Q&A: What We Can Learn from Native American Educators, a Conversation with Tribal Education Specialist Francis Vigil

Raised outside of his tribal homelands in what is now New Mexico, Native American educator Francis Vigil says mid-20th century federal policies aimed at “assimilating” Native families like his in urban U.S. centers had unintended consequences for his own life. Today, he lives in New Mexico, from where he serves as a tribal education specialist for the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), working with local tribes and ones all across the United States to advocate for educational policies that seek to educate Native children through community-based knowledge and tribal wisdom to create culturally relevant, land and place-based curriculums, all while considering how his work might serve to bring solidarity and understanding among educators and students of many diverse backgrounds. In addition to his role with NIEA, he serves on the Google Diversity Board and as a commissioner for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission. He and his team at NIEA are also beginning conversations with UnidosUS on how the two organizations might partner to promote cultural awareness and solidarity in education policy and programming with the Latino population.

ProgressReport.co spoke with him this summer to learn more about his life trajectory and how it is changing the lives of Native and other underserved student populations in the U.S. school system.

Francis Vigil, National Indian Education Association (NIEA)Tribal Education Specialist. Photo Courtesy of NIEA.

Q: Many in the United States are now aware that over one hundred years ago, the federal government had a practice of separating Native children from their parents and putting them in boarding schools, forcing them to suppress their Native languages and customs in an attempt to assimilate them into predominately White U.S. society. You were born in 1975, well after that practice ended, but tell us how other federal practices continued in the last part of the 20th century continued to promote a similar agenda.

A:  In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government was still focused on assimilation of Native peoples, and they also wanted access to the natural resources found on the reservations, so they started these relocation programs aimed at helping Native people move into mainstream society, finding work and sometimes education off the reservations in cities such as Oakland, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Chicago. My parents were part of that, so I was born in Bellflower, California, far from my ancestral communities of the Zia, Pueblo of Jemez, and Jicarilla Apache.

Then my dad had decided to take us back to New Mexico, and we settled in Dulce, New Mexico, which is on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, where my dad was an enrolled member. That’s where I spent the rest of my childhood.

Q: What impact did all that have on your education and career?

A: I had dreams of going into the medical field, but I ended up having my first daughter very young. I wanted to give my children as much attention as possible, and I didn’t want to derail my career, so I settled on a degree in microbiology and biochemistry, which led me to a job as lab researcher at New Mexico State University. But one day I realized I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office doing that kind of work later in life. My sister, who was a kindergarten teacher, suggested I should look into education because I liked working with kids and could connect to them.

I went back to school for a master’s in secondary education at University of New Mexico. That changed my trajectory forever because I saw the possibilities of what education could be for Native American students, and how it can incorporate culture, language, community-based theory, and value systems. I spent two years working at the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, and then I moved to Walatowa Charter High School, which is in Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. The WCHS primarily serves the Pueblo of Jemez, but also has Pueblo of Zia students, as well as other Native and non-Native students. Those places gave me the opportunity to create curriculum, train, and develop community-based initiatives, to look at education from a very different lens than that of the institutionalized westernized models you see in today’s education. Since then, I’ve been an educational administrator at the district, state, and federal level. I’ve also worked for the federal government in the Bureau of Indian Education as an education specialist for native language, history, and poetry.

National Indian Education Association Tribal Education Specialist Francis Vigil as a baby in his native clothing. Photo Courtesy of Francis Vigil.

Q: Essentially, you’ve used your life story and career to ensure that other Native students and their families don’t have to be separated from their community to get a high-quality education that understands and upholds the value of their experiences and lifeways.

A: Yes, that’s why I consider myself an unintended consequence of those old federal policies. Back then when my parents were relocated, the government’s idea was “hey, let’s try and assimilate Natives because we don’t want the reservation system and this subsistence lifestyle anymore, but we also want access to their lands.” From the U.S. government perspective, it was a win-win, but from the Native standpoint, it continued this idea of broken treaties. The realization of tribal sovereignty and self-determination didn’t come along until the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975.

But during that time, you saw a lot of these, families being moved off. For example, I lost access to stories from community that I should have been hearing from my aunties and uncles, my mom and dad. It was a very contentious time because people were seeing it as “okay, take advantage of these opportunities, but yet you’re leaving behind your culture and community.” It was basically tearing families apart.

I really stared learning about how federal policies and educational polices directly and indirectly effect Native communities historically and currently because I had some Native professors in my graduate program, and it really lit a fire under me. I started to see the loss of language and culture, and the identity crisis that I had to go through as Native American person, wondering, “Do I belong in this reservation? Do I belong outside? That’s how I realized I wanted to provide educational opportunities for students to learn their culture and language, and utilize community-based values, knowledge, and beliefs systems in order to connect to learning that’s tangible and focused on stewardship, especially from the Native perspective because we do have these lands that are our birthright.

A lot of Native communities have sacred sites that we connect to for our spirituality and our cultures. So predicting all of those things for me as an educator is very important. But I also think it’s important to elevate Native American culture and history in a way that helps people understand we’re not just these historical figures that you see in most textbooks and curricula, that we be viable contributors to mainstream society in many roles.

NIEA Tribal Education Specialist Francis Vigil (second from left) poses with his father Thomas Vigil, brother-Darryl, sister Eileen Salazar, and Irene on Zia Feast Day, also known as “Our Lady of Assumption” Day. Photo Courtesy of Francis Vigil.

Q: Many of the things you mention resonate with the Latino community, and many Latinos share Indigenous roots. Before we talk more specifically about solidarity and ideas sharing between Native and Latino education advocates, let’s get a better understanding of your own Native community and the history of colonization. For example, your last name is Vigil, but you don’t consider yourself Latino. Can you explain?

This led to more cooperation of sorts, and more attempts to convert Natives to Christianity. Over the years, also led a lot of shared cultural traditions, especially in the merging of Catholicism and Native spirituality. You see it in Native rituals today where, for example, we have feast days and do our traditional dances, but then we pay homage to a Catholic saint. It’s not something you can easily disaggregate today, so we have to find ways to honor both, which is very complex.

Q: So some shared Native and Latino cultural experiences, but still quite varied.

A: There are 574 federally recognized tribes, and just as there are great cultural and historical variations within the Hispanic, Latino, or Latinx communities, there is great cultural and historical diversity within Native communities. All of these tribal communities have some overlap, but the dynamics are different depending on where you go. All have been pushed to the educational periphery, but one-size-fits-all solutions never work. Students need a place-based education that honors the histories and cultures of their particular areas.

I think that’s something both Natives and Latinos can uphold—the recognition that our communities are vastly different and the need to honor their diversity. By doing so, we are inherently engaging in equity. What are the positives in a particular community? What are those things that are working well? What are some of the things we can identify and adapt rather than coming in and prescribing some perceived notion of a best practice that may not necessarily work?

Q: What are some of the ways you’ve been working to change that through your own education policy roles?  

A: When I worked for the federal government, they had all these check-box diversity training solutions. In the wake of the death of George Floyd, I’ve been on many calls, meetings, and panels for different organizations to address this. Now I think there is a growing awareness that there needs to  more of an ongoing understanding of our communities, so my recommendation is the more local the better.

What we do at NIEA is try and provide the background and foundational knowledge. Most of our educators have never had any kind of class or any kind of social justice training on diversity, inclusion, and equity, so we need to start looking at our educational pipelines to create opportunities for immersion at the district and state level.

Q: Do you see this effort as part of the larger national discussion on ethnic studies and critical race theory?

A: Until I got into my PhD program, I had never heard of critical race theory in my life, but I do think our curricula need to be responsive to the community. One thing we can do is contribute provide educators with a framework for how Native American communities operate—tribal norms, values, knowledge, and policing. It’s everything from where do I go to get my groceries and how do I get them to what are some of the sacred sites in my area? It’s about trying to get community stakeholders to lend their voice to developing these curricula.

Q: What are a few ways a group like UnidosUS can help promote that effort?

A: Here are three ideas:

  1. I think that UnidosUS can form think tanks with other organizations that serve and inform disenfranchised and marginalized groups, i.e., LGBTQ2+, Black organizations, Asian-Pacific organizations, Native American organizations.
  2. Push for legislation and policy shifts at the local, state, and federal levels to intentionally include the stories of all people, and not the mainstream and westernized versions of education.
  3. Elevate and tell our experiences. We don’t have enough stories of how our histories and how policies have affected our people at a very basic and community-based level. We need to engage and provide foundational knowledge to our communities.

UnidosUS Senior Web Manager Julienne Gage conducted this interview.