To hear Regis Pecos speak can be a formidable experience. Always elegantly dressed, he is a forceful speaker who commands whatever room he addresses. Pecos has served as both lieutenant governor and governor of Cochiti Pueblo and was a member of the tribal council for more than 30 years. He was former chief of staff in the Office of the Speaker, House of Representatives. An eloquent advocate on Native American issues, Pecos co-founded the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, one of the nation’s most effective launching pads for Native youth. He currently serves as its co-director, along with Carnell Chosa.

Pecos has long held footholds in both worlds. Apart from a brief stint at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Pecos attended Albuquerque public schools; his father, a bus driver, drove him to school every day from seventh through twelfth grades. He received his undergraduate degree from Princeton University, where he counted Sonia Sotomayor among his classmates. Soon after she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, she called Pecos to offer her advice and services to Native law students in New Mexico.

Pecos has long been influential in state government, where he served as chief of staff to the speaker of the House (the late Ben Luján) for 12 years. He is currently a senior policy advisor to the majority floor leader, Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton (D-Bernalillo).

This is an abbreviated conversation with Pecos about his life and the future of education in New Mexico.

Searchlight New Mexico: You are someone who’s been embraced by two worlds. You’ve maintained a strong foothold in the Cochiti Pueblo of your birth while pursuing a stellar education and demanding career. How did that happen?

Regis Pecos: It’s nothing magical. It has everything to do with parents who enrich your life with the teachings that result in creating a deep love for your language and your culture. I think when children are brought up grounded in the place they call home and encouraged to get an education, they recognize an early balance in the values of both.

Searchlight: Was that your intent in creating the Leadership Institute 20 years ago?

Pecos: It was intended to strike a balance – to create an appreciation for where you come from and embrace all that defines you as a member of the community – while also realizing that the way you protect what you deeply love is to acquire the skills and tools necessary in a Western education. So that you use those to protect what you love most. It epitomizes the balance that is necessary in order to enjoy existing in these two realms. One doesn’t have to give up who they are to be successful.

Searchlight: What if anything has the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit accomplished?

Pecos: When you read through the 2003 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, it documents the significant under-resourcing of Indian education as part of a larger violation of trust on the part of the U.S. government. But it now frames it in a way that is a glaring violation of a civil right and in fact extends it to a violation of human rights.

Most important, Yazzie affirms for our generation, as has been affirmed for previous generations by countless studies, inquiries, commissioned by the executive, congress and the state – all concluding and recommending the same. It is an affirmation to all that generations have advocated for the necessary change that must take place and for which to some degree the state has put into law. This time, our hope is that the outcome of efforts by the executive, PED and legislature will yield different outcomes.

Searchlight: In the last session, New Mexican legislators pumped $500 million into the state schools and created an early childhood education department.

Pecos: If there are no explicated defined provisions in legislative measures for funding Native American programs to respond to the needs of Native American students, there will be little to no change. The court has already affirmed that articulated in the findings. There was little to no language and provisions in the $500 million and investments. In fact, the legislation proposed with explicit language and provisions aligned with the findings did not pass. That is why I gave the session a 1 on a scale of 10.

Searchlight: What if anything will be the impact on Native students?

Pecos: In the early ’60s when Head Start was introduced, who would argue against Head Start being anything but a good thing? But what we did not ask is, where is Head Start going? Head Start is a head start to English proficiency, English fluency. At what expense? Our languages.

If that is the case, how different is that from what was 100 years previous in 1890, with the introduction of Indian policy – using children as the ultimate way to make us invisible?

There is no fundamental difference, and now early education enters the picture. The same questions now need to be asked if we’ve learned anything from Head Start as a major contributor to making language very fragile.

Searchlight: In other words, you don’t endorse preschool education as the answer to our state’s education woes?

Pecos: If nothing changes, we have to fear that we are going to subject the youngest of our children into an earlier time of assimilation and become our own worst enemy and offer up our own demise. If nothing changes, who would want to embrace early childhood education?

Early childhood education is going to be the ultimate death of our language and culture if nothing changes.

Searchlight: What can New Mexico’s schools do differently?

Pecos: There is a long history of conditioning that somebody else knows best what is good for our children. And that hasn’t changed a whole lot. New Mexico PED commissioned a study in 2003 which was the first Indigenous led team to develop recommendations for education strategies for Native American students. It is entitled Indian Education in New Mexico, 2025. It documents best practices in Indian education, providing a culturally responsive education for our children. It requires systemic reform and transformation in educational ideologies. It provides a road map, a pathway.

We are not short on recommendations. To achieve our aspirations – as we have seen in far too many places from early childhood education and care, primary, secondary and in higher education – we know it can be done.

Searchlight: With all this new money coming, what would you like to see?

Pecos: So here’s an idea. Why couldn’t an academy be designed for language, culture and history that’s community based?

My older brother teaches in what we designed as a community-based education program – where students study the quality of water, air, soil, vegetation – all connected to being so close to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Kids who don’t normally do well in those disciplines all of a sudden have a totally different connection – so when that young person goes home and sits with mom and dad and grandpa and grandma at dinner, there’s a totally different conversation. Where the grandson can now ask grandpa, what is that place you call in the mountains where the water runoff comes from? Maybe grandma knows where they pick the wild spinach or the wild celery or the onions. Or where mushrooms grow and when they grow in certain areas.

Searchlight: Why have you never run for state office?

Pecos: I have been blessed with being in the center of power. That has allowed me to do the kinds of things that we engage in in our Leadership Institute – to transform into policy, into legislative recommendations, into appropriation. And being in those places of power and influence as a staff person and as a director, in my mind, have been far broader in scope of opportunity than being in some elected office. Because I have been able to contribute to the entire spectrum of issues for rural communities, from the acequias to the land grants to small business, to health and to the immigrant community, Indian education and tax policy.

Clarification: This original version of this story described Regis Pecos as current chief of staff to the New Mexico speaker of the House. It’s been changed to show that he was chief of staff under previous House speakers.

Sara Solovitch is the editor of Searchlight New Mexico. She supervised its launch in January 2018 with the Child Well-Being Project, an investigation into the plight of children and families in New Mexico....