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NEA Honors Native American Heritage Month

Laura Harris was born to be an activist. The daughter of legendary American Indian activist LaDonna Harris and Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris, Laura is a lifelong champion for indigenous people and causes. NEA’s keynote speaker for Native American Heritage Month, Harris talks with NEA about the impact of the Native vote, culturally responsive education, and ways in which schools can reach out to American Indian and Alaska Native students. Harris is currently Executive Director and CEO of Americans for Indian Opportunity.

Q: How important is the Native vote in 2012 and beyond?

A: We’re seeing the largest political engagement of Native Americans ever during this election cycle—a nonpartisan Get Out the Native Vote campaign. In a few key states, Native Americans are the swing vote, and we’ve made the difference in whether or not a candidate gets elected. A number of office holders—Democrats and Republicans—have acknowledged that the Native American vote propelled them into office.

Q: What’s the most pressing issue facing today’s AI/AN community?

A: Native Americans are at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator: highest dropout rate and suicide rate, worst health care. The only way for us to address such a daunting forecast and hard challenges is by promoting a strong cultural identity. The goal of AIO’s Ambassadors Program—which brings together students from indigenous schools in the U.S and overseas—is reinforcing core values universal to indigenous people. We call them the four R’s: relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution. When our Ambassadors return home, they educate the teens and tweens in their own communities. You have to value yourself and your own culture to have a hope of turning around the negative self-concept that comes with cultural oppression.

Q: How can public schools and educators reach out to Native students and their families?

A: Start by providing "Indian 101" or cultural competency training for school staff and valuing Native cultures. Invite Native parents to share their cultural traditions with students and staff, and develop creative approaches to increasing parental interaction. Recruit Native teachers who can serve as advocates and role models for students and liaisons for Native families. And be aware of the role tribal colleges can play in serving as transitional community colleges. Students with a couple of years of tribal college under their belts tend to do better when they move on to larger universities. Native American families want to work with you because we believe a good education is the only way for our children to advance.

Get help at NEA.ORG

"Culturally competent instruction helps educators close achievement gaps! Visit to watch NEA’s cultural competence video, get information on NEA's free cultural competence training, and download education articles: Charting a New Course for Native Education (an overview of today's Native students, with action steps for educators) and Bullying and the Scourge of Suicides Among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth.