Oklahoma: Tribal Councilor calls for policy changes at Cherokee immersion school

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri May 1 16:35:10 UTC 2009

Cowan Watts calls for policy changes at Cherokee immersion school

By Christina Good Voice
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Tribal Councilor Cara Cowan Watts is pushing for a
policy change at the Cherokee Nation’s Language Immersion Program to
require students be a citizen of a federally recognized tribe.
Currently, 63 students are enrolled in the school, with 40 of them
enrolled as CN citizens, according to an enrollment list. Of the 23
other children, most are enrolled with other tribes, including the
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. But a handful of students –
possibly up to five – aren’t citizens of a federally recognized tribe.

Dr. Neil Morton, executive director of the tribe’s Education Group,
said during the April Education Committee meeting that a policy change
would affect either four or five students in the school.  The Cherokee
Phoenix attempted to get a comment from one of the families with
children who are not citizens of a federally recognized tribe, but the
parents declined to be interviewed.  Cowan Watts said she had planned
to introduce a legislative act regarding non-citizens of federally
recognized tribes enrolled in LIP, but the act was never placed on the
council’s Education Committee agenda because she wanted to work
directly with Principal Chief Chad Smith on the issue.

“The purpose is ‘truth in advertising,’” Cowan Watts said. “I believe
tribal citizens understood this program to be funded by the tribe out
of tribal revenues for the purposes of serving Cherokee Nation
citizens.” The LIP budget for fiscal year 2009 is $2.6 million, and
the program is funded 100 percent from the tribe’s General Fund,
according to financial documents. “No other education program or
tribal program provides services to non-tribal citizens using tribal
funds other than immersion, to my knowledge,” she said.

The policy change Cowan Watts is calling for would allow current
students – who aren’t citizens of the CN or a federally recognized
tribe – to remain in the program at the cost of the CN until the fifth
grade. However, beginning in the fifth grade the families of those
students would be required to reimburse the CN for program’s actual

“I believe our immersion school should be open to all students wishing
to be bilingual in Cherokee and English, assuming Cherokee students
are given priority for acceptance, retention and tribal activities,”
Cowan Watts said. “Tribal funds should only be used for our citizens
though.” The immersion school’s budget includes the total immersion
program, teachers, curriculum staff, translators, technology, program
operation, outreach and public school pilot sites. But Cowan Watts
gave the example that if the total budget were divided by the total
number of students, the reimbursement to the CN would cost families
about $43,000 per student.

With that educational price tag, parents with children who are
non-citizens might be forced to withdraw their children from the

Some parents have also expressed their concern that their children
would be delayed in public school because they aren’t able to read or
write in English.

“If the immersion school is working, no student should have problems
with entering the public school system,” Cowan Watts said. “I
understand the intent of the immersion school is for students to be
bilingual in Cherokee and English.  If they are not, we need to look,
again, at how we are measuring success.”

Ultimately, Cowan Watts said she’s concerned about preserving the
Cherokee language.

“Although the language is not proprietary to just Cherokee citizens,
tribal programs should always be focused on serving Cherokee citizens
and maintaining the language amongst our tribal communities,” she
said. “If the programs begin to focus on others, the focus will not be
on Cherokees and thus cost us in the end.”


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