FAQs

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Below are the answers to commonly asked questions about this federal civil-rights action vindicating the educational rights of Native American children.

  • What is this case about?

This case is about ensuring that all Havasupai children have access to equal educational opportunities through the only source of public education provided on the reservation: the Havasupai Elementary School, which serves grades K through 8.

For years, Havasupai children, including those with disabilities, have been denied the educational opportunities to which they are entitled. The school, for example, does not even offer instruction in subjects beyond reading and math, and is continually plagued by high turnover, vacancies, and closures. These problems, along with numerous others, have profoundly harmed children’s educational outcomes. This case seeks to hold the federal government accountable for honoring its legal obligations toward Native American students so that all children have the opportunity to learn and fulfill their potential.

  • What is the Havasupai nation and where is it located?

The Havasupai are a federally recognized Native American tribe who has resided for centuries in the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai reservation currently consists of tribal land along the western corner of the Grand Canyon’s South Rim in Arizona.

  • Who has the responsibility for providing education to Havasupai students?

Under federal law, it is the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Indian Education, which carries the ultimate legal responsibility for providing equal educational opportunities to students at the Havasupai Elementary School.  The Bureau of Indian Education directly operates and funds the Havasupai Elementary School.

  • What is the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)?

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) is a federal agency within the Department of the Interior, which is responsible for ensuring quality educational opportunities for Native American youth. The BIE funds approximately 184 elementary and secondary schools across the country, and directly operates about 58 of those schools, including the Havasupai Elementary School. In the 2006-07 school year, the BIE school system served nearly 48,000 Native students. The BIE is named as one of the defendants in this case.

  • Who is bringing this case?

This case is being brought by nine Havasupai children, ages six through 15, and the Native American Disability Law Center, a non-profit legal services organization that serves the needs of Native Americans with disabilities in the Four Corners region. Together, these 10 plaintiffs seek to ensure the adequacy of the educational opportunities afforded to children attending the Havasupai Elementary School.

  • Who are the Defendants?

The lawsuit is against the United States government.  Specifically, the Defendants are the federal agencies, and officials in those agencies, responsible for ensuring the quality of the educational opportunities afforded to Native children attending BIE-operated schools, including the Havasupai Elementary School.

  • What laws are the Defendants violating?

Defendants are in violation of numerous federal laws regulating the content and quality of the education provided at BIE-operated schools. These laws mandate, for example, that BIE schools provide a comprehensive general education curriculum that includes a diverse range of subjects and content areas. They further require the provision of appropriate instructional resources and extracurricular activities; the engagement of the local community in school decision making; and the integration of Native language and culture into school classrooms. Defendants have wholly failed to meet any of these requirements, as well as a number of other laws related to the provision of general education.

In addition, Defendants have violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination in educational programs operated by the federal government. Specifically, Defendants have failed to provide a system for the delivery of special education to children with disabilities or provide necessary wellness and mental health supports to ensure that all Havasupai children have an opportunity to learn. Moreover, Defendants have failed to comply with federal laws protecting the procedural rights of children with disabilities and their families, and ensuring that they are properly identified and notified of their educational rights.

  • Who are the lawyers?

The lawyers bringing this suit are a coalition of legal services organizations and private law firms delivering pro bono services. This coalition includes three legal non-profits (the Native American Disability Law Center, Public Counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico) and two law firms (Munger, Tolles and Olson LLP and Sacks Tierney P.A.).

  • What are the goals of the lawsuit?

The goals of this lawsuit are to ensure that Native children have access to decent education. Specifically, this suit aims to hold the BIE legally responsible for the quality of the educational opportunities offered at BIE schools. It seeks for the BIE to expand the educational curriculum and learning resources at the Havasupai Elementary School; to provide a system for the delivery of special education services to students with disabilities; and to offer appropriate wellness and mental health resources for all students.

  • Where is the case being filed?

The case is being filed in federal court in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.

  • How can I get involved?

You can get involved by contacting your locally elected congressional representatives, and sharing news about this story with your friends and family on social media. Stay updated on the case by visiting our website at www.unitefornativestudents.org.

  • Does the tribe support the case?

Yes, this case is brought with the support of the tribe. The Havasupai Tribal Council has passed a resolution in support of our efforts to improve education through this lawsuit.

  • Why is the school located in a relatively remote location?

The remoteness of the school in Supai stems from a history of federal government discrimination toward the Havasupai and their right to reside on their once-expansive tribal homelands. The center of the Havasupai reservation is Supai, which is located at the base of Havasu Canyon within the Grand Canyon. The Havasupai reservation represents a fraction of the Havasupai’s original homelands in the Grand Canyon. Over time, a legacy of coercive federal policies forced the Havasupai onto a reservation that consisted mostly of lands at the canyon bottom. In light of this history, it is incumbent on the federal government to provide adequate educational opportunities to Havasupai children in their tribal communities and on the land that the federal government set aside for the use of the Havasupai people.

  • Why can’t families move out of the canyon in search of a better education?

For the Havasupai, and many Native communities, tribal lands form an integral part of their identity as a people. The Havasupai remain deeply rooted in their ancestral homelands in the Grand Canyon, where they have resided for centuries. In fact, federal regulations specify that the federal government provide a public education “close to home,” 25 C.F.R. § 32.4(p), and the vast majority of BIE schools are operated on reservations where children’s families and communities are located. In light of past federal policies that forced Native children to attend abusive and assimilationist boarding schools, many families are understandably eager to have their children educated in their community, where they can learn about their culture and identity, and where community members can remain invested and involved in local schools.

  • What is a culturally relevant education and why is it important?

Culturally relevant education refers to a holistic approach that integrates Native history, values, language, and cultural into the school curriculum and delivery of that curriculum in the classroom. Culturally relevant education carries significant academic benefits for students, and is consistent with federal regulations, which mandate a system of multilingual and multicultural education at BIE schools.

  • Why do children in this community need mental health and wellness resources at school?

What happens outside the classroom has an impact on what goes on inside the classroom. Over time, federal policies have created conditions of adversity in Native communities that make it harder for children to learn at school. Due to decades of systemic discrimination and lack of access to federal resources, many communities have reported higher rates of criminal justice involvement, family disruption, poverty, alcoholism and substantive abuse, and violence. Research demonstrates that exposure to these challenging conditions profoundly harms a child’s ability to learn in school. With appropriate interventions and supports, however, children are remarkably resilient at recovering and learning. As a result, appropriate mental health resources and supports will enable all Native students to learn effectively and receive the benefits of a public education.

  • Can the same educational problems be found at other BIE schools?

The problems at the Havasupai Elementary School are emblematic of problems faced by children at other BIE schools across the country. As the federal government has long been aware, BIE schools have been lagging behind for years. Numerous federal officials have acknowledged these profound federal failures in tribal education.  Secretary Sally Jewell of the Department of the Interior, for example, openly declared before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that “Indian education is an embarrassment to you and us.” As detailed in numerous federal reports, including a string of investigations from the federal government’s General Accounting Office, these problems are not unique to Havasupai but have permeated the network of schools that the BIE helps administer across the country, causing similarly indefensible deficits in student achievement.

  • Does this lawsuit consider the importance of tribal sovereignty?

Yes, this lawsuit emphasizes the need for greater tribal involvement and community oversight in school decision-making, as well as the critical importance of Native language and culture in the classroom. Although the BIE is the federal government agency charged with administering the Havasupai Elementary School, it is legally bound to provide specific avenues for community engagement in school decision-making, and to ensure that the education provided is culturally relevant and reflective of Native culture, language, and history, in consultation with the local community that the school is meant to serve.

 

  • How is the federal responsibility to Native American students different than the federal responsibility to other students?

Consistent with longstanding federal law and policy, Native American students are entitled to educational opportunities that are equal to or exceed those provided to other students around the nation. Specifically, the federal government is bound by a specific set of regulations and laws that ensure the quality and appropriateness of the general education at BIE schools, and that additionally provide for the integration of Native language and culture into the educational system.

  • Isn’t public education a state law issue?

For the network of BIE schools serving reservation communities, including the Havasupai Elementary School, public education is provided directly by the federal government to Native students through the BIE. This federal responsibility for Native education stems from well-established federal law and reflects the longstanding trust relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes.

  • What is the trust doctrine?

The trust doctrine refers to a series of legally enforceable fiduciary obligations arising from the historic trust relationship between the federal government and Native American tribes. Under the obligations of the trust doctrine, the federal government is responsible for protecting Native rights, lands, assets, and other resources, including honoring its commitments with respect to Native education.