Ethnic Engineering

Little white Indians


An elementary school in the small Sierra Nevada town of Colfax, California, entered the era of educational accountability this year when the state withheld $31,000 in special funds on the grounds that 69 American Indian students had failed to measure up academically. Under California's accountability law, schools must improve the test scores of minority "sub-groups" in order to earn reward money, even if the overall test scores would merit a cash reward. Colfax's overall scores made the grade, but the scores of its Native Americans, 20 percent of its student body, didn't improve.

This penalty struck teachers and parents as unjust, most notably because they claim the "Native Americans" are actually white. "We looked at the census and the Native American population was right around 1 percent," says Steve DePue of the California Teachers Association.

But that didn't stop the town's only elementary school from claiming up to 99 American Indian students in order to secure $14,695 in federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Indian Education. To get that windfall, some of the parents signed forms vouching that their children are part American Indian. Those same parents were then outraged when their low-performing "Indian" population led to the loss of the state's $31,000. Apparently, they don't feel there is a discrepancy in claiming Indian ancestry for their children in order to get federal money even while they consider them to be white for the purposes of grabbing state dough.

The white Indians caused a stir when the story broke in The Sacramento Bee in late February. But it appears to be ending well. Two officials from the Office of Indian Education made the trek west, examined the paperwork, and found it in order, according to the school's principal, Gayle Garbolino-Mojica.

"When the form is filled out, it's not necessarily the schools or the U.S. Department of Education, or anyone else's privilege to go and counteract what the parent is saying," says Ms. Garbolino-Mojica. "In all legalities, that parent is saying that child, parent, or grandparent has a tribal affiliation and that is the end of the story."