battle Ground reported 64 Native students with 13,304 total students.
Buno did not provide a head count of the number of students who participated in the Title VI Native American Indian Education Program, but said the district is offering tutoring to 123 Native American students who have been identified as academically at risk.
“Collectively, it was better for the students for each district to provide these services more locally,” Spolar said.
Native parents respond
Parents say the elimination of the program meant the erasure of a bridge between Native American students and their cultural heritage. Tutoring is one thing; the crafts, music and relationship building are another.
“They’re being pulled away from who they are,” said Sam Robinson, vice chair of the Chinook Indian Nation and one of the leaders of the Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington.
This grassroots group of parents hopes to revive some version of the program, offering meetings twice a month for students and their families at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s Hazel Dell office. The group could also consider applying for federal funding at some point, but isn’t actively pursuing that at this time.
Many of those involved in the small group either have students who participated in the program or, like Bigback-Ruiz, used those services themselves.
“My kids need to know their culture, too,” Bigback-Ruiz said. “They need to know they’re not alone.”
At an introductory meeting two weeks ago, Robinson and Dave Jollie, another leader of the parents group, opened the session with a blessing song. Their voices and the beat of their two drums rang out through the large meeting room as parents listened and children played.
The group met again Monday for a potluck and lesson on making cornhusk dolls. The organization is also preparing for its annual powwow — albeit without the support of a Title VI coordinator.
Despite the limited resources, organizers are optimistic. They hope this is the start of a new chapter for Native American students in Clark County.
“We weren’t ready to drop the program, even though they dropped us,” Jollie said.