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Tribes aim to boost Indian education

Five floors above State Street, Forrest Cuch is quiet and furious. The Utah Division of Indian Affairs, of which he is director, was set up in 1953 to placate his people; it wasn't meant to really do anything, he says.

Except Cuch is doing things, without much fanfare. He recently formed the Rocky Mountain American Indian Foundation and hopes to open a post-high school academy to re-educate Indian students who, Cuch says, fell through the cracks of Utah's public school system.

Nearly 90 percent of Indian students don't graduate from high school, according to Cuch, who was the Ute Tribe's education director from 1973-88. Those who do make it to college, he added, don't have the skills to stay there.

"People are running around trying to help the Indian," Cuch said. "So they give scholarships. But if the students aren't prepared for college, they drop out, and the donors get discouraged."

A two-year program, offered to Indian students after high school, is

a wholly different approach. The academy would be run by American Indians, including leaders from Utah's eight tribal governments — not by state education officials.

For decades, non-Indian state leaders have eyed the shortcomings of public-school curriculum and the dropout rate, Cuch says, but change hasn't come. "We've never really been consulted," he added. "We haven't been considered capable of helping ourselves."

Task forces have looked at the problems, state representatives have wrung their hands, yet "in the last 20 years, things haven't improved," said Nola Lodge-Hurford, a University of Utah instructor. Now a Rocky Mountain American Indian Foundation board member, Lodge-Hurford said collaboration among Utah's Indian people will be key to the organization's progress.

"When you have that coming together of tribes, you have some clout," she said, adding that such cooperation has been effective in her native New Mexico.

"Forrest's dream was to have a prep school" to meet Indian students' needs. "We have never given up that dream." Lodge-Hurford said that many Indian reservations, from Montana to Massachusetts, have established tribal colleges, secured federal funding and served students well.

Cuch and the Rocky Mountain foundation will seek their own federal, state and private dollars. Along with the post-high school academy, Cuch's office is at work on improving Internet access and supporting business ventures on Utah Indian reservations. The Division of Indian Affairs is under the umbrella of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which emphasizes economic growth. But American Indians can't participate in such growth if they've been denied a quality education, Cuch says.

"You cannot have a strong economy until the work force is educated and trained," he said. Yet a sector of the work force is still "at the bottom of the totem pole. And I'm tired of being last" in line for state and federal education funding. Cuch says he's seen too many Utah Indians descend into alcoholism and other drug addiction. "I'm sick of seeing young people destroy themselves," he said. "We want to empower people, to give them hope."

This summer both the U. and Utah State University will offer specialized training for educators who will teach on reservations or in urban schools with large American Indian populations. Lodge-Hurford will head the U.'s program, which can take only 12 students. "People say Indians don't care about education," she said, but "we have had more than 130 applicants" for the teacher training program.