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As part of Mainstreet Radio series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country,” MPR’s Bob Kelleher reports on the obstacles for American Indian children within the education system.

The high school diploma is a benchmark that divides those who have from those who have very little. But in Indian country, diplomas are relatively scarce. Education opportunities are too often abandoned by Native American kids facing a litany of problems, including the sting of discrimination.

Today, many American Indians live in two worlds. Off the reservation they are guaranteed all the rights of a U.S. citizen. On the reservation, those federal rights disappear, replaced by the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, enforced by tribal governments. Many Indian people in Minnesota and the Dakotas say they've come to expect injustice both on and off the reservation.

This is part seven of eight-part series "Broken Trust: Civil Rights in Indian Country."

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 8:


2001 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Radio - Large Market - Continuing Coverage category

2001 Minnesota AP Award, Best in Show - Radio Class III category

2001 PRNDI Award, second place in Division A - Series category

2002 RTNDA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / News Series category


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BOB KELLEHER: Loren is in his early 20s, a Yankton Sioux living in a tribal housing project near Wagner, South Dakota.


Loren has no job and few prospects. Without a high school diploma, it's unlikely Loren will be able to support his wife and toddler without assistance. He says he left school after being the target of discrimination, one of a dozen Indian kids isolated on a school bus by a school official investigating a theft.

LOREN: I was just mad because I didn't think it was right. And I wanted to go home. And I tried to get off. And I don't know. The principal just totally just lost it. And he picked me up. And he slammed me down. And that made me even more mad.

BOB KELLEHER: The facts of the incident remain in dispute. But it fanned protests, investigations, and community meetings. And Loren says it's the main reason he never finished school.

LOREN: I don't know. I was just embarrassed to go back to school.

BOB KELLEHER: Loren dropped out. And the Sioux Messenger, a tribal paper, reported that four of the dozen American Indian students on that bus soon left school as well.

In Minnesota, state education statistics show that American Indian kids drop out of school more often than any other group. 35% of the Native Americans who reach high school fail to graduate in four years. Many others disappear from school before ninth grade. Experts point to a web of potential factors-- a lack of encouragement from home or school, poverty, and drug or alcohol problems that often lead to behavior trouble. Indian kids may not succeed because they are made to feel different.

BERT AHERN: Racism is a very big factor.

BOB KELLEHER: Bert Ahern is a Professor of History with the University of Minnesota in Morris, who advises Indian colleges on curriculum. He says racism in schools is most often subtle and covert.

BERT AHERN: But then there certainly is the overt racism and the sense that when there is a trouble in school, a child isn't working well with the teacher, the assumption that it's the child's problem and that the parents probably are also a problem.

BOB KELLEHER: Ahern says American Indian families value education but hold little trust in public schools. This attitude may well be history at work. In their first experience with institutionalized education, Indian children were sent to boarding schools and separated from their families. Even today, school districts still rely on curriculum with a decidedly European viewpoint. Ahern says a typical public school does little to honor the tribal history or culture of Indians.

BERT AHERN: I'm afraid our schooling systems are not really committed to the success of Indian children in terms of our public schools. We don't care enough that Indian children don't succeed.

BOB KELLEHER: Since perhaps the 1960s, American society has struggled to steer its minorities into the mainstream. But some districts still demonstrate a surprising insensitivity to Indian culture.

NICHOLAS FOX: Well, they just started verbally assaulting me. And then one of them punched me.

BOB KELLEHER: Eighth-grader Nicholas Fox became a target after a spring pep rally last year in Erskine, Minnesota. In a takeoff on the two teams involved, the Win-E-Mac Patriots and the Red Lake Warriors, teachers, dressed up as cowboys, chased a group of Indians back to the reservation. Nicholas Fox was an Ojibwe student in the Win-E-Mac eighth grade. He says the skit marked him because of his Indian heritage.

NICHOLAS FOX: On the rest of the way home, they were just talking about scalping me and my brother and skinning us and stuff like that. It was pretty bad.

BOB KELLEHER: A video of the rally shocked Nick's mom, Deanne Fox.

DEANNE FOX: And I broke out into tears because when I send my kids to school, they-- when they're not in my sight, they shouldn't have to be put through anything like that. No wonder why the Native American children are dropping off in the education system by the eighth grade.

BOB KELLEHER: Deanne Fox transferred her children and did something relatively rare among Indian parents. She filed a complaint with federal education officials. A settlement with the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights led to new cultural sensitivity training for the staff at Win-E-Mac.

But Indian people rarely approach the federal government for redress, perhaps because Indian culture values modesty and humility. In the Bemidji schools, Indian Education Director Vince Byel works closely with the district's large American Indian population to help kids succeed despite cultural differences.

VINCE BYEL: Sometimes you get into some values and standards with traditional upbringing and so forth that it's not good to compete against another person. And it's the best to find out how best the group can survive or how the best the group can think as a whole.

BOB KELLEHER: 20% of Bemidji's public school students are Native American, many with ties to the nearby White Earth, Red Lake, and Leech Lake Ojibwe reservations. As a result, Bemidji has had to make school more relevant to its Ojibwe students.

SPEAKER: OK, first one is [OJIBWE].

BOB KELLEHER: In this classroom at Bemidji High School, a handful of students struggle with the nuances of the Ojibwe native language.


BOB KELLEHER: Bemidji offers a Ojibwe like German or French. The district also teaches all its kids American Indian culture and history, with a focus on Minnesota's Ojibwe and Dakota tribes. Bemidji is one of 24 Minnesota districts to receive state money targeted specifically at Indian education programs. State Program Director Yvonne Novak says school districts with specialized programs for Indian students have up to 8% fewer Indian kids dropping out.

YVONNE NOVAK: And the key to that is there's Indian staff in the school that take a personal interest in those students and that personal interest is knowing them, knowing their culture, and having that one-on-one, like a coach relationship with them.

BOB KELLEHER: Some districts dedicate whole school buildings to American Indian learning. Minnesota's largest concentration of American Indians is in the Twin Cities, where several schools offer instruction with a decidedly Indian perspective. Still, according to the Department of Children, Families, and Learning, Minneapolis graduates only 17% of its Indian students in four years. Many move away. Many drop out.

Nationwide, the commitment to Indian Education falls short because of little interest or often because of little money. But a new approach in Congress could give minorities a powerful tool to improve public schools and reduce discrimination. Illinois Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. has drafted a constitutional amendment that for the first time creates a new right to a high-quality public education.

JESSE JACKSON, JR.: Native Americans could appeal to such an amendment to improve the quality of their schools. But Native Americans could also appeal to such an amendment to ensure, for example, in the future that a broader based historical interpretation of Native American contribution to all Americans be taught in all public schools across the country.

BOB KELLEHER: Federal laws protect students from discrimination in schools but don't elevate education to a civil right. However, successful constitutional amendments are few and far between. And Jackson's first attempt last year went nowhere. It may be that any real improvement in American Indian scholastic achievement will come on a local level, from districts concerned about Indian students and prepared to invest scarce resources into American Indian education. In Duluth, I'm Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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