Homegrown leaders: Lakota educators bridge two worlds

  • South Dakota

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Dr. Lucy Reifel moved back to her ancestral home

    Florence Williams photo
  • Todd County High School principal Nancy Keller

    Florence Williams photo

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 of children.

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.

Her 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 Owl.

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.

These problems 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 college.

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 world.

Rediscovering a lost past

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 customs.

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 Rights Fund.

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 strong.

"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.

"The 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.

Even 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 prairie

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 role.

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.

As 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.

"We 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 priority."

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.

A powerful triumvirate

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.

The 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 same outlook."

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.

This 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.

The 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 half.

"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 middle-of-the-road path."

One tribe-run 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 parts.

"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."

Sherry Red 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 homeland

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 intact.

"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.

Thanks 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.

Despite her 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 Rosebud?

"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 home." n

Florence Williams, a former HCN intern and staff reporter, freelances from Helena, Montana.

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.

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