Betting On Education

By David Hill — February 01, 1995 21 min read

It’s nine o’clock on a frigid Thursday night in November, and the casino on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation is packed to the gills. Men and women with buckets full of quarters sit blank-faced at video slot machines, praying for the big jackpot. Others try their hands at the blackjack tables, where the dealers, in black vests and bow ties, are the best-dressed folks in the house. The sprawling room is a sea of slot machines, which emit a cacophony of electronic sounds--buzzing, whirring, dinging, pinging, popping--that can be heard 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Located on a lonely stretch of highway about two hours north of Minneapolis, the casino is operated by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, one of about 120 tribes across the country that have turned to gaming for economic salvation. Has it worked here in Mille Lacs? Just take a look at the huge sign that overlooks the casino parking lot. On it, you’ll see the casino’s logo: a pot of gold overflowing with gleaming nuggets. The image may have been intended as an enticement to would-be gamblers, but the double meaning is hard to miss. Before the casino opened, on April 2, 1991, the unemployment rate on the reservation was a staggering 45 percent, and more than 60 percent of reservation families lived below the federal poverty line. Four months later, unemployment had effectively disappeared, and family income levels were on the rise. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians had struck it rich. (In 1992, the band opened up a second casino on another part of the reservation, about 40 miles away.)

Drive around the reservation, a narrow strip of land that sticks out into Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota’s premier walleye fishing spot, and you can see the dividends that gaming has brought. There’s a new health clinic, not far from the new tribal museum, currently under construction. There’s a beautiful new ceremonial building, used for traditional dancing and drumming. Suburban-style houses line newly paved roads that were once made of dirt. And watching over it all is a shiny new water tower, just across the highway from the casino, with the words “Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’’ written across the tank.

Talk to members of the band, however, and you’ll find that they are most proud of the Nay Ah Shing Schools, which opened their doors in September 1993. Now serving about 240 students, the schools--one primary, the other secondary--would never have been built if not for the vision of tribal leaders, who put education at the top of their wish list when the casino was being planned back in the late 1980s. Instead of waiting for the gaming revenues to start pouring in to pay for improvements on the reservation, the band decided to raise $15 million by issuing tax-exempt bonds, $6.1 million of which was set aside for construction of the schools. Proceeds from the casino are being used to pay back the bonds. According to the National Indian Gaming Association, the Nay Ah Shing Schools are the first American Indian schools to be built entirely from casino profits. For the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the schools are living symbols of the independence and self-determination that had been missing from their culture for so many years.

Now, there’s a feeling of renewal on the Mille Lacs reservation. Students at the Nay Ah Shing Schools are required to take classes in the Ojibwe language, which was in danger of being lost, and they are learning the history and cultural traditions of their people, who first settled in this area in the 1600s. Every Monday morning, students and staff members come together in the schools’ large circular meeting areas to participate in a pipe ceremony, led by tribal elders. Tobacco is offered as a gift to the Great Spirit, in exchange for guidance.

Meanwhile, back at the casino, the enormous parking lot is loaded with cars. Inside, the final round of the weekly blackjack tournament is just getting started, and the nickel slot machines are almost all taken. Some gamblers will stay up all night, while others will go back to their rooms at the just-completed Grand Casino Mille Lacs Hotel, adjacent to the casino. After a good night’s sleep, they’ll be back at it in the morning. And if the money runs out, there’s a cash machine conveniently located just inside the main entrance.

It’s no wonder that Indian gaming has been dubbed “the new buffalo economy.’'

The genesis of the Nay Ah Shing Schools actually goes back to the mid-1970s, long before the advent of Indian gaming. At the time, about 45 Mille Lacs Band students attended the public high school in nearby Onamia, just south of the reservation. Relations between the white students and the Indian students had always been uneasy, but on April 9, 1975, the tension came to a boiling point. Forty of the Indian students staged a walkout, saying they were tired of being harassed by white students and teachers. They wanted a school of their own.

Tribal chairman Art Gahbow, who is now considered one of the greatest leaders of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, set about trying to make that happen. He went to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for money, and he designated space for classrooms at the band’s community center. Thus, the first Nay Ah Shing (Ojibwe for “On The Point’’) School was born. For years, the school served about 40 to 50 Indian students in grades 7 through 12. Every now and then, tribal leaders would talk about expanding the school, but getting the funds to do so from the BIA proved difficult. The school did whatever it could to get by, relying on limited state and federal funding.

And that’s how things might have remained had it not been for the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which Congress passed in 1988. The law allows Indian tribes to own and operate casino gaming businesses on reservation lands. At Mille Lacs, tribal leaders saw a golden opportunity. “We were such a poor tribe here,’' says Marge Anderson, the current chief executive of the band. “We operated just on government programs and some from the state. So we were really in need of something.’'

Now, the old community center, with its faded yellow paint peeling away, sits forlornly at the edge of the casino parking lot, a constant reminder of the way things used to be, while across the highway, nestled in the woods, sit two state-of-the-art schools. Designed by a Minneapolis architectural firm, the low-slung schools are visually striking, both inside and out. “They’re not big, square boxes that stick out,’' notes superintendent George Weber, whose office looks out at the secondary school parking lot. “They’re built into the land.’'

The Ojibwe culture permeates the buildings. Signs are written in Ojibwe, not English. Inside the circular atrium of the secondary school is a glass display case with traditional Ojibwe craft pieces made by students: a birch-bark storage basket, a pair of beaded moccasins, a beaded belt. Hanging in the window of the front office are two brightly colored Ojibwe dresses: a dazzling ceremonial “jingle dress,’' so-called because of the dozens of handmade bells that hang from the cloth, and a beautiful deerskin outfit. There’s also a striking beaded vest, with blue and pink flowers set on a black background.

In Millie Benjamin’s classroom, two girls sit at a round table doing beadwork; one is making a pair of moccasins, the other a key chain. The work is a little rough but still quite beautiful. On one wall is a poster of Charles Albert Bender, an Ojibwe who pitched for the old Philadelphia Athletics; he’s now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Benjamin, who teaches the Ojibwe language and culture to students in grades 8 through 12, is wearing a turquoise cardigan sweater over a black Waylon Jennings T-shirt. (Her “hobby’’ is getting her picture taken with country music stars.) She has taught on the reservation for 16 years. Principal Jody Crowe praises Benjamin for her “gentle, calm spirit. If there’s one cog that is indispensable here, it’s Millie.’'

Speaking in a voice not much louder than a whisper, Benjamin, 48, recalls what it was like to be a student at Onamia High School back in the 1960s. “It was not a good experience,’' she says. “They were very prejudiced. Racist.’' She remembers the name-calling she and the other Indian students had to endure, “stuff you never forget.’' Some of the teachers were just as bad as the non-Indian students. “And it’s still that way today,’' she says. “I think that’s why a lot of Indian students today don’t speak up; they’re not real aggressive. They automatically take seats in the back so as not to be noticed or called upon.’'

It comes as no surprise to learn that Benjamin is one of the most respected teachers at the Nay Ah Shing Schools. After all, she knows where her students are coming from, and she draws on her own experiences to enrich her teaching. “I was taught many years ago by my parents to pity people who were mean,’' she says. “It was hard to do. It took years to do that. After a while, you just kind of block it out. But it kind of comes back today because I see my kids going through that. Like if we go to a different school, and they ask you if they can look in your bag. Or people stare at you when you go to a restaurant.

“So I try to teach my kids to pity people who are mean. They’re the ones who have the problem. It’s kind of hard to see your own children go through that because I remember struggling. Kids can be real cruel in school.’'

To this day, Benjamin has no kind words to say about Onamia. “That is the worst little town,’' she says. “I can’t believe how ignorant they are about Indians. There are people in Onamia who are afraid to come to the reservation. They still think that we have teepees and that we scalp people and all the things you see on TV. And it’s what, 12 miles from here?’'

Benjamin is among the few band members of her generation who grew up speaking Ojibwe. In fact, her parents didn’t speak any English; they, unlike many members of their own generation, didn’t attend the notorious federal Indian boarding schools, where students were forbidden to speak their native language and traditional ways were not allowed. It’s a shameful legacy that few Indians have forgotten.

It’s clear that Benjamin sees herself as more than just a teacher of the Ojibwe language; she’s more like a caretaker. Recently, she was asked to review an Ojibwe textbook. The authors, she says, “wanted to know if we would buy it. But I looked at it and immediately saw some mistakes.’' Benjamin, who says she has always been jealous of teachers who had the benefit of relying on a text, rejected the book. “But we need something like this to use,’' she laments, holding the book in her hands, “especially in the lower school.’'

The stated goal of the Nay Ah Shing Schools is that all graduates will be fluent in the Ojibwe language. Benjamin says it will take some time before that will happen. “I’ve finally come to the conclusion,’' she says, “that the only way to learn the Ojibwe language is to talk it and to be exposed to it every day. An hour a day, five days a week, for what, five years? You’re not going to be fluent by the time you graduate. There’s always the kid who’s going to say, ‘Why should I learn my language? Is there a job that’s going to require that?’ But a lot of them want to learn. They realize it’s going to be lost if they don’t learn how to speak it. A lot of our ceremonies won’t be able to be performed anymore without a speaker. We’ve lost a lot already. We have no medicine men anymore.’'

Adds superintendent George Weber: “The Ojibwe language is critical to the identity of the children. And that’s why we teach it. The things that will help the students know their past are embedded in the language.’' He admits, however, that learning Ojibwe isn’t for everybody. “It’s part of the reason some students come here, and it’s part of the reason why some probably don’t.’'

Like many band members, Millie Benjamin is keenly aware of the odd dissonance that exists between the casinos and the good things they have provided. “When I drive by the casino,’' she says, “I feel a sense of pride that we finally have something. That’s what I feel in general. But then I think, Look at all those people throwing away their money!’'

She recites a list of all the positive things that have happened on the reservation since the casinos were built: “Our clinic, our new government center (which isn’t built yet), our schools, our new water tower, jobs. Before, there was just a lot of unemployment. A lot of people had to leave the reservation just to find work.’'

And the negative things? “I think that a lot of people who live here, not having jobs before, they don’t know how to deal with the money. There’s more alcohol, sometimes. People are exposed to more things like drugs than they were before.’'

Not surprisingly, chief executive Marge Anderson--an elected official--tends to focus on the positive. “Some say gaming takes advantage of a human weakness and exploits the poor,’' she noted four months after the Mille Lacs casino opened. “I say, ‘We are in the entertainment business. People go to Minneapolis’ domed stadium to see the Twins, to the Guthrie or Ordway [theaters] to see a play, and to Grand Casino for gaming. We, too, offer a quality entertainment product.’...It’s been said that gaming is particularly incompatible with Native American culture. Astronomical unemployment and poverty rates, and all the consequences that accompany these dire socioeconomic statistics, represent the true threat to our proud culture and history. Gaming is providing us with the resources to stop these evils.’'

Anderson, who grew up in a one-room shack on the reservation, is an ardent foe of per-capita distribution of casino revenues, which has turned some Indians on other reservations into millionaires. At the Mystic Lake Casino, for example, a wildly successful gaming hall just south of Minneapolis operated by the Shakopee Mdewkantan Dakota tribe, 1993 profits allowed each of the tribe’s 200 members to receive more than $400,000; 1994 payments are expected to exceed $500,000 each.

On the Mille Lacs reservation, the issue never even came up when the casinos were being planned. “But then,’' says Weber, “nobody knew that the casino was going to be so successful. So it’s a debate now, and it will always be a debate. We have an elected government, so it will always be debated come election time.’' It’s a mistake, he adds, to compare the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, with its 2,500 members, to the relatively small Shakopee Mdewkantan Dakota tribe. “There,’' he says, “you can take large profits and divide them up among a few people. And not every tribe has that luxury.’'

Deanna Mattson-Millar, a special education teacher at the primary school, also believes that per-capita distribution is the wrong way to go. At places like Mystic Lake, she says, “100 years from now, they’ll have nothing, whereas here, they’ll have the schools, the clinic, the homes.’'

It’s tempting to think of the Mille Lacs Ojibwes’ new-found riches as a sort of economic revenge against the white man, but Weber--who is non-Indian--cautions against such an oversimplification. “I don’t think it’s that,’' he says. “I think it’s more like, ‘We are our own people. We’ve always been our own people. We were here first. And all we want is this opportunity to be self-sufficient. And can’t you just let that happen?’ The alternative--letting the government take care of us--hasn’t been all that successful.’'

There was a time, of course, when the Ojibwe (also known as the Chippewa) Indians were self-sufficient. According to the book Indians in Minnesota, by Elizabeth Ebbott, “They hunted and fished; gathered wild rice, berries, and maple syrup; built houses of poles and skins or bark in semipermanent villages; traveled in summer by birch-bark canoes along the countless waterways and in winter on snowshoes.’'

In the 1600s, when the Ojibwes began moving into the area that would later become Minnesota, they encountered another tribe: the Dakota. Competition for fur trade with the French led to warfare between the two tribes. In 1750, the Ojibwes captured the Dakota village of Izatys, located near the present-day Mille Lacs reservation, and drove the tribe permanently south.

In 1855, the Mille Lacs Band signed a treaty with the U.S. government that set aside 61,000 acres to form a reservation on and around the south end of Mille Lacs Lake, but, as the band members were to find out, the treaty was worth about as much as the paper it was written on. Acre by acre, their land was slowly taken away until, by 1962, only about 3,000 acres remained.

“Indians at Mille Lacs,’' Ebbott writes, “have had an especially difficult history of dealing with white people....Lumbering interests took the timber; later, immigrant farmers purchased the land and were given legal titles. As the secretary of the interior acknowledged in 1890, ‘The rights of the Indians upon this reservation have been a vexed question, full of difficulties and embarrassments. Their principal fault seems to be in possessing land that the white man wants.’ ''

Nothing illustrates that statement better than a notorious 1911 incident, now considered to be the low point in the history of the Mille Lacs Ojibwes. That year, a sheriff’s posse burned the village of Mille Lacs Chief Wadena and forcibly removed about 100 residents so that the land they lived on could be claimed by a developer. By 1915, there were less than 400 Mille Lacs Band members remaining in the area.

Slowly, the band began to rebuild. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the concept of self-determination began to take hold, yet without any substantial economic base from which to build, the band was forced to rely on government handouts to subsidize their meager existence. Gaming has, in effect, allowed the Mille Lacs Ojibwes to realize their hopes and dreams, to redress some of the injustices of the past. “We want to mend the torn fabric of our culture,’' Marge Anderson has said, “so that we can welcome those [band members] who return and unify them into a family with strong values and an awareness of our history and language.’'

The physical improvements on the reservation are only the most obvious uses of the millions of dollars in gaming revenues that have poured into the band’s bank accounts. Some of the profits have been set aside for the repurchase of land that was stolen over the years; other funds have been used to wage a court battle to defend an 1837 treaty, which granted the band hunting, fishing, and gathering rights. Last August, a U.S. district court judge in Minneapolis upheld that treaty.

David Sam, a tribal elder who sometimes leads the pipe ceremony at the Nay Ah Shing Schools, likes to tell students that his weapon was the rifle or the bow and arrow, but their weapon is the briefcase. He urges them to finish high school and then to go on to college. “Be someone,’' he implores them. “Then come back and help your people.’'

Sam, 61, is wearing a black satin Grand Casino Mille Lacs jacket, yet he has firsthand experience of the dark side of gambling. “When it first opened,’' he says, “I went there every night. Then I saw what was happening. It’s an addiction, just like alcohol.’' Sam should know; he’s a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober now for 21 years.

Yes, he says, the casinos have brought many good things to the reservation. “But all this will be gone,’' he says, waving a hand in the air. “All good things go.’'

Anderson, too, seems somewhat fatalistic about the casinos. “It makes me proud to see that at least we’re rebuilding the reservation,’' she says. “But we can’t overcome 500 years of need with three years of gaming revenues. We still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity is slowly closing. We’ve got critics out there who say, ‘Gee whiz, these Indians are making a lot of money. Look at them. That shouldn’t be. We should keep them down, so they’re seen and not heard.’ '' She pauses, then adds, “It’s a struggle, but we’re going to survive this one.’'

When the Mille Lacs casino first opened, some local bar owners complained that it was drawing away their customers--even though the casino doesn’t serve alcohol. But a study commissioned by the band concluded that bar business in Minnesota has been on a steady decline since the mid-1970s and that typical casino customers tend to be 45 or older--not the young, unmarried males that make up the majority of bar patrons. In fact, Anderson argues that the casino has increased business and employment in the area. “Even the county welfare system is down,’' she says, “because we’re employing people.’'

Until last August, Deanna Mattson-Millar’s husband, Ross, worked as a floor manager at the casino. By the time he resigned, to take a teaching job, he was making $13.60 an hour. “Which is pretty good,’' Deanna says. “You’re not going to find anything in this area that comes close. I mean, that’s pretty much what I make as a teacher--maybe even more!’'

The change that has occurred on the reservation since the casinos were built, Mattson-Millar adds, can be seen on the faces of her students at Nay Ah Shing Primary School. “You can see that kind of stuff,’' she says. “The kids are coming in with a lot more self-esteem. You can’t expect welfare and social services to pay for everything and still have people keep some pride in themselves.’'

There’s no question that things are looking up on the Mille Lacs reservation. But at the Nay Ah Shing Schools, particularly at the secondary school, there’s much work to be done. “We have a long way to go,’' says band commissioner of education Duane Dunkley, who in 1955 became the first Mille Lacs band member to graduate from college. “There’s no fooling anyone. We tell the staff that this is a long-term commitment. We won’t see the results until maybe 10 or 12 years.’'

The bottom line, notes principal Jody Crowe, is that the Nay Ah Shing Schools--like most Indian schools--have a host of problems to deal with: disruptive students, truancy, students who suffer from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, a high percentage of special education students, low academic achievement, and low parental involvement. Not to mention the lingering reputation of the old Nay Ah Shing School, from which few students actually graduated. “Some band members saw it as an easy out for the kids,’' Crowe says. Consequently, the new school has had a hard time attracting the more academically gifted Indian students, many of whom have chosen to remain in nearby public schools. “We don’t have the strength of our academic program that we need to have,’' Crowe admits. “That’s one of our goals.’' He laments the fact that few students go on to college. “I wish that the kids in the community would ask, ‘How can I become the casino president?’ rather than, ‘How can I become a blackjack dealer?’ ''

Crowe, 39, is a non-Indian who has spent his entire teaching and administrative career in Indian schools. “When I first came here, in November 1993,’' he says, “I was viewed as having some sort of different expectations for the kids.’' His relations with the students have improved, he says, but every now and then--particularly when he’s disciplining a student--he has to endure being called a racist.

About one-third of the schools’ 30 or so instructional staff members are Ojibwe. There’s also an advisory board made up of tribal elders, including David Sam. Once a month, the elders meet with the schools’ teachers and administrators to discuss Ojibwe cultural matters. “We have a lot of community members working in the schools,’' Crowe says. “The last time I counted, there were 16 people fluent in Ojibwe.’'

Many people assume that there’s a direct pipeline of funds that leads from the two casinos to the schools. Not so, says superintendent George Weber. The bond money, he says, was designated for the construction of the schools, not for their operating costs. For that, the schools must rely on per-student funding from the BIA, along with various federal and state grants. “It’s not like we have access to unlimited funds,’' he notes. The secondary school, for example, has a beautiful library, with nice new wooden tables and bookshelves. The shelves, however, are virtually empty; there just isn’t enough money in the budget to pay for new books.

In a way, the empty shelves are a reminder of what Weber and his staff at the Nay Ah Shing Schools are up against. “Sometimes people are looking for a miracle,’' says Weber. “But if you look at Indian education nationwide, the statistics are not good. We’re not a quick cure, either. We’re not going to turn things around overnight. Give us some time and give us some space and let us see what we can do.’'

Adrian Garbow, 17, used to go to school in Onamia. But he got tired of the prejudice he encountered there, so he transferred to Nay Ah Shing Secondary School, where he is now a junior. An artist and writer, Garbow recently had one of his poems published in The Circle, the monthly newspaper of the Minneapolis American Indian Center. His words capture the spirit of renewal that is taking place on the Mille Lacs reservation:

Reservation--Life for me
Reservation--Place to be
Mother Earth--Father Sky
Oh Migizi [eagle], flying high.

Elders teaching all the young
Just what’s right
And what is wrong.

Culture rising once again
Drummers--Singers gather as friends
Sharing songs from our past
Making sure that we will last.

Dancers--Thinking just like one
Steps, like following the sun.

Speak the wisdom, I do not know
Teach the things, we all shall do
Don’t forget the things which we learned
Harder times, they shall pass.

Teach me now, I can’t forget
Ask me in my native tongue
Who we are and where we’re from.

Life is hard, answers lie in all mistakes
Teach me now so I won’t forget
Life is good, wisdom from every turn
Ask me where tomorrow lies
Who we are and where we’re from.

Reservation--Life for me
Reservation--Place to be
Mother Earth--Father Sky
Oh Migizi, flying high.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Betting On Education