In his work, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speaks to the colonial roots of racism in America.

“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.”

As I contemplate the state of race relations today, I think not only of the incredible tensions that exist around issues of economic security, access to health care, education, and public services, and immigration, but also about whether or not the lives of American Indians and Alaska Natives have changed since Dr. King’s book was published in 1963.

In many ways, our lives as indigenous peoples have improved. Many of us have college educations, jobs, homes, and savings accounts. Many of our Tribes have discovered how to be more prosperous in support of our many needs. Our cultural practices thrive and many of us and our families strive for healthy lives and engaged citizenship.

But many of us still live in abject poverty, without even a car to take us to the nearest grocery store, which might be 30 or more miles away. We are living in substandard housing and our healthcare lacks basic quality. Our Native languages, the heart of our identity, are dying.  Many of our children, broken by the lack of support for them and their families, don’t thrive and leave high school early in despair of what the future holds.

We can do better as a society and as individuals. Dr. King did more than battle racism, he battled poverty. On the day he was assassinated, he was meeting with others in Nashville to support the need to improve conditions for sanitation workers. He recognized that systemic racism contributed to poverty and the lack of opportunity.

Education matters. Education creates a shared experience, promotes inclusion and diversity, tells the truth about actions and consequences, and gives tools for improvement and change. Education lifts us as individuals and builds a better society. All aspects of education matter, from providing early education to infants and toddlers and their parents to supporting student success in college and vocational, technical, and trade schools.

We can take a hold of the noble crusade that Dr. King references to tell the truth about our history, to grasp the conditions of our lives today, and to lay the path for a better future.  Join us at the American Indian College Fund in our crusade to transform lives through higher education.

Please see a speech given by President Cheryl Crazy Bull at a recent National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE). The conference focuses on creating and sustaining comprehensive institutional change to improve racial and ethnic relations on campus and to expand opportunities for educational access and success for culturally diverse, traditionally underrepresented populations.