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Supporting Young Children and Families in American Indian Communities

The Department of Health and Human Services announces $600,000 in awards to six tribal entities for a new round of Tribal Early Learning Initiative (TELI) grants.

Ed. note: This is cross-posted on the Administration for Children and Families' blog. See the original post here.

“My administration is determined to partner with tribes, and it’s not something that just happens once in a while. It takes place every day, on just about every issue that touches your lives…So here today, I want to focus on the work that lies ahead. And I think we can follow the lead of Standing Rock’s most famous resident, Chief Sitting Bull. He said, ‘Let’s put our minds together to see what we can build for our children.’”

President Obama, Remarks at the Cannon Ball Flag Day Celebration, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Cannon Ball, North Dakota, June 13, 2014


Today, I joined Secretary Burwell on a visit to the Flathead reservation in Montana, where we met with early childhood leaders from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and announced $600,000 in awards to six tribal entities for a new round of Tribal Early Learning Initiative (TELI) grants. These grants enable more tribal communities to do the innovative work necessary to coordinate their early learning and development programs and boost the quality of services offered to children and families from pregnancy-to-kindergarten. The newly announced TELI winners include the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians in Oregon, the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin.

For me, today was a homecoming. I was born and raised on the Flathead reservation and volunteered in one of the first Head Start programs ever established there. I saw first-hand the great needs in my community, and the great influence that a little extra support for children and families could have. Those experiences have stayed with me all my life and influence my work today. High-quality early childhood development programs have the potential to ensure that our youngest learners enter school healthy, prepared to excel, and with a love for learning- and that can transform a community.

Tribal communities have great capacity and desire to build a strong future for their people, addressing a collective legacy of historical and intergenerational trauma and severe health and socioeconomic disparities experienced by American Indians and Alaska Natives (AIAN) when compared to other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.  Early childhood development programs that support young AIAN children and their families have great potential to address the challenges facing tribal communities. Because these programs have often been developed in “patchwork” fashion, in response to specific needs and have separate funding sources, standards, and regulations, programs are often siloed and have conflicting policies, inconsistent quality and accountability, and uneven investment.

To address these issues, in 2012, we launched the TELI. Today, the TELI is also one of our White House Rural Council’s Rural Impact strategies to address child poverty, including child poverty in tribal communities. Through Rural Impact, the Obama Administration is working across agencies and with nonprofit and private sector partners to better serve rural and tribal kids and families.

The results of the TELI to date have been exciting. During her visit, Secretary Burwell also announced the release of a new report which highlights the innovative work of the first group of TELI grantees:  the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Pueblo of San Felipe, and the White Earth Nation. Over the past three years, these TELI tribes have made major strides in improving their early childhood services and ensuring more children and their families are receiving the high-quality early experiences they need to thrive. Examples of their work include:

  • Creating a single tribal early learning program enrollment form to facilitate the enrollment process for families
  • Selecting common assessment tools to more easily compare data across programs
  • Holding joint professional development trainings for early childhood teachers
  • Investing in data systems to allow for better coordination and sharing of relevant child and family data across programs

TELI grantees are models for other tribes, as well as for states and communities across America, for their vision, creativity, and commitment to boost the quality of their early learning services to better meet the needs of children and families. Our Administration is thrilled to broaden the reach of the TELI to additional tribal communities and come one step closer to ending rural child poverty.

Linda K. Smith is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.