Floor Speech: Murkowski Pays Tribute to Alaskan Education Pioneer William Demmert
***As Prepared for Delivery***
Mr. President, I rise today to honor Dr. William G. Demmert, known by many as Kaagoowu (a man with the strength of a stump) of the Tlingit ''Naasteidi'' Eagle clan--a pioneer in the cause of improving Indian education and the Nation's leading researcher on Native language immersion and culturally based education.
I am saddened to report that Dr. Demmert, an invaluable pioneer in the cause of justice for Indian education, died January 19, 2010, in Bellingham, WA, at the age of 75.
He was a man beloved by indigenous peoples of Alaska, the Southwest, the Arctic nations, and New Zealand--especially the Tlingit and Lakota, by Hawaiians, and by Maoris. He will be sorely missed. In particular, I would note that we in Alaska honored and cherished Kaagoowu.
Residents of southeast Alaska say of his departure that he ''Walked into the Forest,'' but his spirit and memory live on. He was tied to the lands of Alaska as a fisher and gatherer; he studied and recorded the landscapes of ancestors as a scholar and as clan member. He served Alaska as superintendent, principal, and teacher for Klawock City School; a teacher in Fairbanks; a professor of education at the University of Alaska Southeast; as a Commissioner of Education for the State of Alaska; and as a trustee of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Throughout his life, he united Alaskans with the Lakota and, through his work strengthened our bonds with Indian tribes across the Nation and with other indigenous Peoples throughout the Arctic and South Seas. He contributed to the Nation by ensuring that the richness of our cultural and linguistic diversity survived in the schools and in our daily lives.
Throughout his professional life, Dr. William Demmert championed three important education issues: 1) early learning and preschool programs; 2) meeting the educational needs of at-risk youth; and 3) improving the academic performance of American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native children.
The focus of Dr. Demmert's research was the education of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students. His work was invaluable in the exploration of educational programs and schools serving Native communities, helping educators and policymakers to better understand the role of traditional knowledge in instructional practice, and assessing what works in providing a school environment that values academic performance, citizenship, and the traditional ways for Indian children. His research on Native language immersion education has proven unequivocally that heritage language acquisition strengthens critical thinking, college preparedness, and overall academic success.
Dr. Demmert was born in Klawock, AK, to William and Florence (Allman) Demmert. He was of Tlingit and Oglala Lakota heritage and a member of the Demmert family of southeast Alaska, many of whom made important and positive contributions to their communities and to Alaska at large through their work as teachers, education researchers, and leaders. ''Dr. Bill,'' as he was known by many in southeast Alaska, lived up to his heritage and his ancestors' examples.
Bill's experiences growing up within the Alaska education systems in the 1940s and early 1950s ran the gamut of the kind of educational opportunities available to young Alaska Native people at that time. He attended a BIA school, a territorial school, and boarding schools both in and out of State. These experiences, and the support he received from his extended family, stayed with him and informed his view of Indian education.
Bill was not one of those ivory tower academics with no roots in the real world. After earning his bachelor's and master's degrees and teaching in Washington State, Bill returned to Alaska, teaching in Fairbanks, Craig, and Klawock, where he also served as both principal and superintendent. He spent the 1960s learning how to educate from the ground up.
In 1969, he and few friends attending a conference on Indian education decided to form a new group, one they thought would represent the unique needs of Indian educators, students, and communities. The group they formed was the National Indian Education Association. The NIEA has become, since that initial conversation over coffee, a powerful voice for Indian students and educators across the country.
Soon after, Bill was asked to work with Senators Kennedy and Mondale to help write the Indian Education Act of 1972, legislation that was intended to respond to the U.S. Senate's report, ''Indian Education: A National Tragedy, A National Challenge.'' Today, we know the Indian Education Act as title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Thousands of Indian educators and countless children and parents have found a voice and benefited from programs created by Bill's work to create solutions to the tragic shortcomings in Indian education.
In 1973, having earned his doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Bill returned to the world of public policy, working for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as Deputy Commissioner of Education for the U.S. Office of Indian Education and as Director of the Office of Indian Education Programs at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
After 5 years with the Federal Government, Bill returned to academia at the University of Alaska Southeast and finished the 1980s as Commissioner of Education for the State of Alaska. As Commissioner from 1986 through 1990, Dr. Demmert is credited with ''changing the conversation'' on education. Today, many of the issues he championed have become mainstream in Alaska education.
In 1991, after Dr. Demmert left office as Commissioner, President George H. W. Bush named him and former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrell H. Bell cochairmen of the prestigious Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, which issued an influential report to the President and Congress entitled, ''Indian Nations at Risk: An Educational Strategy for Action.'' A principal writer of the report, this effort gave Bill the opportunity to assess nearly 20 years of work and progress in the education of Native American children. Among other elements, the report published an Indian Student Bill of Rights. It reads:
The Indian Nations at Risk Task Force believes that every American Indian and Alaska Native student is entitled to:
A safe and psychologically comfortable environment in school.
A linguistic and cultural environment in school that offers students opportunities to maintain and develop a firm knowledge base.
An intellectually challenging program in school that meets community as well as individual academic needs.
A stimulating early childhood educational environment that is linguistically, culturally, and developmentally appropriate.
Equity in school programs, facilities, and finances across Native communities, and in schools run by the federal government and public schools in general.
In writing and speaking about this report, he reflected upon his grandparents', his parents', and his own education in BIA schools, whose mission it was to assimilate Natives into the ''American way of life and culture.'' He felt blessed that his grandfather and parents were fluent in both Tlingit and English, and that they encouraged him to be so as well. He reflected with sadness that so many young people he knew were fluent in neither. He expressed concern that over the course of his life, too many young people were educated in schools that reflected no respect for their language and culture, and was surprised that he survived this.
Dr. Demmert spent the remaining years of his life researching and teaching at Western Washington University. Before retiring in 2008, he served as a principal investigator, in partnership with Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory and other major partners from Arizona to Hawaii working to develop and test assessments in schools using Native language immersion and culturally based instruction.
Not only recognized as an expert in indigenous education here in the United States, Dr. Demmert leant his expertise to education policymakers and practitioners of many nations, serving as cochair of a coalition of the Ministers of Education of northern nations, including Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland, the Russian Federation, Nunavut Territory, Northern Quebec, and the Yukon Territory.
Recognized for his long experience and vast expertise in Native education, particularly with regard to Native language instruction, Dr. Demmert was called to testify in 2000 before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in support of the Native American Languages Act Amendments Act. Bill celebrated the fact that ''Native language, the traditional morés and cultural priorities, the importance of tribal identity and lineage have all become higher priorities as we build a contemporary culture and context of the school that supports Native students' identities.'' That bill passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent.
In addition to his professional accomplishments, Dr. Demmert was a good man. He had a great ability to put people at ease. He understood his role as mentor, and built bridges between academia, policymakers, and everyday people. He was a teacher of teachers, and a leader of leaders.
Dr. William G. Demmert was responsible for great strides in Indian education, and had great hopes for its future. Now, as we celebrate a life well lived and his innumerable contributions to the education of Indian children, we must all rededicate ourselves to ensuring that every child among our first peoples has the opportunity to learn in an atmosphere of respect where his language, culture, and history are taught and celebrated, and where every Indian child can achieve his or her highest aspirations. We must ensure that his legacy--the Indian Education Act and indigenous language education as a means to preserving the sacred languages of our first peoples--is kept vibrant and meaningful for the future.
Bill Demmert, Kaagoowu, is survived by his wife of 42 years, Nora Demmert; sons William and Philip; daughters Nora and Melanie; brothers Lee and Ted; his sister, Justna; five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and a multitude of other relatives.
On behalf of the U.S. Senate, I am proud to recognize and thank Dr. William G. Demmert for his long years of service. I extend my condolences and sincere sympathy on his passing to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.
Mr. President, I yield the floor.