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Urban Indian Dilemma : Native Americans Must Prove Bloodline or Lose Education Aid

July 27, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Twelve-year-old Dora Garza of Carson has grown up Indian and proud.

Her parents have taken her to powwows since she was an infant, and she has performed traditional Indian dances since she was a preschooler. Sometimes she dresses up in the As Tim Faulkner, a Cherokee who coordinates Indian education for the L. A. school district, explained, many Indian children cannot complete the paper work, for reasons that range from the tendency of records to be lost in tumultuous times to occasional instances of tribal non-cooperation.

Certification is especially hard for urban Indians such as the Garzas whose families have not maintained close tribal ties.

In the past, the government unofficially recognized the difficulties that can arise in completing the form by accepting proof of a family's "good faith effort" to document its Indian heritage.

Although a completed 506 form was the only officially acceptable proof, the government's practice was to fund any child whose parents or guardians claimed Indian ethnicity and could show that they had written to the appropriate tribe or tribes about the membership status of eligible family members.

A spokesman for the United States Department of Education said the government began cracking down after an audit revealed that most school districts were not complying with the statute.

Although the new practice upholds the letter of the law, its effect has also been to exclude students from the program who are, in the words of one observer, "no less Indian because they can't prove it."

The Department of Education is aware of the problem, according to Ervin Keith, acting deputy director for Indian education programs, and will shortly propose expanded, more flexible criteria for documenting Indian ethnicity. These new criteria may make certification easier for students who lack tribal membership numbers. "We don't want any Indian student to be denied participation in the Indian education program," said another Department of Education official.

Meanwhile, the government's new stringency has halved the number of students eligible for the L. A. Unified School District's program. According to Faulkner, 2,144 Indian students participated last year. Only 1,092 children have acceptable 506 forms on file in his office for the coming school year.

"I know for a fact that there are Indian people that are eliminated from the program," said Faulkner, who advocates broadening the certification criteria to include students whose parents or grandparents never acquired federal or tribal numbers.

The drop in the number of eligible students has also halved the district's funds for Indian education.

In recent years the federal government has allotted $122 per student for the program, providing the district with an annual budget of about $250,000. This year, the office will receive $131,561 from Washington.

Ironically, the funding reduction has eliminated the position of the very staff member who helped Indian students and their parents complete their 506 forms.

The aims of the district's program, Faulkner said, are to increase awareness of Indian culture, to increase participants' pride in their Indian heritage, to improve their self-esteem, to increase their academic achievement and to reduce the dropout rate.

Even with less money, he said, the program will pursue those goals.

The district office will continue to give mini-grants of varying amounts to individual schools that have applied for funds for cultural and tutorial programs. Thirty-eight schools (down from 51 last year) have applied for mini-grants for the coming school year. All will be funded, Faulkner said, albeit in amounts that reflect changes in the number of certified students at each school.

Ten district schools still expect to have 14 or more children in their Indian education programs in the coming year. They are: Bell High School (43), Chester W. Nimitz Junior High School in Huntington Park (30), James Monroe High School in Sepulveda (21), Sepulveda Junior High School (19), Venice Senior High School (15), Vintage Street Fundamental Magnet School in Sepulveda (15), Elizabeth Street Elementary School in Cudahy (15), Verdugo Hills Senior High School in Tujunga (14), Pacoima Junior High School (14) and Steven M. White Junior High (14).

Social Services

The Indian community is hardly alone in having its social services trimmed. But according to local Indians, members of a pan-tribal community of more than 70,000 that makes Los Angeles the nation's largest urban "reservation," any blow to Indian education is especially painful because Indian educational needs are so great.

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