Fighting for Access and Equity

The National Indian Education Association Advocates for Educational Opportunities for Native Students


By Katharine A. Díaz

In 1970, the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) was incorporated. Since then, its goal has been to advance comprehensive educational opportunities for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians throughout the United States.

Through advocacy, research and capacity building, NIEA assists tribes and communities to control and choose excellent education for its Native students, promotes culturally based education that allows Native students to preserve languages and traditions of their tribes and nations, and expands equal educational opportunity for every Native student regardless of where they live.

Recently, NIEA has met with success in various arenas:

  • NIEA worked with the U.S. Department of Education on consulting tribal leaders and holding listening sessions with tribal communities across this country. The resulting report, Tribal Leaders Speak, was instrumental in articulating the educational needs of tribal communities.
  • NIEA successfully advocated for President Obama to sign Executive Order 13592, which established a White House Initiative in support of American Indian and Alaska Native students, as well as for tribal colleges.
  • Working with the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and with House members, NIEA is advocating for the passage of the Native CLASS Act, which offers opportunities for Native communities to choose education that best serves their children.
  • Its new research efforts have helped federal agencies and education researchers learn more about the challenges faced by American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students—and how to overcome them.

According to RiShawn Biddle, director of Communications for NIEA, the bottom line for the association is the education of Native students.  While NIEA has always focused on K–12 education, it has recognized the need to address higher education too.

“If you can’t graduate from high school, you can’t go to college,” notes Biddle. “And in this knowledge-based economy, students have to gain a college education in order to succeed.  “[At NIEA] we believe in a cradle-to-career continuum,” adds Biddle. That means also supporting Native students not only at the beginning of their college education, but through it and after it with access to scholarships, scholarship management, internships and career guidance.

Every year, NIEA awards John C. Rouillard and Alice Tonemah Memorial Scholarships to deserving full-time undergraduate, master’s or doctoral Native students regardless of major. Awards range from $1,000–$2,000 and are supported by various sponsors. In 2012, two scholarships, funded by the Cherokee Nation, were awarded to students.

The scholarships were initiated in the 1980’s and two to three scholarships are awarded annually. Biddle notes that the scholarship is well known among the Native community and is marketed at the association’s conference and on its Web site. Applications are generally available in April and are due the beginning of August. “About 40 to 50 students apply each year,” explains Biddle.  To compete for scholarships, Biddle says the number one thing they look for is a student who is “at the very least dedicated to helping his or her Native community or other Native communities . . . to giving back. “We also try to reach people who are in need and are excellent. The ‘more excellent’ you are,” states Biddle, “the more likely you are to receive funding.” (For more John C. Rouillard and Alice Tonemah Memorial Scholarship information:

On its Web site, NIEA also posts information on other scholarships available to Native scholars. It also provides a listing of tribal colleges and universities and a listing of colleges that offer degrees in Native American Studies.
Biddle is aware that securing resources for a college education is always challenging and that institutions for higher learning are going through tremendous changes that impact Native students. That’s why the NIEA is placing a “huge focus on ensuring that Native students gain access to higher education.”

Still, there are reasons to be optimistic says Biddle. Executive Order 13592 will boost support of Native students and for tribal colleges. An example is recent accreditation of the Comanche Nation College, which is a big plus for the Native community. Tribes understand that college is important for their youth and there is a renewed focus on improving the college to career pipeline.

“Native students are not invisible,” states Biddle. “NIEA constantly beats the drum to say that these are our students and they need access to high quality and [culturally based] education so that they can be leaders in the tribes and in this nation.”



National Indian Education Association
110 Maryland Ave., NE, Suite 104
Washington, D.C. 20002

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