Tribal leaders demand action on public education inequity in New Mexico – Santa Fe New Mexican

ALBUQUERQUE — Wilhelmina Yazzie’s eldest son, Xavier Nez, was a fourth grader when she became a plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit that found the state’s public education system failed to provide several groups of at-risk students an adequate education.

Nez graduated from high school in Gallup this year. But his mother on Friday called for quicker action on the lawsuit that bears her name in the courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, where dozens of tribal leaders, educators and legislators gathered to pressure the state to do more.

During a Friday news conference, several speakers, including Yazzie, also took aim at the swirling controversy over the status of Legislative Education Study Committee director Rachel Gudgel, who made racist remarks about Native Americans while on the job. A panel of state legislators deadlocked 5-5 last week on whether to fire Gudgel, which allows her to keep her influential position.

When Yazzie addressed the controversy, she fought tears as her voice broke.

“That is very heartbreaking, especially for someone in high power to really reflect on my children in that way to make fun my children, our children,” she said. “That’s very heartbreaking.”

Though several Pueblo, Navajo and Apache leaders joined Yazzie in demanding a more culturally relevant education for their students and correcting a public education system they say is rife with inequities, they again called for Gudgel to be removed from her job two days after she issued a public apology.

Zia Pueblo Gov. Jerome Lucero called for Gudgel’s immediate removal in an emotional speech in which he referred to the Zia symbol, which adorns the state flag.

“The state has disrespected that symbol, dishonored that symbol, and has no love for that symbol,” he said. “That’s the way I feel right now.

“It hurts for me to see that that sun symbol flies so high, and yet people can sit there and say racial comments to us Native Americans,” he added. 

In an emailed statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham offered her most pointed remarks on the controversy.

“I have refrained from commenting directly over the course of this saga because I do believe it is not necessarily appropriate for the executive branch to dictate to the Legislature on matters of personnel — the same way I think it would be inappropriate if the roles were reversed,” she said. “At a certain point, though, circumstances warrant something more.” 

Lujan Grisham added that if Gudgel were her employee, she would be fired by now and the results of the investigation would be made public.

“To Native families and communities and parents and students who are hurt: As governor of this state, I am sorry that this has happened, and I’m sorry it has happened in this way – with secrecy and a lack of clarity about the facts. … This individual, if the facts have substantiated the allegations, should not hold a position of public trust, end of story,” she said.

Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces, who heads the Legislative Education Study Committee, did not respond to an email request for comment and could not be reached by phone.

Speakers at the news conference also complained the state is dragging its feet in its response to Judge Sarah Singleton’s 2018 ruling in the Yazzie/Martinez case, and some advocates say they have even provided ideas and plans to the state about how it can help Native children — among the groups of students the lawsuit said were receiving an inadequate education in New Mexico.

The Tribal Remedy Framework, published in 2019 as a response to the lawsuit and based on recommendations made by several groups, calls for educational funding to be allocated directly to tribes for community-based program supports and tribal libraries, plus initiatives to boost the Native teacher workforce.

During the last legislative session, only $30 million of a $140 million request from several bills surrounding the plan was approved for such items. Regis Pecos, who resigned from his policy advisor post in the Legislature in response to the vote that kept Gudgel as as the LESC director, spoke out on the funding during a recent Legislative Education Committee session.

But a spokeswoman for the Public Education Department noted that much was accomplished for Native students during the session.

“Although we did not receive the entire amount, we had some historic victories in Indian Education this year,” department spokeswoman Carolyn Graham wrote in an email Friday.

Some at the news conference pointed toward the struggles faced by Native children and state policies they claim perpetuate those problems. 

“We refuse to recognize that tribal people do, in fact, know best how to educate their children. That is systemic racism,” said New Mexico Voices for Children Director James Jimenez.