When Latter-day Saint pioneers arrived in 1847, the Utes were one of the tribes already inhabiting the Wasatch Front—they gave the future state its name and became the mascot of its flagship university.
When the government took over the lands in Utah and Colorado roamed by the Utes and drove tribal members into the Uinta Basin, it made repeated promises to provide education for their children.
Today, members of the Ute tribe say — and the data shows — that Utah has failed to effectively raise its children for decades, a Salt Lake Tribune investigation has found.
For example, in 2020, 58% of Ute seniors in the Duchesne County School District graduated — less than the percentage for students with disabilities.
Language skills is another telling example: approximately 90% of all Ute students in the Duchesne and Uintah school districts failed in the final reading and writing exams in 2022.
Ute children are clearly falling behind in every respect, and have been for decades.
“There was never really a commitment to educating our children,” said Forrest Cuch, a former tribal education director. “Otherwise we wouldn’t see this pattern for so long.”
Here are the three key takeaways from the series from The Tribune.
When Kayleena Cornpeach picked up her five-year-old son early from daycare, she walked in and overheard his teacher calling him “stupid.” It’s the same word teachers used to call her in elementary school in the late 1980s, she says. Now it happened to her son again.
Today, in the Uinta Basin, Cornpeach says, Ute students are faced with stereotypes in the public education system and have long been left to fail. “That’s how they always treated the Ute kids out here,” she said.
Reporter Courtney Tanner, with the permission of the tribal leaders, made several visits to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation to speak with students and families. She also examined hundreds of pages of records from the boarding school era to the transition to public schools to current grades, ACT scores and graduation rates in the Uintah and Duchesne school districts.
She noted that the differences between white and indigenous students in the two districts have existed and been documented for decades. The gaps are part of the legacy of two state Indian boarding schools on the Ute tribe reservation.
“The Ute children of the 1940s and early 1950s failed because they were hopelessly unprepared from Whiterocks boarding school… and each year they fell further behind,” warned researcher Kim Gruenwald in a 1996 article.
Only one district in the state has a majority of native students. This is the San Juan County School District in southeastern Utah, which is home to mostly Navajo or Diné students. In the past five years, the indigenous children there have passed better tests than the Ute students in the Uinta Basin.
They’ve also graduated — 85% to 90% have graduated from high school — almost twice as often as the Ute kids.
Some have argued that Native students are still adapting to public schools, which is why they fail in the Uinta Basin, but the San Juan School District shows that districts can serve Native students more effectively.
[Read more: The Ute Tribe’s kids have been failed by the public school system more than any other students in Utah.]
Researcher YT Witherspoon knew he would find a gap when he studied how well Ute students learned compared to their white peers.
Little did he know how badly the Ute students would fare: he found that many got their results “no better than the odds.”
Either the Ute children “had learned nothing from their educational experience,” he decided, “or for some reason the test wasn’t an effective measure.” After trying a mix of verbal and nonverbal tests instead, Witherspoon came to his conclusion: The Ute students were less prepared for school and could not catch up.
The analysis, he wrote, shows that “this disadvantage increases as children progress through public schools.”
His research, conducted in 1962 on behalf of the Ute tribe, is one of a hundred warnings that Ute students are being denied an effective education.
The alarms came from additional studies in Utah and in national reports – such as the influential 1928 Meriam Report and the damning 1969 Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge, the so-called Kennedy Report, named after the then President John F. Kennedy.
Works by the late Francis McKinley, a prominent member of the Ute tribe who was involved in education, were included in the Kennedy report. He wrote this sobering summary:
“The education system has failed to provide the majority of Indian children with the minimum level of competency needed to prepare them to be productive citizens in a larger society.
“Furthermore, very little attempt has been made to uphold the values and culture that may be unique to the Indian people, and to instill in them a sense of pride in their own heritage or confidence that they are effectively directing their own future development.” can.”
[Read more: Utah’s education system is failing Ute kids, and a former tribal education leader thinks that’s intentional.]
In the more than 70 years that Ute students languished in public schools, the leaders also knew what would help them succeed.
It’s a paradox that infuriates Bryan Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and director of Arizona State University’s Center for Indian Education.
“Sometimes we forget that what we’re asking for isn’t really new,” said Brayboy, who is also a professor of Indigenous education. “There’s a long history, a long list of studies showing that students can do really well when you use culture in the classroom.”
It is supported by research, graduate studies, and federal reports that have consistently shown that integrating native language and culture education into the classroom leads to higher test scores and graduation rates for Indigenous students.
Last year, the Uintah School District reviewed a new curriculum for Aboriginal people, said Jayme Leyba, who serves as Title VI coordinator for all underrepresented student groups. But this year, when asked for an update, Leyba said those plans had been put on hold. “There’s nothing really specific in the Native American curriculum,” he said at none of their schools.
In none of the districts are Ute language courses offered at secondary schools. With teachers provided by the tribe, Duchesne offers a course for elementary school students who must choose to forgo their breaks.
Harold Chuck Foster, the state Indian specialist on K-12 public schools, said the Utah State Board of Education offers guidance and can lobby for funding, but ultimately operations are up to local boards and the direction of the Utah Legislature .
Unlike foreign languages currently taught in Utah schools, including Spanish, German, French and Chinese, the state legislature does not fund Indigenous language instruction, he notes.
“How come we don’t get funding?” asked Foster, who is Navajo. “The language really makes a big difference” for our local children. “It’s something they can be very proud of at school and feel accepted about.”
[Read more: The Ute Tribe is trying to make up for the state’s education shortcomings, but resources are limited.]
In one place this approach is followed: at the public charter high school run by the Ute tribe. The students get to know their culture there – and are successful.
[Read more: The Ute Tribe has its own high school. It outperforms its public school neighbors.]