Editor’s note: This is the final story in a three-part series about how Utes students have been failed by educators for decades. Read the first part here. The second part is available here.
Fort Duchesne • For the more than 70 years that Ute students have been languishing in public schools, leaders have also known what would help them succeed.
It’s a paradox that Bryan Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education, finds infuriating.
“Sometimes we forget that what we’re calling for isn’t actually new,” said Brayboy, who is also a professor of Indigenous education. “There’s a long history, a long list of studies that show if you can use culture in the classroom, that students can do really well.”
He’s backed by research, graduate studies and federal reports — including the often-cited Meriam Report, which dates back to 1928 — that have shown over and over that infusing both Native language and cultural lessons into instruction leads to higher test scores and graduation rates for Indigenous students.
Ute students in the Uinta Basin have the lowest test scores in the state and drop out at a higher rate than any other demographic.
Norma Denver, a teacher who pushed for Ute language and history to be taught in the classrooms in the Uinta Basin, said in a 1988 interview with a researcher that she’d long been frustrated by districts’ reticence to reform.
“I’ve said this for years and years and years, but it doesn’t seem to ring a bell,” she said. “Well, every class could add Indian things to their class. You know that, and I know that.”
But states and school districts haven’t put sustained effort into implementing that approach in K-12, Brayboy said; teachers continue to teach all students the same way, failing to acknowledge Native differences in learning. “And we know,” he said, “that doesn’t work.”
Most of the work done with what’s called “culturally sustaining curriculum” has been led by tribes, including the Ute Indian Tribe, Brayboy said, and it hasn’t received the support or steady funding the programs need to survive.
In effect, the Utes know what would help their students, but they’ve been stymied.
“It’s just the relationship we have with non-Indians,” said Shaun Chapoose, who recently finished his term as chair of the Ute Tribe. “I don’t know that we can ever get away from it. … I don’t think they want to address it, to do what it would take to change things.”
He sees it as another vestige of the assimilation mission of the two federal boarding schools that operated on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation between 1881 and 1952.
At the boarding schools, federal agents and superintendents aimed to sever Ute children from their culture, with the purpose of “civilizing” them. Staffers cut their traditional long hair, required them to wear uniform clothing and forbid them to speak Ute.
Once the children were transitioned into public schools, Chapoose said, their language was not included in the curriculum.
Native students who can speak their language often perform better in English, as well as on standardized tests across subjects, according to research from the late Francis McKinley, a prominent member of the Ute Tribe who provided analysis to the U.S. Congress in 1969.
The benefits of teaching culture and language have been backed by more recent studies, too, from the Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest and a paper on the academic benefits of bilingualism in the National Library of Medicine.
When teaching cultural lessons, Brayboy noted, the curriculum is most effective when it includes Native teachings and customs from a region’s Indigenous peoples, as well as an appreciation for their land. Using concrete examples tied to daily life, he said, can help in all subjects.
A school in southern Utah, for example, was teaching calculus to a class of largely Navajo, or Diné, students. The teacher brought in a sheepherder to explain the concept of slope, instead of just displaying graphs. The herder explained how he takes his sheep over different routes and examines the incline or decline by looking at the slant of trees and seeing how water flows.
“It was enough of a metaphor for students that they got over the hump of a really complicated concept,” Brayboy said. “It makes it relevant to them.”
And he added: “If we do this, it’s not just good for Ute students. It’s good for all rural students.”
Brayboy also points out that the nation has an obligation to educate Native kids — which was among the promises it made when the government took Indigenous lands or tribes were pushed onto reservations.
“There are long-standing relationships that made Utah become Utah,” he said. “The government needs to do what it committed to doing.”
‘That’s not taught, and it’s wrong’
For decades, the Ute Tribe’s biggest goal for changing their children’s education has been to ensure Native language classes and lessons that incorporate tribal history are provided in the Uintah and Duchesne school districts. The two districts cover the tribe’s Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah.
But no Ute language classes are offered in secondary schools in either district. With instructors provided by the tribe, Duchesne has one class for elementary students, who must choose to give up their recess to take it.
Uintah School District does not have that partnership with the tribe, though it’s named for the traditional Ute word “Yoov-we-tueh,” meaning pine tree or pine forest, according to the late Ute linguist Venita Taveaponts.
Uintah also teaches no Native curriculum. Duchesne officials said the district has incorporated some Native content into its lessons, but its goal is to include it daily.
“That’s not taught, and it’s wrong,” said Ron Wopsock, who recently retired as a member of the tribe’s Business Committee. He said the tribe has tried to change that over his 33 years on the committee — and before that, too — and is tired of the resistance it has met.
Take this example: Starting in 1973 and running through the early 1980s, there was a successful Ute language program in some of the schools, with a focus on Union High, said Betsy Chapoose, the tribe’s cultural officer for the past three decades.
It helped students who knew Ute and English with their reading and writing. The Ute language, which largely isn’t written, puts the verb before the subject when spoken. In traditional American English, it’s flipped, causing understandable confusion for Native kids.
In 1979, after a few years with the program, Union High had its then largest-ever graduating class of Ute students, Chapoose noted. “It’s a clear line between that class, the Ute learning classes.”
By 1986, the federal funding ran out. The tribe asked Duchesne County School District to cover the cost; it refused. The tribe paid for it to be revived in the 1990s, but didn’t have the money to continue it on its own.
That’s been the story of many initiatives the Utes have tried to implement to help their students — a Ute teacher training program (which produced just a handful of educators before it ended), Native curriculum, tribal folklore books in the classroom, a counseling program with the University of Utah (which increased grades and attendance for its four-year duration in the 1960s), the Uintah Basin Education Council and the Uintah Basin Teaching American History Project.
Each ended for lack of funding and support.
Now, the tribe faces losing its language and history as more and more kids grow up not learning it. The consequence is not only bad grades but also erasure.
The Utes have started their own charter high school in an attempt to stem that. Uintah River High School serves 75 students, in grades nine through 12, and includes cultural lessons and language. Student test scores are better there than in the public school districts.
“It’s worked,” said Wopsock, who helped start the school. “It’s really worked. And it shows our kids are smart.”
[Read more here about how Uintah River High is run and how students there learn.]
What are the school districts doing? Does the state help?
Last year, the Uintah School District was vetting a new Native curriculum, said Jayme Leyba, who as Title VI coordinator oversees all underrepresented student populations.
But this year, when asked for an update, Leyba said those plans had been shelved.
“There’s nothing real specific in Native American curriculum” at any of its schools, he said.
Culture-specific classes are “short-lived,” added Leyba, who is not a member of the Ute Tribe. He’s been the Title VI coordinator for Uintah School District for a decade; he said he’s been focusing on Native students for the past three years.
“One thing we’ve found is there are some gaps in general curriculum,” he said. “Why add something new if you’re not even giving them the basics?”
The district instead will focus on teaching Ute kids the core subjects of English, math and science to improve their test scores. That method, research shows, has not worked well for Indigenous students.
Harold Chuck Foster, the state American Indian specialist for public K-12 schools, said the Utah State Board of Education doesn’t control individual school districts. It offers guidance and can argue for funding, but ultimately operations are up to the local boards and direction from the Utah Legislature.
Foster led the effort in 2021 to remove a certification requirement that forced Native language teachers to go through a full teacher training process to be in the classroom. Now, without that hurdle, it should be easier for Native Ute speakers to take on that role.
But, unlike foreign languages currently taught in Utah schools, including Spanish, German, French and Chinese, the state Legislature doesn’t fund Indigenous language instruction.
“Why is it that we’re not funded?” asked Foster, who is Navajo. “The language really makes a big difference” for our Native kids. “It’s something they can feel a lot of pride in at school, feel accepted with.”
He has pushed for that inclusion for the past few years but hasn’t had success with lawmakers willing to take up the issue.
The San Juan School District in southeastern Utah offers some language instruction in Navajo, or Diné. And Tooele School District started offering Goshute classes this year in its elementaries. The Native students at both of those districts perform better in standardized testing than the Ute kids in the Uinta Basin.
School districts also apply for federal funding that is awarded annually based on how many Native students they have. Duchesne County School District received $88,000 this year; Uintah School district got $126,886. The state then contributes an additional $16,000 to each of those districts.
“That’s not very much,” Foster said. With that, the districts “can have a guest speaker come in, they can have some activities. But that’s about it.”
Uintah School District also falls short of providing basic support services for Ute students.
Last year, Leyba had said Uintah intended to hire an intervention aide at Union High School to help Ute students who were not doing well in their classes. This year, he said, “What happened was we had opened the position up [and] didn’t have any applicants.” The district is now having a staff member compile data on Ute students that it passes along to the tribe, hoping it can intervene.
The district also directs counselors to help Ute high school students who fall behind, to close the graduation gap — what Leyba calls “one of our main goals.”
But most in the tribe believe that intervention is coming too late, and the data supports that. Cuch and Chapoose, the tribe’s former chair, said if students are falling behind by third grade, they’re already more likely to drop out.
Students of color are also more likely to succeed, studies have shown, when students of color see teachers who look like them. Uintah School District declined to say how many Native teachers it has. A spokesperson for Uintah would say only the district has 20 Native staffers out of 1,098, without specifying their roles or whether any work in classrooms.
Leyba said there are no Native teachers, specifically, at Roosevelt’s Eagle View Elementary, which has the district’s largest Ute student population. “That’s a big issue,” he acknowledged. And nearly a third of the teachers it does have were leaving each year.
As an experiment, Utah lawmakers provided funding beginning in 2016 to see what the district could do to at least stem teacher turnover at Eagle View. It spent the money on a van to transport teachers who live in Vernal to and from the school each morning. That has helped reduce turnover to an average of 13% of educators leaving.
As a likely result of that new continuity, according to a report the school gave to the state, Eagle View has seen improvement in its student test scores in the past three years. Achievement in some areas has jumped by 5 percentage points. Seeing that, the state expanded the program to other rural districts that serve Native students with a law passed in 2020.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said that’s seen some early success. But she said she understands the frustrations that more hasn’t been done. “I wouldn’t disagree with the tribes,” she said. “It’s going to take a generation to acquire equity.”
The Salt Lake Tribune requested to speak with Uintah School District’s superintendent, who referred all questions back to Leyba. An additional request to speak to a principal or teacher in the district, including at Eagle View, was denied by the school district’s spokesperson.
Meanwhile, Duchesne County School District reported to The Tribune that it has one Native teacher and one Native aide in all of its schools.
Both districts and the tribe said they want to work toward having more Ute educators in the classroom. But the districts say they don’t get many Ute applicants; the tribe says their students aren’t supported well enough in their education to graduate and take the steps to become a teacher.
Moving forward, Leyba said communication is crucial for addressing the gaps. But he acknowledges he has never met with the tribe’s Business Committee.
Getting the districts and the tribe on the same page is one of the biggest challenges, said Ronee K. Wopsock Pawwinnee, the director of the Ute Tribe’s Education Department.
The tribe’s relationship with Uintah School District hasn’t always been easy or reciprocal, Pawwinnee acknowledged.
But Pawwinnee said she’s been met with more receptiveness by Duchesne County School District. That district responded to The Tribune’s questions with a joint statement written along with Amanda Jenks, the assistant director of education for the Ute Tribe, who works with Pawwinnee.
They said the district and the tribe have been collaborating since 2009. There’s been a gradual increase in graduation rates, they noted, and the district intends to build on that. “Even though we’ve had some growth, we are also aware of the gaps in our system,” the district said, “and are actively working to improve them.”
The Ute Tribe is using its money to fill some needs. It employs a language coordinator, Emeline Root, who assists with lessons at schools in both districts. It also pays for six of its own Ute tutor-mentors to connect with Native students and provide counseling.
Duchesne acknowledged in its statement that it hasn’t, in the past, made those tutor-mentors feel welcome. It said it’s addressing that now.
And Leyba acknowledged of the Uintah District: “We have to do better.”
Kayleena Cornpeach and her three kids live down the road from where juniper trees and tall grasses have grown over the remaining foundation of the old boarding school in Whiterocks.
Cornpeach’s grandparents were students there in the 1940s, before they were transferred after sixth grade to the public school system.
At the Whiterocks school, “they used to whip them and slap their hands with rulers,” Cornpeach recounted of the stories her late grandfather, Albert Cornpeach, would tell her. Her late grandmother, Flora Irene Cuch, was so pained by her experience that she wouldn’t talk about it.
“That trauma carries from the boarding schools,” she said. “I think it has to be part of why we are where we are today.”
Pawwinnee agrees. Ute parents were generally blocked from engaging with their children in the boarding school and were seen as a hindrance to their education. That history helps explain why many Ute parents don’t join school committees or attend school board meetings, she acknowledged, which might help their students better succeed.
“That trauma,” she said, “has always been a contributing factor on the education of our people.”
And with their own experiences with racism in the public schools, Cornpeach said, they may not value education.
Cornpeach graduated in 2000 from Uintah High, where she struggled to pass her classes as she tried to ignore racism from some of her teachers, she said. As a parent, she overheard a teacher call her young son “stupid,” and she told the principal. The teacher denied it, and nothing happened. The principal also didn’t act, she said, when she reported that her son Aibaaq’s classmates have done the same.
Her son will start third grade in the fall. School “is hard,” he said, as several dogs in the little reservation town jumped up on him for pets. His favorite part, he said, is the last day of the school year.
Ute students have felt for so long like they don’t belong in school, his mom said, and it needs to change — finally.