Indian Tribes Put Their Money On Gaming To Boost Education

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.

Helen Stoling slips another quarter into the "Crazy Doubles" slot machine, eyeing the whizzing characters until they settle on a combination that--this time--nets her no return.

The retiree and longtime resident of this northern Michigan city comes to the Vegas Kewadin Casino here nearly every day to feed the slots or play bingo.

She says she does not mind losing so much because she can see her quarters at work. Many of them end up a few miles up the street, helping educate 145 Native American children in a new tribal school.

Leaders of the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians got tired of waiting for a federal grant to come through, so they used their newfound economic muscle to open their own school in September.

The tribe spent more than $1 million to renovate the one-story building, which until 1981 was a predominantly American Indian public school. Such an endeavor would have been unthinkable a few years ago, said John Hatch, a tribal spokesman.

Tribal leaders say the Bahweting Anishnabe Elementary School--loosely translated from Ojibwe to mean "the Chippewa gathering place"--is at the heart of a revived community.

Plans are under way to build new wings and add a grade each year so that today's 6th graders can graduate from the 8th grade at the school.

New Economic Power

The Sault (pronounced "soo") Chippewa tribe, whose land spreads like a checkerboard across the eastern portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is one of roughly 90 Indian tribes nationwide with gaming operations. Many plow their gaming profits into myriad social programs, including education.

Proponents say gaming has empowered tribes, creating jobs and nourishing a cultural renaissance on previously impoverished reservations.

But some observers worry about its long-term effects on tribal society. Some fear competition from non-Indian gaming enterprises, such as state-sanctioned riverboat casinos, could reduce gaming income at a time when tribes are growing increasingly dependent on it.

About 75 percent of the Sault-area tribe's annual budget of roughly $200 million now comes from gaming, which started in 1985 and has grown to include five casinos, Mr. Hatch said.

The tribe had talked about opening its own school for years, but never had the money to move ahead, said the tribal chairman, Bernard Bouschor.

After it became clear last spring that a grant from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs was not going to come through in time for this school year, the tribal council voted to do it anyway, with the tribe's own money.

The day after the vote, Tom Topash moved here from the southwestern part of the state, where he had been an elementary school principal for nearly a decade. He came to take charge of the new school and embark on the mission of infusing the tribe's younger generations with the waning culture of their elders.

A Cultural Curriculum

Lori King, the 6th-grade teacher, is one of many tribal members who returned to the area after gaming brought new jobs to the community. Five of the school's seven teachers are Native American.

Ms. King's family moved to Wisconsin when she was 7. She said she, too, is learning traditional ways from the elders who come to her class to teach about smoking fish or to retell tribal legends.

"My dad passed on the little he knew, but it was way back there for him," Ms. King said. "A lot of this [tradition] is foreign to many of these kids."

About half the school's students live on the reservation. More than half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches under the federal school-lunch program. Few come from homes that cultivate tribal customs, Mr. Topash said.

In Karen Roque's 2nd-grade class one day last month, Mr. Topash summoned a "talking circle." Students knelt or sat cross-legged in a circle on the spotless blue carpeting.

Mr. Topash often calls students together this way when there is a conflict, but on this day he wanted students to reflect on what they were thankful for, in preparation for the coming Thanksgiving holiday.

"Other grownups and my elders," one student responded. "Mother Earth and food," murmured another. "Mrs. Roque and all these good kids," whispered a third.

Apart from its cultural value, Mr. Topash said, the talking circle helps instill a code of respect.

"There's a lot of punching first and asking questions later" among students, he said. "The disenfranchisement many of these kids have experienced has resulted in a lot of pent-up anger."

To defuse that, one of the school's priorities is to teach students who they are and where they come from.

All students are learning the Ojibwe language, which had started to fade even among the tribe's elders. Cultural lessons are woven throughout the curriculum, allowing teachers to use culturally sensitive readings to teach core subjects.

Kimberly McPherson, a strawberry-blonde 6th grader whose father is a tribal member, said she likes the way she is treated here.

"At my old school, a whole lot of people get in trouble and don't get to talk about it--here I can speak my mind," she said. "I guess I just feel better here."

Ability To Compete?

Many parents sent their children to the tribal school because they were frustrated with the public schools. Though they wanted their children to feel as comfortable as Kimberly, many questioned whether the school would teach the skills the children will need to compete outside the tribe.

"I was one of the [tribal] school's biggest critics," said Julia K. Gurnoe, whose two younger students attend the Bahweting School. Her other two children graduated from the local public schools.

"I know the public school system has failed our kids," she said, "but they still need to know how to compete in the 'white man's world.'"

Ms. Gurnoe and other parents' fears were allayed when the school decided to adopt the state's core curriculum and monitor student achievement with standardized tests.

About a third of the 3,210 students in the Sault Ste. Marie-area public schools are Indian. The district lost about 130 students to the tribal school and a nearby Roman Catholic school this year, translating into about a $700,000 loss in state education aid, said David H. Gonyeau, the interim superintendent.

He said years of lean budgets have left many area residents, Indian and otherwise, upset with the schools. While the public schools have cut back sports programs and busing, the tribal school often stays open from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., with after-school activities and adult-education classes.

Though Mr. Gonyeau envies the tribal school's amenities--such as the brand-new computers in every classroom, freshly painted rose-colored walls, and shiny red swing sets--he said it provides the same competition as other private or parochial schools.

"We're just going to coexist," he said.

On Bureaucracy to Business

During a drive through this city of 15,000, John Hatch pulled onto Shunk Road and pointed to the plain, aluminum-sided houses tucked among tidy cul-de-sacs across from the casino.

They represent the tribal government's efforts over the past two decades: building a collection of thinly financed federal programs to try to meet the tribe's basic needs. Only now, Mr. Hatch said, can the tribe supplement those programs "to finally make something work."

On the reservation slick blacktop now covers roads that once were dirt. The casino sits between an elders' center on one side and a youth center down the road.

Heading downtown, a white placard announces a new $7.5 million health center that will offer tribal members everything from dental to eye care.

To house a burgeoning tribal bureaucracy, the tribe recently purchased the old J.C. Penney building downtown, already covered in scaffolding for renovations. The tribe owns more than 20 businesses, from an air-charter service to a fish hatchery.

Without the income from casinos, Mr. Hatch said, little of this would have been possible.

"In the 70's and 80's we learned how to bureaucratize," Mr. Hatch said. "Now we're learning to be entrepreneurs."

That, Mr. Hatch and others say, has sparked concern among some members of the community.

"There is kind of a worry in town that we're buying things up," he said. "But we know that at some point gaming won't be the cash cow it is now."

In the meantime, gaming has reversed decades of brain drain by creating a career ladder for skilled workers--from carpenters to computer technicians--in an area that once offered little more than seasonal jobs serving summer tourists.

And, Mr. Hatch argues, the financial benefits reach far beyond the reservation boundaries. The casinos employ most of the tribe's 2,500 workers, about half of whom are not tribal members. Unemployment in Chippewa County has plunged 50 percent since the mid 1980's.

Legal Scuffles

But the newfound economic and political clout of the Chippewas and other tribes has not come without a price. Since Congress passed in 1988 the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act--which requires tribes and states to negotiate compacts for high-stakes gaming on reservations--scuffles over how to regulate the gaming have often spilled into the courts.

The Seminole tribe in Florida is awaiting a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court on a lawsuit it filed to keep higher-stake games in the tribe's casinos.

The state says games such as keno are illegal in Florida. And voters there last month rejected a proposal to allow more casinos.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles, whose headquarters are in Hollywood, Fla., are using gaming revenues to match b.i.a. funds for a K-8 school, provide college scholarships, and run after-school tutoring programs.

The Oneida Nation, on its 66,000-acre reservation near Green Bay, Wis., spent $12 million from casinos to build a new K-8 school.

The school is shaped like a turtle, representing one of the clans from which the Oneida trace their ancestry. It includes fully stocked computer laboratories and music rooms. (See Education Week, 10/05/94.)

The tribe drew on its nearly $90 million in annual gaming revenues to open the "turtle school" in September.

The Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, near the Twin Cities in Minnesota, used part of a $15 million bond issue to open two new schools in 1993. Casinos net the tribe up to $15 million a year, said Doug Twait, the tribe's commissioner of corporate affairs.

"We have a lot more ownership of our schools," said George S. Weber, the superintendent of the newly created Nay Ah Shing schools.

But Mr. Weber also said many questions remain about gaming's long-term impact.

"What does it mean to have parents working until midnight? Is the allure of a $7-an-hour job going to get in the way of pursuing a college education?" he asked. "Suddenly all this glitter and glamour is all around us-- what does it do to our values?"

"People ask if it is a good or a bad thing," he said, "and we really don't know the answer yet."

Vol. 14, Issue 14, Pages 1, 10-11

Published in Print: December 7, 1994, as Indian Tribes Put Their Money On Gaming To Boost Education
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories