This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Erinn Nicol grew up learning the traditional dances, beading techniques and dishes of the Ute Tribe. She tanned hides on visits to her great-grandfather on the Ute reservation. When she was in elementary school, her family started gathering papers to enroll her in the tribe officially, and she joined the Nebo School District's Title VI program a longtime federal initiative designed to help American Indian children succeed in school.
She walked away from it all in high school after the Ute Tribe denied her application, saying she didn't have enough Ute blood.
"I just kind of lost a part of myself," said Nicol, now a sophomore at Utah Valley University. "I just lost my passion for dancing. I hung my moccasins up and I didn't touch them again."
Nicol is one of Utah's many American Indian students who feel isolated as they struggle to fit in in their culture, school and the world at large. The result is poor educational outcomes for native students, including a high school graduation rate of 67 percent.
About 27 percent of Utah's American Indian students are chronically absent from school higher than any other racial group in Utah and higher than the national average of 21 percent for American Indians, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Education analyzed by The Salt Lake Tribune.
Tracking chronic absenteeism missing 15 or more school days in a year is perhaps more crucial than looking at graduation rates, experts say. It gives educators a chance to identify struggling students and help them before they become part of the dire graduation statistics.
"If we can intervene now, if we can get them to school and address issues that are coming up, we actually might have a chance to give all students an equal opportunity to learn," said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, part of the nonprofit advocacy Child and Family Policy Center.
Cheng is one of the earliest researchers of chronic absenteeism, which the Department of Education recently studied on the national level for the first time. The findings were released in June.
"This is an actual data point that can change educational outcomes," Cheng said.
Title VI formerly Title VII was designed to provide American Indian students with academic help, cultural lessons and mentoring to put them on track for graduation and successful futures. But schools receive federal funding only for the students who've filled out what's called a 506 form, which requires native students or their parents or grandparents to be tribally enrolled.
Thousands of youths like Nicol aren't eligible to fill it out even those who were raised with native traditions, identify as native and experience the same struggles as those with tribal recognition.
"Do you realize we are the only racial group that has to prove who they are?" said Eileen Quintana, Title VI coordinator for the Nebo School District in Utah County. "I mean, what the hell. We don't ask black people or Mexicans. We don't ask white people who are Dutch or Russian, to prove who they are. The U.S. government, they knew we would intermarry, and they knew within a few generations they would no longer be responsible."
'I feel native' • Every American Indian tribe, including the five based in Utah, has a "blood quantum" requirement how much of a person's lineage must be traced to the tribe to enroll. Some allow people to enroll with as low as 1/32 tribal blood. The Ute Tribe has the highest blood quantum in the nation: 5/8.
Since American Indians are more likely to marry outside their race than any other racial group, according to the Pew Research Center, as time goes on there are fewer full-blooded natives.
"Growing up, I was asked if I was adopted a lot," said Kaylee Michaelson, a freshman at the University of Utah.
She has dark skin and brown eyes. But her father, a single parent of three children, is Danish, with light skin, blond hair and blue eyes. Her two older siblings have dark blond hair, light skin and hazel eyes.
When she was 9 years old, Michaelson learned from an estranged relative that her mom's side of the family was Cherokee. She spent years researching her American Indian heritage and learning tribal traditions, while sending messages to the tribe asking if she could enroll. She started checking the "American Indian/Alaska Native" box when asked for her race.
When she was 17, the tribe told her she didn't have enough proof of her Cherokee heritage to enroll.
"If you've ever heard the term 'mudblood' in Harry Potter, this kind of reminds me of that," Michaelson said. "It makes me feel dirty blooded. I can't be recognized as Native American even though I look native, I feel native."
Michaelson went to elementary school and junior high in the Granite School District, which has the most self-identified native students in the Salt Lake Valley 1,232 last year. Though self-reported information can contain errors, it's the best way to measure how many students consider themselves American Indian.
The district's Title VI program received $145,500 in federal funding for 805 certified students last year, about $180 per student, but helped hundreds more: natives like Michaelson who couldn't prove their heritage, and natives who refused to fill out the 506 form.
Understanding the challenges • In the 1870s, the federal government began sending thousands of native children to boarding schools, where they were forced to drop their American Indian names, stop speaking native languages and cut off their long hair.
Many of today's American Indian parents and grandparents remember the boarding school system and distrust U.S. educational institutions. So when asked to fill out a 506 form for their child, sometimes their answer is no.
"It's very, very degrading to our people to be asked to bring out your tribal enrollment form," said Quintana, the Nebo Title VI coordinator. "In essence, you're pedigree. You're like animals, like dogs are you papered?"
But the Title VI programs desperately need the funding that hinges on the form so coordinators in the 20 Utah school districts with Title VI programs spend much of their time advocating for the papers with families.
"If they understood [that] once you are certified as Native American, it opens doors for funding grants and scholarships and college, the parents are much more willing to pursue it," said Karen Sterling, director of the student advocacy office for the Canyons School District.
More than a thousand students in her district identify as American Indian, but just 233 were "certified" last year, drawing $45,899 in federal funding.
Davina Spotted Elk, the Title VI coordinator for the Salt Lake School District, tries to visit every school throughout the year and conducts home visits with native families whose students are struggling.
More than 3,000 of the 516,000 students in her district self-identified as American Indian last year, but just 361 were certified, qualifying the program for $44,048.
Her program relies on that funding to cover activities and courses for all American Indian students who participate, whether or not they've been certified, as well as to pay for textbooks, calculators and other necessities for native students who can't afford them. The rest is split between part-time salaries for Spotted Elk and a mentor who works with native grade-schoolers.
Canyons' Sterling hopes that Title VI coordinators can someday focus on running their programs instead of gathering the papers that ensure their existence whether that means a boost from state funding or looser federal requirements.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced the Every Student Succeeds Act into the Senate last year, which kept the Title VI funding restrictions that have been in place for 50 years. A representative said he had not considered changing that aspect of the law.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sits on the education committee, said he is open to hearing feedback.
"I've spent considerable time this summer with some of our tribal communities discussing their concerns," he said in a statement, "and I look forward to continuing to advocate for them in Washington."
'Part of something' • In some Utah school districts, the only American Indian educators are those who work for the Title VI program. Utah has 41 native students for every native educator, compared with 15 white students for every white educator.
Quintana, in the Nebo district, is one of the few Title VI coordinators in Utah who works full time, thanks in part to native parents who lobbied the district to provide additional local funding.
As the program expanded, graduation rates rose and after-school activities for native students became commonplace.
Dalynn Fregoso, a parent of five native students who attended school in the district, said her family moved to South Dakota when her kids were young. The school there had no specialized support for native students, and the family decided to return to Utah.
"You feel like a bigger part of something here," Fregoso said. "This feels like an extension of the family."
It's that feeling that drives people like Jennifer Leo, Title VI coordinator for the Murray School District, who said she has received almost no support from her district.
Murray's Title VI program secured $17,582 in federal funding last year to support 97 certified students and pay for the salaries of five part-time staffers: Leo, an assistant coordinator, a Navajo language instructor and elementary and high school mentors. Another 86 self-identified native students were enrolled last year.
Leo said when she started seven years ago, the district's American Indian graduation rate was 40 percent; in 2014, 100 percent of American Indian students graduated.
Earlier this year, she wrote to supervisors with the hope of securing a full-time position. She said she never received a response; her supervisor didn't recall her asking for additional funding but confirmed that the school board has not supplied funds for the Title VI program.
"We get the impression they're not interested," said Leo, who has a second job teaching at Salt Lake Community College.
She hopes she will someday get additional support. "It's not a job, we don't look at it that way," she said. "It's a program, and we all believe in it."
Nebo's Title VI program was a way for Nicol, the student rejected for enrollment in the Ute Tribe, to begin feeling connected to her heritage again.
When she was a freshman in college, she returned to the program to tutor other young native students.
"Going back kind of helped me realize, I've been doing this since I was young, why should I change how I view myself now?" she said. "If you are Native American, you are 100 percent Native American. Not just a part of you."