Julian Guerrero on Pathways and Programs for Indigenous Youth

Key Points

  • Engagement with Tribal Communities: Education leaders should actively seek partnerships with local tribal communities to ensure that educational strategies are culturally relevant and supportive of Native students’ identities. Understanding the demographic makeup of their schools and recognizing the importance of tribal treaties and rights can help create more inclusive and effective educational environments.

  • Comprehensive Support Systems: It is crucial to develop comprehensive programs that support not only academic achievement but also cultural identity among Native American students. Leaders should advocate for and utilize federal grants and resources that enhance educational opportunities while respecting and integrating the rich cultural heritage of Native students.

This episode of the Getting Smart Podcast is part of a new short monthly series where Mason Pashia is joined by Dr. Jason Cummins, a previous guest and a friend of the podcast, to speak with indigenous leaders and academics to discuss how indigenous ways of knowing and leading can, and should, shape the education system.  

In this episode, they are joined by Julian Guerrero Jr., the current Director of the Office of Indian Education (OIE) at the U.S. Department of Education. Together, they discuss the extensive range of grant programs managed by the OIE, which support everything from Native American language immersion programs to college and career readiness initiatives. Guerrero emphasizes the importance of these programs in enhancing educational opportunities for Native students across the U.S., highlighting that a significant majority of Native American students attend public schools outside of reservation systems. 

They also discuss the importance of fostering collaboration between various levels of government and education systems, stressing the importance of principals and superintendents understanding the unique needs and potential of Native American students. Guerrero’s experiences underline the necessity of developing relationships and networks that support educational leaders in better serving Native communities, highlighting the overarching goal of nation building through education. 

Awaachiáookaate’, or Jason Cummins Ed.D

Awaachiáookaate’, or Jason Cummins Ed.D is an enrolled member of the Apsaalooke Nation, and recently served as the Deputy Director for the White House Initiative on Advancing Educational Equity, Excellence, and Economic Opportunity for Native Americans and Strengthening Tribal Colleges and Universities, Office of the Secretary. Previously, he was the principal at Crow Agency Public School. As an Indigenous scholar and school leader he has innovatively worked to lead schools towards authentically serving Native American students PreK-12 and their communities by implementing culturally sustaining, trauma-informed, and restorative approaches. 

Julian Guerrero Jr.

Julian Guerrero Jr. is the current Director of the Office of Indian Education (OIE) at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously Julian served as Executive Director of American Indian Education at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Mr. Guerrero has worked as an American Indian student scholarship coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. He has consulted for gubernatorial and legislative political campaigns throughout the state. Prior to his state service, he has worked in the nonprofit sector as Associate Director of the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA). Mr. Guerrero was recently appointed as a Gaming Commissioner to regulate Comanche Nation gaming facilities throughout the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache (KCA) reservation.

Mr. Guerrero serves on various national, state, and local advisory boards including the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), Oklahoma City YMCA Youth and Government (YAG) program, and Oklahoma Baptist Cooperative Fellowship of Oklahoma (CBFOK). 




Mason Pashia: You’re listening to the Getting Smart podcast. I’m Mason Pashia. This episode is part of a series that highlights indigenous leaders and education and unpacks their research, their leadership styles, their connection to place, and their identity. Together with my co-host, Dr. Jason Cummins, we hope to spotlight the ways that the education system can and must learn from these leaders and their critical work. Jason, would you mind introducing yourself? 

Jason Cummins: Jason Cummins, everybody, member of Apsaalooke Nation. I have really been enjoying and I appreciate the visits we’ve had and just exploring Native American views towards education, leadership and how those values and ethics are exercised within people’s leadership, and just the importance of education for all of our communities. I’m really happy to have our guest with us today. I’ll turn it over to him to quickly introduce himself. 

Julian Guerrero: I’m Julian Guerrero. I serve as the director for the office of Indian Education and I’m Comanche in Kiowa, I hail from Lawton, Oklahoma. Every day is a gift in the work that we do in the office of Indian Ed. So I’m happy to get to the conversation and share more. 

The Office of Indian Education is primarily K-12 education. However, we do have one of our programs that does work in the postsecondary education space., but thinking about our portfolio of work is that primarily we are a grantmaking office. We exercise around $185 million to $195 million in grants every year. The lion’s share of that money is mostly in formula grants, anywhere from $105 million to $110 million any given year, and then around $75 to $85 million in competitive discretionary programs. And those vary in nature. We have grants that focus on recruiting and credentialing new native teachers, and native administrators. We have grants focused on building partnerships between tribal education departments to state departments of education. We have grants that focus on supporting local Native American language immersion programs, partial immersion, full immersion, dual language programs. We also have grants that focus on college and career readiness. 

(We) help develop the readiness portfolio for native students across the country to enter the workforce, to return to school, and to really focus on equipping native parents with choice and the ability to, you know, work in any one of these programs is incredible. 

Jason Cummins: A lot of time when people think about, you know, entering education, we think of teachers or principal superintendents. Yet in your role, you serve alongside the larger structure of education and they work alongside you. I’ve really seen the expertise and the savvy you have. Tell us about that — working to serve principals and superintendents, school districts, and even state education agencies. And how has that experience been? What would you say to some of our listeners who might be thinking of that type of pathway? 

Julian Guerrero: Yeah, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed by all the different connections, whether from working in a tribe to working in a state environment to now working in the federal environment. You know, I will say that my ability to be savvy, as you say, has really been a product of being able to work at every level of government, local, tribal, state, and federal. It has just really equipped me with an ability to usher in partnerships, networking, being able to view things from different perspectives, where It always starts when I build a relationship is new administrators in education, it doesn’t matter what level, whether that’s postsecondary or K-12 school superintendents really have a general understanding that they want their Native American students to succeed, and they’re interested in how to get there. 

I think when you zoom out across the entire United States, one incredible demographic fact to understand is that out of ten Native American students, nine of those ten, chances they are attending a public school that is not on the reservation. Not in a Bureau of Indian Education institution. They’re in a regular K-12 public school system. One out of those ten are on a BIE school reservation area setting. So when we look at 90% of our native kids out there in public schools, it behooves us to really ask the question of how can the system, at multiple levels do better, coordinate better,? How do we instill the knowledge in practicing superintendents that, quote, “every native child has talents”.? End quote. Full stop. 

Building Partnerships and Educational Success

Mason Pashia: Julian, so much of what you were just talking about resonates with some of the work we’ve been doing around pathways and helping young people find opportunity in their communities and around them. I think what you were talking about was helping the educators and the administrators actually spot and encourage that behavior in young people. But I’m curious, are you also doing work on the other side of that with really connecting young people to opportunities, helping present them with careers and additional information? What does that look like? 

Julian Guerrero: Oh, yeah, definitely. There’s no shortage of making headway and really trying to focus on sustainable opportunities in the various native communities throughout the country. I think the greatest challenge is trying to build a theme of what we call that across each of our tribal nations. Workforce development is nation building. So when you think about investing in native youth, native peoples, and native families, you have to view the work through nation building. That a tribal community is more than just a collection of housing. It’s more than just a municipality. It’s more than just brick-and-mortar institutions and pieces of paper. Nation building is being able to restore the language, restore the identities, restore the pride, restore, you know, the human elements of what it means for a nation to thrive. 

Giving the youth opportunities in the workforce is but one step in that, albeit a critical one. No doubt.  From the work that we do in the AOIE, practically we focus on grantmaking around college and career readiness grants. We call these NYCP grants, native youth community project grants. They focus on a plethora of things, whether it’s just exposing a native student to college campus or getting them connected with any one of the 16 career pathways, and thinking about the various occupations that exist out there beyond what tv shows, I think we can all agree on how much, you know, certain occupations get the glamour and other ones that don’t really. We try to think about all the different sorts of pathways and occupations that exist just beyond those that get all the glamour. 

And, you know, thinking about how native youth can also come in, it’s not just a zero-sum approach. Right. And what I mean by that is that focusing on career pathways and college pathways for a native student cannot and must not mean that they put aside their culture and there be this loss still on top of the struggle with maintaining identity, they can happen at the same time. So the beauty of our programs and the challenge of our programs is to educate, prepare, and equip native children with readiness, but then also cultural fluency, cultural identity, and really convincing our native students that indigenous ways of knowing are still alive, still thriving. There’s a lot of history out there, and there are a lot of different golden nuggets on how to get there. So it just depends on where a native student is starting. 

I’m convinced of it. I see it every time I go back home to Oklahoma. You know, getting to go to different ceremonies or dances or just community events, hand games, you name it. I see young children talking, dreaming, having these visions. They just don’t have the vocabulary to say it yet. 

Mason Pashia: Yeah, there’s so much to respond to in what you just said. Thank you for sharing. I think what you’re saying about the workforce in particular, really resonates with some stuff we’ve been seeing, when more intentional companies have been shifting the frame from making the potential employees workforce ready, instead, they’re taking it on to become employee ready. It’s really about adjusting this frame of ‘how do we actually celebrate the people that are coming into this,’ which really aligns with your nation building viewpoint, which I thought was beautiful. 

To build on that real quick, I was doing some research on you before our conversation, and I found a Q and A, it looked like, that you had done with the department, and there was a question of what is one thing you will never do again? And your response was basically about fully equating your self-worth with your job and just how much burnout you felt from that in the past. So I’m curious, on your own personal journey, when did this question of identity and many of the things you were just talking about as being a necessary support running parallel to work, when did that emerge for you and help you with this realization? 

Workforce Development and Nation Building

Julian Guerrero: Let me just say I’m so lucky to have learned that professional lesson and have had those experiences and have come to that conclusion early on in my career. Having those experiences, not equating my self-worth to my professional title, was a product of falling prey to micromanagers who, when I sign up to do the job, to do the thing, I’m all in. I’m showing up every day, I’m dressing as if I’m going to a press conference. I’m addressing the matter with realism. I go all in because working in not just Indian Ed, but public education, deserves the highest amount of professionalism because it is the future, no doubt. And unfortunately, I learned quickly that like most industries, there are different management styles. 

I’ve had a spectrum of different managers and supervisors that I’ve worked under, and I’ve had very laissez-faire managers who said, Julian, I trust you’re doing what you’re doing. Keep going. And I’ve had some that misinterpreted a lot of the work and/or didn’t believe that the approach that I was trying to convince them of was worth taking. I think a lot of what I learned from that was I see that micromanagers have a tough time with letting go of their own professional ego and identity in that work. So a micromanager, through their own ego, they’re really holding on to their tether to their title with their personal worth. Those two things are very closely tethered. They haven’t separated the two. 

Then I noticed that managers who are not so inclined to micromanage, they somehow found the balance or the continual play between making sure that neither of the two merge together and whole. And once I figured that out, I was like, I’m never going to do that again. One, for my own mental health, right, as a professional, and to feel the public ed, if I’m not coming to the table fully mentally ready, and if I’m suffering, then the work suffers. The teams I work with suffer. The people that I encourage, I’m not as encouraging them as hard as I want to encourage them. I get a bit passive or I’m not there, not in the game. That’s another thing I learned, is that for your own mental health, it’s important because that mental health also has physical ramifications. 

As long as I work very hard to earn that bi-weekly paycheck that we get, I can sleep very soundly at night. 

Treaty Education and Tribal Relationships 

Jason Cummins: That’s really great advice for anybody listening. And I’m stepping back a little bit, Julian, with the idea of nationhood. And I guess two questions, a two-prong question is, what distinguishes Native American nations versus a lot of our other minoritized populations? What’s the nuance there and the approach to education, and what should some of our ed leaders know about that? 

Julian Guerrero: I would say the boiling point for what distinguishes native identity as more than a race, because there are different camps of thought around this. I would appreciate if listeners could know and educate themselves on this, and this to be true, that native identity is more than a race. It is not just a box that is, I am American Indian, Alaska Native Hawaiian or indigenous. There’s also, especially for native populations, a federal trust relationship history, a very complicated history. All that to say there is a political relationship and that goes beyond the race. And I think that because native identity has been tied into race, that’s just because its convenient on paper, butut if policies change real things, that only tells us that we need to dig deeper than just race. We need to focus on these sorts of political, historical relationships, of where everything began. 

One essential step in that direction is to understand the existence of congressional treaties with the various tribal nations throughout the United States, and that at one time it was the policy of the United States of America to engage in treaties with Indian nations. And since, you know, there was a taking away of the treaty making. However, there’s one thing to know in the education field is that treaties still, the ones that were fully ratified and adopted, those are still law today. They still hold the weight of being the law of the land, and many of them are not yet fully exercised. 

I think that’s what’s so fascinating, because when we think in spaces around, well, how can we get native children excited about their identity, their purpose, their histories, their languages? The answer to me but the answer to me is it’s right in front of many of our children. It’s the treaties. Your second question on what ed leaders should know about this is that, I’m very excited to say, is that there are growing and early stages of depositories online where treaties are easily accessible, that can be read, that are cataloged. I think a great challenge here is to think of it this way:I nstead of trying to go grab the treaty, to then interpret it or translate it and give it to a child. 

This is a perfect excuse to build a relationship with the tribes in your area and say, I want native students in our school district to know about treaties, and I want the tribes to be the ones shepherding that work. We have the space, we have the facilities, we have the interest. We want to get there. And in some spaces and in previous roles, being a part of state and local level government worked in a few areas where tribes were already trying to do that. It’s so powerful when you put a tribe in a place where they can fully exercise sovereignty in public education. Treaties are another way that distinction happens. So advice to ed leaders, do not forget or please educate yourselves on tribal treaty rights. 

Jason Cummins: Wow. Thank you. That was really thought provoking, to have a pathway or a reason to reach out to a native community that we might be serving as leaders. Thank you for that. The Department of Education has approximately 17 programs that are inferred to fulfill educational treaty rights. That’s from preschool to K-12 to higher ed and career and technical ed. That explains a lot because the federal government engaged in this treaty making. And that depository of treaties online, is that through the University of Oklahoma or who is that through? 

Julian Guerrero: Yeah, great question. There is an online database out of Oklahoma State University. If you google OSU treaties, I’m pretty sure it’ll give you a hyperlink that takes you to the right space. And maybe in the notes, Mason, I think including a hyperlink there would be really nice to allow the audience to go correctly. Yeah. Thank you. I will say that these treaties were engaged, and ratified. Not all of them made it through to ratification. So I think that’s another element of complexity, is that there are native relatives of ours who are without a ratified treaty. So their approach to treaties is more that, hey, don’t forget, you know, there are treaties that didn’t make ratification, but those promises were still made, those exchanges still happened. We want to be heard and be visible in this work. 

I say all that to say that there is roughly an estimate that 130 plus treaties have education provisions or promises in those treaties. 130 plus. That’s amazing. Andthese weren’t written yesterday. These are many years ago using language and syntax of many years ago. So there’s unpacking to do and analysis to be had and historical comparisons to make. I think the next steps to building an awareness that tribal treaty rights exist in public ed. I think the next step is trying to figure out how the treaties can be interpreted and the canons of construction, that which these treaties are interpreted are in favor of sovereignty. 

Because when you take a step back and you look at public education, again, education is to help build people, help build futures that are free and open, and help instill new knowledge and impart better knowledge from one generation to another. And when we think about investing in tribal communities and we want to improve education for tribal communities, you know, what better way to set the stage than to say, these are the treaties that we know are applicable for this community, and we want to be a part of the restorative narrative here. I think that’s the chance, is that, you know, there are different ways that the context can be set when you look at this work. 

Jason Cummins: Yeah, I was surprised when I looked it up, and those are just the known treaties that were entered in the database, and there’s probably a lot of others out there. But I looked at my own tribe in education, and there was three treaties that specifically spoke with educational provisions in there. They weren’t written yesterday, but in the context of history, I like to think about generations. So, they were written like two grandpas ago, you know, so that’s not way back. It’s fairly recent. And one of the provisions just in our situation was, for every 30 students the federal government was to provide a school teacher and a school building that was most likely back with one room. School buildings.

So then what does that look like today? This is really thought provoking that our tribal nations did, in fact, pay for education in the form of land and other rights. So, yeah, thanks for speaking to that. I sure appreciate it. 

Mason Pashia: That is. That is fascinating information. I’m curious, Julian, what’s on your mind these days? What are you thinking about? I would say that our audience is primarily concerned with maybe “education innovation” to put it in quotes. So really thinking about new learning models and how to reimagine the learning system. Like, what are you thinking about on that tier? 

Recruitment, Retention, and Teacher Leadership

Julian Guerrero: I guess when I am tackling some more challenges in front of my face, they usually fall into three buckets. And the first one is really around, like the diversity and strength bucket. I find the second is like recruitment of talent and maybe modifying a little bit of that to say recruitment and retention. Then I think the third bucket, I’d say maybe, is teacher leadership. And those three are kind of at the forefront of my more immediate work this year. So if I’m just thinking about what’s on Julian’s mind from now to the next six months, I’m already thinking about being in the calendar year 2024. I just got through being a part of a session to start thinking about fiscal year 2025. And then somebody mentioned we need to start thinking about 2026. And I’m like, hold on, we’re in 2023. 

How in the world can we already be trying to think about 2026? But anyways, back to those three buckets, diversity of strength. I’m also going to throw another data point out there for the listeners that there are 574 federally recognized tribes. Other estimates approximate an additional 50-60 state recognized tribes on top of that number. And that doesn’t count terminated tribes and or tribes who are still pending other recognitions. So I think, nonetheless, let’s just say 600 plus tribal affiliations. You know, Comanche and Kiowa are two separate tribal affiliations. I’m two of 600 possible affiliations out there, and there are many. That sense of diversity, when we think about the very important and critical challenge of socially supporting Native American language learning, not everyone can see that yet. 

Not everyone thinks, well, because there’s a small amount of resources, we need to focus where we can see the immediate wins. We need to focus on the low hanging fruit or, you know, there’s just not enough resources to do anything. So we just need to continue asking for more resources. I think in a lot of respects, nobody’s entirely wrong, but I do think that a lot of things can be done to support our language work through the diversity that we have in our populations. A call for unification. There’s American Indians in the continental 48 or the contiguous 48 states, and then I never want to forget about my Native Hawaiian relatives and my Alaska Native relatives as well. 

Trying to think about how diversity serves us and building those lines of connection are important to that second bucket on recruitment and retention of talent. We have recruitment programs. Our grantees work to identify scholars, to get them recruited and credentialed and placed in high-density Native American school districts to do a service payback in their program. Beyond recruiting new talent, I feel that we should also pay particular attention to retaining our existing talent, who, quite frankly, are seeing a lot of this work and have already shepherded many years into the system and still need to be supported. 

There are various retention strategies and recruitment strategies that I would want the OIE to be a resource collector at the table to disseminate and distribute promising practices across the nation and to really think about how we can recruit new talent to native communities and keep talent within the native communities, albeit, yes, we can probably. We want our native talents to go elsewhere, but we don’t want them to stay elsewhere. We want them to come back and give back to the community. But again, that second bucket is thinking about the talent that we have in our communities, recruiting it and retaining it. And the third one on the teacher leadership piece of it, along the lines of what you mentioned on models, and something that I’ve been interested in that I’m kind of new to is the, teacher leadership models. As a method of retaining and keeping existing talent they are really equipping teachers with leadership opportunities and, you know, learning about what that means and learning about how that can really increase longevity and how that can also really incentivize growth for a practicing teacher. And I really want to learn more about this. So I make this a third bucket because this is something that I’m interested in seeing how it’s teacher leadership. Then I was also thinking about all the other factors that impact that leadership or get in the way of a teacher being able to have that leadership. 

Jason Cummins: Yeah, I got a comment in a question, and we were fortunate to work together this year, Julian, and I was always amazed at just the high level of talent that were able to work with. One individual that comes to my mind is Adan Gonzalez from Dallas, he’s the executive director of the PUEDE Network. I think I said that right, but, he was a White House fellow. And just mentioning one of the pathways currently that’s out there right now I received some information from Kevin Lavery, and they want to reach out to make sure we try to get some Native American White House fellows. 

So I wanted to put that out there on the pod today for anybody listening who has some promising students who want to get a feel for the type of work that you’re in with the Department of Ed, and any quick advice for any college students who want to serve their communities through education, but not as a teacher or principal and do some government work like you do? 

Government Work and Collaboration

Julian Guerrero: Oh, yeah. Three things off the top of my head. Subscribe to the various channels out there. There’s a great organization, a nonprofit called the Society of American Indian Government Employees, or SAIGE. They push a lot of opportunities out there across different agencies for natives who want to get involved in government work at the federal level. I think that they’ve always been a champion at uplifting those opportunities. My advice for college native students, without a doubt, is networking, it’s been a part of, it’s a part of the equation of success in my life, is that networking aspect. My formal background is not in education. My training is public administration. My bachelor’s is in public affairs and administration with a master’s in public administration. I’m a believer in making government more efficient and making government more accountable, transparent, human, communicative, accessible, meaningful, and I think all of those elements of what you’re interested in, like advice for a college student who has those same interests, keep them, never lose them, and volunteer your time expecting nothing in return. When you enter those opportunities with that sort of spirit and that mentality, the rewards that you reap may not be immediate, they may be somewhere down the line. But I know I, Julian, have been a living testimony to this and that I did a project that connected me with a gentleman who so happened to be an executive director of a nonprofit that just so happened to get an NYCP grant from an office called the office of Indian Education. And when it came time to be on the job hunt and knowing people and doing work, and he was like, hey, you want a job? I said, I would love a job. Volunteering, networking are two of the most valuable methods, and do it with a heart, not expecting any return. 

Mason Pashia:
Well, that was fantastic. That was not only a masterclass and the questions we asked, but kind of a masterclass in how to live. So, Julian, thank you so much for being here with us today and for your time. 

Julian Guerrero:
Mason, Jason, thank you both. I really appreciate it. Yeah, let me come on camera real quick and wave to you guys. Thank you for the honor. It’s always good to talk with you guys.

Getting Smart Staff

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