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The Legacy of the Indian Education Program in San Francisco

This is part of a series of posts in partnership with the American Indian Cultural District to promote and document American Indian cultural sites and programs in San Francisco. 

Indian Education Program activities. Courtesy of Paloma Flores.

Compiled by Kerri Young, with contributions by Paloma Flores, Mary-Travis Allen, Debbie Santiago, and Sharaya Souza.

“We all know, I think, that no country, no community, not one nation in the world can succeed without education…Success is built on the education of its people and to deprive Native Americans of education that is so necessary to growth and a real self-sufficiency, is to deprive us of becoming our own nations and our own masters of what is ours and what must be returned to us, so that we can be a part of this country, so we can be equal.”

– Allene Cottier (Chockie), former Executive Director of the American Indian Center in San Francisco, and former Executive Director, Community Action for the Urbanized American Indian, Inc., testifying in front of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, June 1983

Since 1971, The Indian Education Program, Title VI, has supported the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaskan Native students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). The program continues to exist today as the result of decades of advocacy from parents and student alumni, who fought and still fight for education as a right for American Indian youth. Guided by a Parent Advisory Council (PAC), the program is a cherished resource in San Francisco’s American Indian community, and provides crucial representation in local schools.

2018 Indian Education Program PAC annual report to the Board of Education. Courtesy of Paloma Flores.

The program has its origins in the movement and advocacy for American Indians during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, spearheaded by a new generation of urbanized American Indians who migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area as a result of official government Relocation programs. During the Occupation of Alcatraz (1969), a watershed event in modern American Indian activism, occupiers sought to create visibility around issues and improve policies, treatment, and conditions of American Indian people, including fighting for education as a basic right. Mission District native Debbie Santiago (Washoe), remembers how her family and family friends, who participated in the Occupation, first advocated for the funding for what would become the Indian Education Program:

State and federal studies conducted between 1969 and 1971 showed that there was no adequate education for Native peoples within the San Francisco school district. San Francisco was the first to receive pilot funding to get [the Indian Education Program] going in 1971, and boy did we get it going. Basically eight local Native families (including my own) came together to establish bylaws for the program, to make sure it took care of us children and future generations (and knowing that it would be a battle every step of the way). In 1975, these parents had to travel to [Washington] DC for a hearing to talk about the need for the program. SFUSD didn’t recognize the program until 1975, four years after the pilot funding was allocated in 1971.

The United States government’s impact on American Indian education is marred by a painful legacy of forced removal and cultural suppression through residential boarding schools. Residential schools were established by Christian missionaries in the 17th century to “re-educate,” “civilize,” and “assimilate” American Indian children into society by removing them from their native homelands and forcing them to abandon their traditional language, clothing, cultural and ceremonial practices. Other practices of residential schools included cutting the children’s traditional hairstyles and forcing them to change their Indigenous names to English names. Much like the treatment of American Indians in the mission system, there were also high rates of death due to exposure to European diseases and reports of manual, mental, sexual, and physical abuse. For example, in May of 2021 the remains of over 215 children were discovered in a defunct boarding school in Canada. Given the small population of American Indians in the United States today, this recent discovery highlights the federal government’s complicity in attempting to remove and exterminate American Indian children. 

“This painful history shows why American Indian led-programs like Indian Ed are vital to the cultural survival of urban Natives, and most importantly for the future of our children. They are a step in the right direction to help bring healing to the cultural loss and generations of children who have grown up without proper love and parenting.The tears and heartbreaking testimony from community elders during our oral history interviews on urban relocation and the significance of Indian education show how these impacts are still being felt by the family members of residential school survivors today.”

Sharaya Souza, Executive Director, American Indian Cultural District 

While there is still a long way to go for the United States to take full accountability for its role in such past devastation, the Indian Education Act, passed in 1972 (soon after San Francisco first received pilot funding for Indian education), is part of a new chapter in the government’s relationship with Native peoples. The Act was landmark legislation establishing a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique, educational, and culturally related academic needs of American Indian, Alaskan Native, and Native Hawaiian students in the United States. Previously reauthorized under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, today what is known as the Indian Education Program is a provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Obama on December 10, 2015. This bipartisan measure reauthorized the over 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a piece of civil rights legislation meant to protect the nation’s most vulnerable children. The Indian Education Program under ESSA shifts much of the responsibility for elementary and secondary education from the federal government to the states. Title VI of ESSA includes several provisions that target the education needs of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students:

…to ensure that Indian students gain knowledge and understanding of Native communities, languages, tribal histories, traditions, and cultures; and to ensure that teachers, principals, other school leaders, and other staff who serve Indian students have the ability to provide culturally appropriate and effective instruction and supports to such students.

Sec. 6002, Indian Education, Title VI

Under Title VI, local education agencies (LEAs) like SFUSD must coordinate efforts with tribes to better support the education of Native students. All American Indian and Alaskan Native students enrolled in the San Francisco Unified School District are eligible to participate in the Indian Education Program once a 506 Form is completed (an official, federal document from the Office of Indian Education used to enroll students in the Indian Education Program). Due to a history of forced removal, boarding schools, adoption, and relocation, there are students who cannot prove via the 506 Form verification of tribal enrollment but who are welcomed to participate in the program. Each completed and valid 506 Form submitted provides funding through the Indian Education Formula Grant student count process, and the parents and teachers of the PAC advise on the distribution of funds for the program’s services. LEAs, Indian tribes, Indian organizations, and Indian community-based organizations are eligible for funding under Title VI. In fiscal year 2020-2021, 755 self-identified American Indian students enrolled in the program, representing over 40 tribes.

(Click to enlarge) Over 750 students enrolled in the program in 2020-2021, representing over 40 tribes. Source: SFUSD Indian Education Program SY 2020 – 2021 Annual Report. To read the full report, which includes a summary of program successes and priorities, click here.

Title VI grant funds supplement the regular school program by meeting the culturally related academic needs of Indian children. Supported activities include culturally-responsive after-school programs, early childhood education, tutoring, and dropout prevention. Traditional language proficiency is a core success and highlight of the San Francisco program, with the creation of multimedia Diné and Lakóta language libraries, inclusion of A is for Acorn: California Indian ABCs (by Analisa Tripp, illustrated by Lyn Risling) as part of the kindergarten curriculum, and progress in creating a language fluency assessment for American Indian youth to meet the foreign language requirement for high school graduation. The intent of these language immersion programs are to help Native peoples use, practice, maintain and revitalize their languages and cultures and to improve educational opportunities. Academic intervention, cultural and linguistically responsive practice and programming, and youth leadership development is another success to highlight.

Debbie Santiago was among the first group of children to receive education as part of the program in 1971, and believes that it made her into the person she is today. Her mother, Alberta Snyder, was a secretary for the first program in the 1970s, and her father was among those who consistently fought for program funding. Though they faced constant challenges in those early years, every person involved made an impact in uplifting the program:

Basically it was a battle for our parents to get things going, to get tutors in the schools. They had to do the outreach to find out which Native families had children. If you weren’t sure where your family came from, we were able to help them identify what tribes they were from, their tradition and culture. People came from all over the Bay to work in the Indian Education Program, and each parent was very involved in the parent committee in those early days. Ed and Madeline Peyette (Cherokee), and Palmer and Josephine Duncan (White Mountain Apache and Papago) were part of it. Octavia Clark (Choctaw) was a spitfire, another parent during that time. Dee Fairbanks (Chippewa and Ojibwe) and Bill Snyder tutored and volunteered. Christine & Henry Antone (Tohono O’odham), Eldy Bratt (Quechua), Mary Travis Allen (Mayagna, Chortega, Seneca), and all of their children were also in the program. Being an activist and young artist back in those days, I don’t think I would be standing here without that mentorship. I put emphasis on (early program leader) Jim Sweeney (Choctaw), who was like our second father.

(left) Alberta Snyder with her daughter Debbie Santiago at a ribbon skirt workshop in 2017. Snyder was a paraprofessional for the Indian Education Program in the 1970s. She eventually left the program and went to Stockton, helping their Indian Education program flourish until her retirement in 2005. Said Debbie, “The children loved her dearly.”

The program’s main headquarters started in a building on Buchanan Street, then moved in the early 1980s to a bungalow at 1950 Mission Street in the Mission District (no longer extant) until the 1990s when SFUSD decided to sell the property. Nearby, the American Indian Center (225-229 Valencia Street) and the Mission Cultural Center both served as an important tutoring spaces for the program in the 1970s and ’80s, and SOMArts was a venue for arts education. After years of being moved around from school site to school site, the Indian Education Program Center finally found its home at Sanchez Elementary School. The grand opening of a dedicated and permanent Indian Education Center occurred on September 19, 2014, and is a district-wide-serving space. Gaining a permanent location was the result of longterm advocacy by the program’s PAC families, which SFUSD finally made a priority in 2014.

The second American Indian Center at 225-229 Valencia Street, an important tutoring site for the Indian Education Program in the 1970s and 1980s. Photo taken February 20, 1983. (Max Kirkeberg Collection, San Francisco State University.) 

Exterior of Sanchez Elementary School, located in the Castro. The school is home to the new Indian Education Center, part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Indian Education Program.

Jim Sweeney led the program in the 1980s, where it flourished under his leadership. According to Debbie, “Jim Sweeney was very instrumental in the program, he didn’t have children but we were his children.” And while the program has always been at odds with SFUSD, in those early years Jim knew how to stand up to school officials and maintain crucial resources. When he passed away in July 1989, the district struggled to find a replacement, and the 1990s saw the program constantly struggling for funding and resources. 1989 was also the same year that the American Indian community lost the second American Indian Center, another devastating blow to the American Indian community.

(Click to enlarge) Students and parents in San Francisco’s Indian Education Program, 1980s. Courtesy of Paloma Flores.

While the program is constantly meeting challenges head on, the program’s PAC is instrumental in continuing to advocate for American Indian education in San Francisco. Many of today’s PAC members went through the Indian Education program as children, and like Debbie believe that its continued existence is helping the next generation. 

(left to right) Aiko Little, Paloma Flores (Program Coordinator from 2013-2021), and Ian DeVaynes. Courtesy of Paloma Flores.

2019 Indian Ed summer program students practice horse riding. Courtesy of Paloma Flores.

The program also has support from the wider American Indian community, and collaborates with other American Indian agencies to support youth and their families. The Native American Health Center and Friendship House Association of American Indians are frequent program collaborators, as is the American Indian Cultural District (AICD). Paloma Flores (Pit River), who served as Indian Ed’s Program Coordinator for eight years, served as AICD’s board advisory member from 2020-2021 and is now their Director of Community Development & Partnerships.

Said Flores, “Parents entrust SFUSD and Indian Ed. with their most precious gifts. Their children. They trust their child will be safe. Our American Indian/Alaska Native students come into a space that was not designed for them but against them. Indian Ed. advocates for their needs and for their future. It provides a sense of belonging, identity, and positive self-efficacy. Indian Ed provides the connection where our students, their families, and their traditional lands and this urban city can find and support their unique needs. It helps them develop their voices and visibility as a strong community that supports each member. The program is essentially a home away from home, a place of empowerment and knowledge of self. It seeks to uplift, to inspire, and to show what is possible.” 

Indian Ed partnered with AICD to make a successful FY21-22 budget request to the Mayor’s Office to hire Native teachers and to create funding for additional programming and services for American Indian students. This is the first time the program has had this level of funding support from the city government. American Indian-based programming and Native educators are extremely important as Native youth and Native populations as a whole face some of the highest disparity rates across graduation, housing, employment, and homeownership in the city. 

(click to enlarge) One of the socio-economic barriers to educational success for American Indian students is that American Indian students have the lowest graduation rates in the SFUSD. This trend is reflected nationwide. Data courtesy of the Indian Education Program.

And the work continues. In January 2021, the San Francisco Board of Education unanimously passed a Resolution that calls on SFUSD to seek reparations to the American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, which includes several commitments to prioritize and protect funding for the Indian Education Program and to engage the PAC in all SFUSD matters that affect its American Indian students. According to Flores, “the Resolution is meant to uphold the accountability of the SFUSD in hopes that it will serve as a beginning platform to create policy and targeted initiatives for a community that has been long overlooked. If successful, it will change the devastating statistics into successful outcomes. It will give recognition and respect to the lives of our American Indian/Alaska Native students and their families. It cannot be idle words that its importance diminishes with time. It is a promise and commitment to a people to elevate and make their support the utmost priority. They deserve to thrive rather than just survive. They deserve so much more than what they receive. Indian Education is education for all.”

However, implementation of these provisions is not guaranteed and is constant work ahead for PAC members and the wider American Indian community. Said Santiago, “It’s not the school district’s money, it’s the program’s money, but they have been pushing the program to the side. Without this education, we’re not going to survive. They act like we don’t exist.”

“I commend these parents for bringing their kids into the program…it’s a struggle and a half, but don’t stop, keep reaching for the highest for your child…so our children can grow and can see that without an education, you can’t get anywhere in life.”

Special thanks to Debbie Santiago, Paloma Flores, Mary Travis Allen, and Sharaya Souza for their assistance on this post.


United States Code. “Title VI – Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education.” Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), 2015.

SFUSD Indian Education Program. “SFUSD Indian Education Program SY 2019 – 2020 Annual Report.” December, 2020.

SFUSD Indian Education Program. “SFUSD Indian Education Program SY 2020-2021 Annual Report.” December 2021.

United States Congress. House Committee on Education and Labor. Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education (1984). Oversight Hearings on Indian Education: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, Ninety-eighth Congress, First Session, Hearings Held in Washington, D.C., on June 21 and 24, 1983, Volume 4. Google Books.

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