For Navajos living in extreme southeastern Utah, poverty has become an inevitable way of life. The 70 percent unemployment. An alcoholism problem believed to afflict nine out of every 10 families. Homes without basic running water or electricity.
"I'm ashamed at what we have allowed to happen here on the reservation," said Sen. Joe Hull, a Weber County Democrat who toured reservation schools Thursday with about a dozen other lawmakers. "I am ashamed that we as lawmakers have ignored our responsibilities to these peoples."Another lawmaker likened the reservation to a Third World country.
At the root of San Juan County's problem, Navajo officials say, is the failure of typical education approaches in meeting the special needs of Navajo-speaking children. Consequently, about one in every two Navajo children will not graduate from high school and only a handful ever graduate from college.
This situation has prompted the San Juan Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, to initiate a $40,000 fund-raising effort to finance additional lawsuits against San Juan County for failing to meet the conditions of a 1975 consent decree. That decree stems from a class-action lawsuit in federal court in which the school district promised to implement bilingual programs, construct new schools on the reservation and spend a comparable amount of funds for equipment and supplies at Navajo schools as are being spent on white schools in the county.
"Nearly 18 years later, the situation hasn't much improved," said Marilyn Ellingson, spokeswoman for the San Juan Project. "Some elementary students have to travel 60 miles a day to attend school. Students in Navajo Mountain have to board far from home if they want to attend high school, even though there are enough children to justify a high school there. There is still no approved bilingual program. Native American teachers are few. The scores on standardized tests are almost unbelievably low. The drop out rate is astronomical."
Under the 1975 consent decree, the local school district had agreed to implement bilingual and bicultural programs in kindergarten through third grade by the 1976-77 school year, and in grades four through six the following year. The programs were never implemented.
The U.S. departments of Education and Justice, as well as the Navajo tribal government, are all involved in trying to force the county to comply with what it promised to do 20 years ago.
"Although some progress has been made, the school district remains stubbornly litigious on all issues, and it is still asserting that it has no legal duty to provide any education at all to reservation Indians," Ellingson said.
"We do not want the school district spending its money on attorneys fees. We want it to spend its money on education of students. But until the school district dismantles its dual system and provides fair opportunities for quality education to all of its students, we pledge to fight."
The organization has raised $10,000 to finance the lawsuits against San Juan County.