Expert wants to expand Native American education in Salt Lake

by LANA GROVES

Forrest Cuch said he was lucky to have parents who could afford to give him a private education.

Unlike other American Indian children, Cuch learned English at a young age, stayed in school and finished his undergraduate degree by 25 years old.

He said many children growing up on an American Indian reservation are not so fortunate.

“The only reason I can speak English with you right now is because of the education I received,” said Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, in an interview.

After 25 years teaching and acting as an administrator at a private school in Utah, Cuch has plans to reform Utah’s educational system.

He said that teachers require all children to follow lesson plans and learn at the same pace, which is not conducive to a learning environment.

“There is an effort to reform the school level, especially through higher education teachers,” Cuch said. “Colleges need to be altered to change (those ideas).”

Cuch is not the only person working to change the educational system.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a teacher and songwriter in Utah, organized the Cradleboard Teaching Project in the 1970s.

The program is designed to help Native Americans receive a broader education than what they can receive in an average classroom.

According to the web site for the Cradleboard Teaching Project, Sainte-Marie tries to bring important, educational issues to students through music.

“As a teacher who was also a songwriter, I had brought Indian issues to the attention of my own generation through my records,” she said. “Then, in the late 70s, I became a semi-regular on ‘Sesame Street’ for five years. I wanted little kids and their caretakers to know one thing above all: that Indians exist. We are not all dead and stuffed in museums like the dinosaurs.”

Cuch has been trying to demonstrate that same fact for years.

He said American Indians have been paying federal income taxes and working in North America since the mid-1800s but still don’t always receive the same benefits as Anglo-Saxons.

When American Indians signed treaties with the federal government in the 1800s, they were promised protection, food and land. They received poor food that ruined their diet, Cuch said. The federal government also continually made treaties with American Indians that other European settlers would rescind.

Elementary school students don’t hear these facts, he said.

“Ninety percent of the history you’ve received in school is not entirely accurate,” Cuch said. “It was only after I got out of college that I understood.”

Universities and colleges train teachers to relate to students, handle arguments and teach students in a productive manner. Cuch said there isn’t enough emphasis put on teaching students about American Indian history. He said they also need to teach according to each student.

Many American Indian students drop out of school before graduating because the educational system doesn’t always help students who have been raised on an American Indian reservation and can’t speak enough English, Cuch said.

“(The school system) has failed to educate my people,” he said. “Right now, American Indians are at the bottom of high school drop out rates. (The) better way is to teach kids in small classrooms and encourage them to work as a group.”

Cuch plans to approach higher education institutions such as the University of Utah to discuss ways to prepare teachers to educate all students.

“I’m going to challenge them to make some changes,” he said.