Education in Indian Country:
Running in Place
Like many Native American students, Legend Tell Tobacco, a 10-year-old on South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation, must outrun the odds against his educational success.
Education in Indian Country: Running in Place
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D.
Ten hours after leaving in the dark for the 15-mile ride to Loneman School, Legend Tell Tobacco bounds down the steps of the yellow school bus and runs back home.
He takes off in a full sprint, black hair flopping, down Tobacco Road, a half-mile-long stretch of dirt named for his family. He slows to a trudge when the rutted road rises steeply to reach his house on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a place where the promise of youth is often stifled by the probabilities of failure.
Legend just turned 10 and is in the 4th grade, and yet, he must constantly confront obstacles that could cause him to stumble into one of the grim statistical categories for which Pine Ridge—like much of the nation's Indian Country—is well known:
High school dropout.
Dead before 50.
Legend grins widely when announcing that he reads the same "chapter books" as 7th and 8th graders. He likes math, too, especially multiplication.
"Most of all," he says, "I love to run."
After a long day at Isna Wica Owayawa, the Lakota name for Loneman School, the laughing shrieks of his cousins beckon. But his aunt, Mary Tobacco, asks about homework. "I don't have any," he says quietly, stubbing his silver sneakers into the dirt. She raises an eyebrow and asks again. "No, really," he says.
"Be back at six for dinner," she tells him firmly, as he darts off to play in the horse corral.
Ms. Tobacco, a college graduate, prays this nagging and nurturing will keep her nephew on a course to high school graduation, a college degree, and a decent job. More urgently, she prays she'll get a call from Red Cloud, the private Jesuit school where she believes Legend would get the best shot at succeeding. He's on the waiting list.
"The two most important things I want for Legend," she says, "are for him to get his education and for him not to drink. But I don't know if I can completely protect him from ending up on a path that so many other youth on this reservation take."
On the 2.8 million-acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—home to nearly 40,000 members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux nation—alcoholism and suicide, especially among young people, occur at alarmingly high rates. Families that have been poor since the U.S. government forced tribes onto reservations more than 120 years ago see few prospects for breaking out of seven or eight generations of profound poverty.
Outrunning those odds for Legend and other American Indian youths living on and off reservations is perpetually challenging. Over the past decade, as the high-stakes school accountability era saw every other racial and ethnic subgroup of students make steady, if small, improvements in education outcomes, Native American youths, on the whole, stalled or lost ground.
"The state of American Indian education is a disaster," says David Beaulieu, a professor of educational policy and community studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe-White Earth.
An aerial view of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which spans 3,500 square miles.
American Indian Students Lose Ground
While such historically disadvantaged groups as African-American and Latino students have seen their graduation rates accelerate in recent years, American Indians and Alaska Natives, who constitute one subgroup for federal education data reporting, have not. According to analyses by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, American Indian graduation rates have been on a downward trend since 2008.
The achievement situation is not much better in the earlier grades. Between 2005 and 2011, American Indian and Alaska Native students were the only major ethnic group to demonstrate virtually no improvement on the 4th grade reading exam administered as part of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, although the rate of improvement posted by white students was not significantly greater than that of American Indian and Alaska Native students, according to an analysis from the Education Trust.
On the 2013 NAEP, American Indian and Alaska Native students posted gains in 8th grade mathematics, but otherwise did not demonstrate significant reading growth at that level, or on the 4th grade reading and math exams.
"It's been almost 12 years since No Child Left Behind was implemented, and we essentially have no appreciable results to show for it," said Mr. Beaulieu, who was the director of the office of Indian education in the U.S. Department of Education from 1997 to 2001.
"What we see are declines not only in measures of achievement, but declines in the overall quality of educational programs."
Painfully, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the southwest corner of South Dakota showcases those educational struggles.
Spanning nearly 3,500 square miles, Pine Ridge is bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Rumpled grasslands unfold for miles, offering unbroken views of hills crowned with rocks and scoured-out badlands.
Many families, like the Tobaccos, live outside the main population centers of Pine Ridge, Kyle, and Oglala, in remote communities with names like Slim Butte, Calico, and Red Shirt Table. Long school bus rides like Legend's—30 miles round trip—are typical.
That isolation can make travel to school a major challenge, especially during extreme South Dakota weather, when heavy snowfall can bring buses to a halt and persistent rainstorms turn hundreds of miles of dirt roads into mudslides.
Most adults on Pine Ridge don't have paid work. The tribal government puts the unemployment rate at around 80 percent, and Shannon County—which lies entirely within the boundaries of the reservation—has a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year. The tribe operates a small casino, with slots, poker, and blackjack, and offers guided hunts to tourists, but its economy—like that of so many other Indian reservations—is almost completely dependent on federal funding.
Four of the five poorest counties in the United States fall either wholly or partly within American Indian reservations, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. And the populations of those communities are overwhelmingly young. Because of relatively high birthrates and some of the lowest life-expectancy rates in the Western Hemisphere, nearly 40 percent of the residents of Shannon County, for example, are 18 or younger, compared with 25 percent for the state.
"We have a lot of young people on the reservation and not nearly enough jobs," said Christopher G. Bordeaux, the executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, a group of tribal schools on the Pine Ridge and other South Dakota reservations. "So that presents challenges to us as educators when we are trying to convince our young people to stay in school, to do well in school, to graduate, to go on to college."
‘Not A Rez Statistic’
The dearth of jobs exerts a powerful effect.
Luzahan White Horse, 19, graduated from Pine Ridge High School in June 2012. It took him an extra year to finish. Passing one English class was especially difficult, he says, "because reading is not my strongest skill." Still, with the encouragement of one teacher, he pushed through, he says, even as his own family told him he'd never do it.
"That's what motivated me more than anything—them saying I couldn't do it," Mr. White Horse says.
More than a year later, though, he spends most of his days playing basketball with friends in a Pine Ridge park, about a half-mile from the high school. He has no formal job. "I make money, I get by," he says.
One Thursday in late October, he and his friend Louis Whalen, 17, are shooting hoops. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, and Mr. Whalen, a junior at Pine Ridge High, says he has been suspended for fighting. Another friend, Leonard Blackfeather, 18, joins them to play a game of 21, while Mr. White Horse and Mr. Whalen rib him for skipping out on school early.
"I mostly went to school to chill with my friends because there's nothing else to do on the rez," says Mr. White Horse.
"I got my diploma, so I'm not one of the rez statistics," he says, referring to Pine Ridge's dropout rate. "But I don't see that my life is going to be that much different in 10 years. I'll probably still be here, playing basketball."
No matter if they're in schools on reservations, inner cities, or suburban communities, Native American students are struggling academically.
In South Dakota, which has the highest proportion of Native American students of any state, they lag on every academic indicator. According to the state's 2012-13 report card, 42 percent of American Indian students scored "proficient" or "advanced" on state math exams, while 80 percent of white students did so. In reading, 47 percent of American Indian students scored proficient or higher, compared to 79 percent of white students. The four-year graduation rate for South Dakota's American Indian students in 2013—49 percent—paints an even grimmer picture. And while the high-school-completion rate, which includes getting a diploma in more than four years or a GED, was much better, at 64 percent, American Indians still trailed every other major subgroup in the state by 17 or more percentage points.
In 2009-10, the four-year graduation rate at Pine Ridge High School, the biggest high school on the reservation, was 45 percent.
A Pine Ridge Family Struggles
Legend's father, Sylvester Tobacco, struggles to maintain sobriety, says Mary Tobacco, his younger sister. Legend's mother died nearly two years ago, at age 37, from the effects of alcoholism. Mr. Tobacco says he has been sober since her death, but is suffering from throat cancer. He hopes to make his small trailer suitable for children by installing electricity and running water.
"As soon as I can get it fixed and hooked up, I want them to come back to live with me," he says of Legend and Legend's 6-year-old sister, Essence.
So Ms. Tobacco, 45, has stepped in for now to raise "Tell," as most of Legend's family calls him, and Essence. Ms. Tobacco is also raising two other nephews and a niece for similar reasons. She has no children of her own.
Men in the Tobacco family, she says, have fought mightily with drinking, an affliction that affects as much as half of Pine Ridge's adult population.
So when Legend and the other children aren't in school, Ms. Tobacco tries to keep them close to home and busy. She signs them up for youth sports and takes them to Rapid City—two hours away—for special occasions, like a Halloween event. She monitors their schoolwork and tries to make them do a half-hour of reading each day.
Ms. Tobacco's own story echoes the generations of hardship on the reservation. Her father is mostly a face in photographs and in stories her mother and nine older brothers and sisters told her. He was killed by a drunk driver on the reservation before she turned 2.
Her mother, who left school after 7th grade, cooked and cleaned at Red Cloud Indian School, the private school run by the Jesuit religious order that Mary Tobacco wants Legend to attend. It's also where Ms. Tobacco became a standout basketball player before graduating in 1986 and heading to Huron College in Huron, S.D.
Now, she works two jobs. She's the athletic director and women's basketball coach at Oglala Lakota College on the reservation, and she works with the South Dakota High School Activities Association to recruit, train, and schedule officials for Pine Ridge's middle and junior varsity teams.
"We were really poor when we were growing up," Ms. Tobacco says. But she says her mother "was always reading Louis L'Amour books and magazines. She was also sober. She just gave us a really stable environment that a lot of families didn't have."
Of the five children Mary Tobacco is raising, all but Legend go to Red Cloud.
Legend's school, Loneman, is in the community of Oglala and has 240 students in grades K-8. After a decades-long wait for federal funding to move from an aging, asbestos-laden campus that has since been boarded up, Loneman is housed in an expansive, light-filled building where horses graze around the flagpole.
Moving the Needle
Loneman faces a marathon task to move student achievement off the bottom. In 2011-12, the school struggled to nudge a little more than 25 percent of its students to proficient reading levels as measured by the South Dakota state assessments. In math, just 12.5 percent reached proficiency. After leaving Loneman at the end of 8th grade, students scatter among several high schools on the reservation or just west of it.
Though it has a locally elected school board, Loneman is utterly dependent on the federal government for funding, and has had to stomach deep cuts this year because of budget sequestration.
The new principal, Charles Cuny Jr., has taken on the challenge. He grew up on the reservation and returned this past summer after a decade in Southern California working as a teacher, coach, and administrator at two Bureau of Indian Education schools.
"What I see children dealing with here on Pine Ridge are the same issues I saw with my students in California," Mr. Cuny says. "The same questions of identity, cultural isolation, and poverty. What I really want for our students is for them to feel positive about being Native American. I want them to see that as their biggest strength from which they can build on."
Loneman, like all of Pine Ridge's schools, has Lakota-language classes, and many of its teachers are Lakota themselves. Its mission statement emphasizes equally the importance of promoting academic achievement and Lakota identity.
Research studies have shown that Native American students who are taught their native languages and in ways that connect directly to who they are and where they live, perform better academically than their peers who are not.
But across the country, meaningful language and culturally relevant instruction for American Indian students still tends to occur "in pockets of excellence," says Mr. Beaulieu, the University of Wisconsin professor. The accountability pressures on schools to improve reading and math achievement, as well as a lack of resources for developing curricula and training teachers, keep those pockets of excellence from spreading, he says.
Teacher Maka Clifford, 26, returned home to Pine Ridge earlier this year to teach Lakota Studies at Red Cloud Indian School after finishing his master's degree at Columbia University in New York. He has already seen the powerful way students engage in his class when they begin to understand the full picture of Lakota history and, more specifically, the history of the reservation.
"They want to know why things are the way they are today," Mr. Clifford says. "As long as students learn about their history, I think they, too, can get a sense of the responsibility to be a Lakota, and to interpret what that means for them."
In Montana, Denise M. Juneau, the state superintendent of schools in Montana, agrees. She is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsu tribes.
"If you don't see yourself reflected in your school and don't have a place where you see people who look like yourself, and where you learn about the history that you know exists, it casts you as an outsider even though you are inside the building," she says. Still, Ms. Juneau says, a school environment that's infused with tribal culture and Native-language learning also has to be as good at delivering instruction in reading, math, and science.
"It always comes down to a caring adult, the relevancy of their learning, and engagement," she says. "For Indian children, that engagement is a sense of belonging, but they've got to have the good math instruction, too."
Red Cloud's Track Record
Legend, Ms. Tobacco believes, would get all of that at Red Cloud Indian School.
Even though every student who attends Red Cloud lives on the reservation, it's considered the elite school and, in some ways, is a symbol for the haves and have-nots of Pine Ridge. It charges a modest administration fee—$100 a year, though that is waived for families who can't afford it—and has admission standards. Between two K-8 campuses, and the high school, it serves 600 students.
And by nearly every measure, it vastly outperforms the other 24 schools on the reservation. Last June, 81 percent of the senior class graduated on time. Eighty-eight percent of those graduates are enrolled in a postsecondary program, according to school officials.
For more than a decade, Red Cloud leaders have aggressively pursued Gates Millennium scholarships for their students. More than 50 Red Cloud graduates have won the prestigious, full-ride awards since 1999. Alumni are enrolled at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, and Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.
The school opened 125 years ago after Chief Red Cloud, the Oglala Sioux leader who led his followers in opposing the U.S. military presence and the expansion of white settlements across the Great Plains, requested that the Jesuit "black robes" he had encountered open a school for Lakota children.
But for some older Lakota, the school has a painful history. For decades, Red Cloud—originally called the Holy Rosary Mission—was a boarding school that served not only Oglala Lakota, but also American Indian students from as far away as Wyoming and New Mexico. Children were separated from their families for extended periods and taught to read, write, do math, and speak English. Afternoons were devoted to physical labor.
It wasn't until 1969 that the school changed its name to honor Red Cloud and began teaching the Lakota language. In the late 1970s, the school appointed its first Lakota principal and created a governing board with a majority of members from the Oglala Lakota tribe.
Now, every Red Cloud student receives Lakota-language instruction. Roman Catholic teachings are taught alongside Lakota spirituality. The school, working closely with specialists in Native languages at Indiana University, has developed the nation's first comprehensive K-12 Lakota-language curriculum, according to Robert Brave Heart Sr., Red Cloud's former superintendent and current executive vice president for operations.
"We are teaching our students to walk in two worlds as Red Cloud wanted for them," says Mr. Brave Heart.
The school closely evaluates prospective students.
"We don't take many [special education] students," Mr. Brave Heart says. "And we do look for signs of a family support structure because if the parents aren't interested in a college-preparatory education or aren't interested in the Catholic and Lakota spiritual formation that we do here, students are going to struggle to succeed here."
Though Red Cloud must hustle annually to privately raise 90 percent of its roughly $14 million budget from individual donors, the school is free from dependence on federal money and its attached requirements.
"We get to decide what an effective education for a Lakota child looks like," says Mr. Brave Heart.
The Painful Legacy of Boarding Schools
The relationship between sovereign tribes and the U.S. government derives from a series of treaties that were signed in the 19th century—agreements that promised tribes that education, housing, and health care would be provided to them in exchange for giving up their lands.
During most of the 19th century and well into the 20th, much of that education was delivered at day and boarding schools run either by the government or religious institutions like the Roman Catholic Church.
Assimilation was the primary goal, through suppression of students' native languages and cultural traditions and practices. U.S. Army Capt. Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the first off-reservation boarding school—known as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania—famously wrote in an 1892 speech that the education of Native Americans was essential to "kill the Indian in him, and save the man."
For many tribal elders, the painful memories don't recede, says Mr. Bordeaux, the executive director of Oceti Sakowin, who in 3rd grade left his home on the Rosebud reservation to attend St. Joseph's Indian School, two hours away in Chamberlain, S.D.
"For many of us, school was about trying to make us something that we aren't," says Mr. Bordeaux, 63. "And it really created generations of parents who weren't raised by their own people and didn't really know how to parent when they had their own children."
It also created generations of parents who associated education mostly with suppression of Indian identity and who haven't pushed the need to attend school and graduate, Mr. Bordeaux says.
Even after high-profile findings—such as those from a 1928 study known popularly as the Meriam Report—exposed many problems in the government and religious boarding schools, those issues continued for several more decades. It wasn't until the late 1960s, when a U.S. Senate subcommittee report called "Indian Education: A National Tragedy, a National Challenge" coincided with a period of intense American Indian activism, that tribes gained more control over the education of their own children.
That same period of self-determination also led American Indian educators and parents to push back against mainstream notions of how success and schooling should look.
"There's all of this focus, especially under No Child Left Behind, on data and scores, when that isn't who people are," Mr. Bordeaux says. "Academics is just one part of [education], but to the rest of whitestream America, it's the whole part of it, the only way you can show success. Well, we want our children to be good relatives."
On Tobacco Road, a Family Hopes for Success
It's late afternoon again on Tobacco Road, and Legend Tell Tobacco has arrived at Aunt Mary's house—a bright burst of azure amid rusted cars and amber prairie grass. His relative Gabe Wright, 11, is waiting for him, perched bareback on a family horse.
The two boys goof off around the property, where an art easel is propped next to the table where Legend likes to sit and draw pictures of his father and himself riding broncs. The boys debate whether to go sliding down a 12-foot dirt embankment or shoot hoops. The basketball game starts, but quickly sputters. All the balls are flat.
Inside, Ms. Tobacco has pots of potatoes and carrots cooking on the stove for dinner. Anjah Lamont, her 10-year-old niece, sits on a bean-bag chair with an open book, and Ms. Tobacco reminds her that she's got 10 minutes left of reading. Soon, her 15-year-old nephew Dylan will be calling her to pick him up from cross-country practice at Red Cloud.
Legend, says Mary Tobacco, is having a good year at Loneman, with an A in physical education, a C-plus in math, and B's in everything else. But he has to be pushed to do his homework. At times, though, Ms. Tobacco eases up on the structure she tries to impose so he can spend time with his father, whose trailer is a few hundred feet from her house.
"He remembers his mom, and he's close to his dad, so I think it's been a little bit hard for him after his mom passed away," she says.
But any exposure to alcohol, she believes, is a huge threat to his future. So she interrogates him about his homework, requires him to read every day, and prays he can raise his reading score enough to meet Red Cloud's admission requirements.
But she doesn't know whether her dreams for Legend will be a powerful enough wind at his back to help him outrun the odds.