ROSEBUD RESERVATION, S.D. - Sherry Red Owl's conference room in the tribal Department of Education is chaotic, but it's the kind of happy chaos that reflects its main obsession: the schoolchildren of the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in southern South Dakota.
Piles of reports, papers, pictures
and boxes line the room and occupy several chairs. Wedged between
kids' drawings looms a large version of the tribe's Educational
Vision Statement, a document based on the Lakota concept of unkita
wakanyeja, oneness, or participation by everyone in the well-being
In one corner, a big,
dark-complexioned doll perches on an uneven pile of papers by the
coffee-maker. Students take the "infant simulator" home for a week.
It cries loudly in random outbursts, requiring the frazzled
caretaker to hold a key in its back to quiet it. The doll is called
Baby Think It Over, and its presence is designed to help combat the
tribe's extremely high teen-pregnancy rate. Fortunately, its
batteries are not in at the moment.
In the midst
of it all is Sherry Red Owl, a kind-faced woman wearing a turtle
pendant, Lakota symbol of unity. Red Owl may sit at the top of the
education food chain here, but she knows her success depends on
doggedness, modesty and cooperation.
Department of Education is only seven years old, but already it is
a model of Native American educational leadership. It is about to
be the only tribal department in the country that independently
certifies all reservation teachers, including those who teach in
public schools in the county. Red Owl wants to ensure that all
teachers are versed in the tribal Code of Education and in Lakota
culture and history. If not, they can't teach here.
"We want to make the schools more responsive to
the tribe and more accountable for student outcomes," says Red
Recent high school dropout rates waver
between 7 and 35 percent, according to Red Owl. Only 12 percent of
students seek post-high-school education. National test scores rank
in the 30th and 40th percentiles. On any given day, 10 percent of
the students are absent.
In a county that is the
poorest in South Dakota - poverty here exceeds 46 percent - many
families do not own vehicles. There's no ride to school for a child
who misses the bus. Many parents are alcoholic. Of those students
who make it to the local tribal college, the vast majority need to
take remedial classes. Seventy-three percent of freshmen do not
return for their sophomore year.
are not unique to the Rosebud. The U.S. Department of Education
says that among eighth graders nationally, American Indians are
more at risk than any other racial or ethnic group: 42 percent
belong to families in poverty; nearly a third repeat a year in
school; and almost a third perform below basic proficiency levels
in math and reading. They are the least likely to attend or finish
But Red Owl and a core group of other
academic leaders, mostly female, are determined to reverse these
trends. They have chosen a path between two worlds, one that they
hope will help Lakota children discover pride in their traditional
culture while learning the skills to compete in the larger
Rediscovering a lost
Ensuring that teachers understand Lakota
culture may seem a simple step, but it cuts against the grain of
history. As early as 1885, tribal children were forcibly removed
from their families and sent to boarding schools, which were funded
by the federal government and run by missionaries who forbade the
students to speak native languages and learn Lakota
Beginning in the 1920s, states began to
take over the education of Indians. But the resulting public school
system also used a generic, Anglo-centric curriculum. It was a
double disservice: To this day, most adults on the Rosebud
reservation do not know the Lakota language, and most are
ill-educated by national standards.
"When a tribe
feels a system of education is imposed by an outside, dominant
society, there's a lot of bitterness and negative feelings. Those
lingering impacts are the root causes of poor student performance,"
says Melody McCoy of the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American
The new code is a sharp break from
the past. It asserts, among other things, that kids should grow up
healthy and alcohol-free, respectful and knowledgeable of their
heritage, confident in their abilities and academically
"It's pretty innovative for a tribe to be
telling a public school what to do," says McCoy, whose organization
helped develop the Rosebud's code and usher it through the South
Dakota system as a pilot project in 1991.
schools were not partners with the tribe until a few years ago, and
tribal presence has a lot to do with how people behave," Red Owl
says. "We're seeing a lot more parental involvement, people feeling
more comfortable with the schools, kids having more pride."
These changes appear to be improving the
statistics that measure educational success. According to a study
funded by the Carnegie Corporation, high school drop-out rates at
the tribe-run St. Francis School went from 36.5 percent in 1989-90
to 7 percent in 1997-98. The graduation rate increased from 24
percent to 69 percent over the same period.
so, warns Red Owl, "These figures are not stable. They bounce
around. This will be a process of evolution, not revolution."
While the concept of unkita sounds promising,
can it change life on the reservation, where alcoholism,
depression, child abuse, low-birthweight babies and dangerously
overweight adults all rank high? Cultural knowledge for kids is
important, but what about solid, baseline academics and the
motivation to learn them? What will make kids believe they can have
meaningful jobs? Where will the jobs come from?
A little school on a vast
Those questions are brought into sharper
relief when I visit Todd County High School, a public-funded school
in which the tribe plays a growing administrative
Up close, the cinderblock and steel and
glass buildings, with gleaming computers upstairs and an
appropriately battered Vocational Ed auto shop downstairs, could be
anywhere. But from a middle distance at the edge of the town of
Mission, the picture takes on a new dimension. The prairie starts
just behind the mobile homes at the end of the parking lot. The
reservation is vast and isolated: 4.5 million acres of sand-colored
grasses, picturesque pine-covered hills and a few cow-speckled,
spring-fed gullies. The main tourist trajectory through Badlands
National Park lies over 100 miles to the West.
is its habit, the wind is blowing 30 miles per hour, turning a
40-degree day into a 12-degree chill. Twenty-five miles to the
south lies the Nebraska border, which might be a consolation, only
there's not much there, either. Just this side of the border is the
tribe's largest private employer, the Rosebud Casino, with 139
people on the payroll.
While Mission is plagued
by many of the problems facing depressed rural towns everywhere -
lack of stores, basic services, entertainment, even a public
library - it is different in one way from most of rural South
Dakota: it, along with the rest of the reservation (pop.19,000), is
growing at an impressive clip. This is partly due to a high birth
rate (50 percent of the population is under age 20, compared to 31
percent for the state) and partly due to a culture that raises its
young to stay close to home.
Even so, the nearest
place to buy goods and services is 100 miles away in Pierre. What
few businesses exist tend to be run by non-Indians. The tribe
leases over 600,000 acres to non-Indians, since they're the ones
who can establish credit. Tribal members technically own the land,
but they can't put it up as collateral because it's held in a
common trust (HCN, 8/3/98).
Inside Vocational Ed,
I spend some time talking to Dennis Schmaltz, a pilot and teacher
who helped snare a promising grant this year to build an airplane
in shop. There's supposed to be a class going on, but no one has
shown up. The airplane's kevlar skeleton perches forlornly on the
worktable like a patient awaiting surgery.
thought this would really go over well because it's so different,"
says Schmaltz, who is teaching a companion ground-school class. Of
his seven original students, two were suspended for fighting and
one is in rehab. He shrugs. "What am I getting done today?"
The Rosebud is caught in a cycle of poverty,
poor school performance, and a lack of economic opportunity. Kids
don't see worthwhile jobs being offered, so they don't go to
school. An under-educated work force keeps employers at bay.
Without a better standard of living, kids remain underfed and
underachieving. For generations, family members have not held a
job. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, unemployment rates
here hover between 44 and 63 percent. The per capita income is
$4,803, one-half the state average. With 38 percent of the
population receiving food stamps and 20 percent receiving Aid to
Families with Dependent Children in 1997 (not including Bureau of
Indian Affairs assistance), Todd County had the highest percentage
on welfare in the state.
"Our biggest challenge
in improving education is dealing with poverty," says Red Owl.
"That's why economic development is the tribe's number one
The tribal government is currently
negotiating with a large agribusiness corporation to start a hog
farm on the reservation, even though pork is priced lower than it
has been in 23 years. It would be the third largest pork production
facility in the world, and would have questionable impacts on the
local environment. The tribe would supply the land and water, the
company, capital and promise.
But nobody seems
terribly happy about the prospect. "We are not a pig people," one
person told me.
I feel deflated by the time I arrive
in the principal's office, but then I watch the school secretary
bouncing from phone to office, handing out candy canes to
straggling students and asking about their day. On her headband,
she wears a rack of stuffed fabric antlers.
principal, Nancy Keller, materializes from behind a tinsel-covered
wall. She is younger than I expected. A Lakota Sioux, she exudes an
easy, no-nonsense confidence even though this is only her second
year on the job. She wears her hair in a long, black braid, and
holds an intricately beaded pen.
"I went to
school here," she says. "I know these kids. I know their families.
I hope we can stay here and our children can stay here. It's a
beautiful place to live. I want them to have more opportunity."
With that, Keller describes what the school has
begun to do or will do soon: cluster freshmen and pay more
attention to getting them caught up (most drop-outs occur before
the sophomore year), institute "career academies' so students can
sample a profession and learn applied skills, utilize more Internet
resources, require more college preparatory classes and more Lakota
culture classes, establish stricter discipline, bring in elders to
address girls-only assemblies on violence and self-esteem,
strengthen home-study programs, place problem kids in a tribe-run
intervention center, and more.
"I'm a person who
likes challenges," she says, "and I expect the students to have the
Together, Keller and Red Owl form
a strong team for educational reform on the reservation. Red Owl
enjoys the support of the tribal government (it funds the
Department of Education and its staff of administrators, counselors
and truancy officers) and the allegiance of the reservation's
largest schools. Those are public-funded Todd County, where Keller
presides, and St. Francis Indian School, newly managed by another
homegrown reformer, Cheryl Crazy Bull.
powerful triumvirate, Red Owl, Keller and Crazy Bull, graduated
together in 1997 from a master's degree program in educational
leadership for Native Americans. The advanced degree program,
funded by the Bush Foundation, enabled these three and 17 others
from the state's reservations to attend South Dakota State
University one summer, then follow-up with classes from the
Rosebud's Sinte Gleska Tribal University and Oglalla Sioux College
on the neighboring Pine Ridge Reservation.
program wouldn't have been possible without the support of Sinte
Gleska, considered one of the best tribal colleges in the country.
Founded in 1971, it has grown from a two-year community college to
a fully accredited four-year university, offering advanced degrees
in education, human services and business administration (it is the
only tribal college to do so). Seventy percent of its students are
women, and the average age is 30.
In a county
where unemployment hovers near 60 percent, nearly all Sinte Gleska
graduates find work. "We serve students who would not go to higher
education if we were not in the area," says Lionel Bordeaux, dean
of academic affairs. "We probably have the best teacher-education
program in the state." That major churns out four to 12 graduates
per year, who are, says Bordeaux, "100 percent employable."
That the reservation now grows its own teachers,
many of whom are the best and brightest minds available, gives Red
Owl great hope. Many teachers are now native, many administrators
are now native - including members of Todd County's school board -
and the district superintendent is native. The ducks are finally
lining up, she says.
Both Todd County's schools
and St. Francis Indian School now require students to study the
Lakota language, take culture-based curricula classes and behave
according to Lakota notions of respect. Since Todd County middle
school initiated a culture-influenced social-skills program three
years ago - requiring troubled students to seek peer and counselor
help - suspensions have dropped by nearly
"We used to have a tough choice here:
identify with Lakota roots and be cut off from mainstream culture,
or identify with the mainstream and suppress your identity. It was
really bad for us," says Lydia Whirlwind Soldier, the Lakota
Studies Coordinator for the school district. "Now, there is a more
demonstration school is taking Lakota studies a step further. Begun
as a home school for the children of an Anglo father and Lakota
mother, Grass Mountain now has two paid teachers and eight students
aged 6-12. The curriculum includes the annual slaughter of a
buffalo, horsemanship, tepee-building, hide-tanning and Lakota
astronomy, among more conventional offerings like math and social
studies. An 81-year-old resident uncici (-grandmother') teaches
language, spirituality and traditional uses of plants and animal
"We want our students to have mastery of
both Western and traditional knowledge," says Charlie Garriott,
whose home-schooled son will attend Yale next year. "What does it
mean to be Lakota in the 21st century? That's what we want to
enable students to think about. We have a clear bias of wanting
students to leave and broaden their world view, but then to come
home and rebuild the Lakota Nation."
Owl hopes the experimental elements of Grass Mountain can seep into
the more standard school system. "I keep thinking, if every one of
our troubled kids had a horse to work with, he'd be okay."
Turning a prison into a
What appear to be the Rosebud's
weaknesses - its remote isolation and self-containment - may end up
being its greatest strength. One example of this is the fact that
the Lakota language, while underused, survives
"The reservation used to be like a
concentration camp," Whirlwind Soldier says. "We were forced to
stay here when we were used to roaming the Plains. But now, we
don't feel confined anymore. It's become our homeland."
As for bringing economic opportunity to the
homeland, there is no shortage of ideas: commercial bison herds,
pheasant and prairie dog hunting for tourists, renewable energy
development. The tribe is applying for a $40 million federal
"empowerment zone" grant for rural areas.
to a grant by the Kettering and Chiesman foundations, Sinte Gleska
University's Sicangu Policy Institute has begun mediating a series
of local dialogues on economic growth. It is an uneasy and
complicated topic here.
"There are components of
capitalism that fit here and components that don't," explains the
institute's Nora Antoine. "We're a self-sufficient, strong,
willful, contributing, mindful people, and we don't fit into easy
categories. But I'm very excited about the dialogue and about
involving families and kids."
Finally, I want to
hear from a more recent member of the Rosebud's education machine,
so I call 20-year-old Tess Crazy Bull (Cheryl's daughter) at her
dorm at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, some six hours away.
A sophomore, she is an English major hoping to someday teach at the
university level. Of her high school classmates, two other Lakota
Sioux went away to college. One of those has dropped out. A few of
her friends are studying at Sinte Gleska, some are working at the
casino, some are having babies.
homesickness, the foreign off-reservation environment and the
brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard a week into classes,
Tess perseveres. Will she return to live on the
"Absolutely," she says, with a
conviction that most small-town kids lack. "My friends here ask me,
"Why do you want to go back there? It's so depressed, it's so
poor," but unless you go back and do something, it will stay like
that forever. A lot of people only see the poverty, but there's so
much more there, and so many good people. I love it there. It's
Florence Williams, a
former HCN intern and staff reporter, freelances from Helena,
For a free copy of the full report,
External Evaluation Final Report, Rosebud Sioux-Tribal Education
Department and Tribal Code, contact Rhoda Riggs at the Native
American Rights Fund, 303/447-8760.