Native Americans and Education (Triple Participation)

Published September 19, 2014 by djlwsu

Racism in Indian Education

The newspaper man Tim Giago has written movingly of his experiences in a Catholic boarding school. The founding publisher of Indian Country Today says in his book Children Left Behind that he was beaten, starved, and humiliated during his ten years at Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge.

When he could no longer understand why he was so depressed at times as an adult, he started healing himself by writing about his treatment at the hands of the priests. Later he submitted these writings to Rupert Costo, publisher of the Indian Historian Press, who published them as a book, The Aboriginal Sin.

The treatment that Tim and tens of thousands of Indian kids received in the BIA and mission boarding schools developed a love/hate relationship that is so deep in Indian Country that outsiders cannot understand it. While Indian parents know their children need to have an excellent education, their own experiences at schools make them leery of even being on the campuses.

Teachers and principals are constantly amazed at the low turnout on Parent Night. They expect to see huge numbers of parents to show up, but only a few do. In fact, the ones who do are the few who have been visiting the school already. The vast majority of Indian parents never set foot in the school—except maybe for a basketball game. The parents are still feeling the effects of the racist treatment they received a quarter of a century earlier.

A meeting in Rapid City in October 2007, one of the first of its kind in that state, had people reporting that racism is alive and well in the public schools of the state. South Dakota is often called the “Mississippi of the North.” The non-Indians of the state still hold a grudge over the defeat and massacre of George Custer in 1876, and they take it out on Indians whenever they can.

Martin Reinhardt, a research associate at Colorado State University, said racism prevents the tribes from having access to information on their students, while the states have full access to all student records. Indian students are the lowest performing ethnic group in the United States. Test scores for fourth or eleventh graders typically find students are below the 20th percentile, and the lowest students are down around the fifth percentile.

Dropout rates for Indian high school students nationwide run about 50%, but with a variation from a high of 90% for San Diego County, California, to a low of 25% or so for a few places. The Phoenix area has rates in the area of 85%. South Dakota dropout rates hover around 80%. The rate in Albuquerque was determined by an outside research group eight years ago to be 67.2%, quite a contrast to the district’s “official” figures, which they said were 19% to 23%. The lower figures had been reported for years by the research arm of the district.

I wonder how many other districts lie about their Indian dropout rates. Most people do not want to believe it. A decade ago, in a public hearing, I reported that the dropout rate was 65% for Indians in Albuquerque. Joe Carraro, a state senator from Rio Rancho who ran for Congress and lost, argued with me for ten minutes that it could not be.

“I believe the rate is 19% to 23%,” he told me. “But it is impossible for it to be 65%.” A year later, when the independent study came out, I copied the graph and sent it to him as proof, but he never answered me.

Schools and districts often try to hide or disguise the real dropout rates, which happen over a four-year to six-year period. They will give, as Albuquerque does, a one-year rate, stating it as a fact, without explaining it. Few school districts with Indian students, in fact, try to determine what the four-year rate is.

A dozen years ago I computed the following figures to compare the actual production of Indian college graduates and non-Indian college graduates. It shows there are 20 non-Indian college graduates for every Indian graduate. Since 1970, the gap has gotten larger, when most folk probably assumed it has gotten smaller.

Only 17% of Indian students finish high school and enroll in college the next year, compared to 67% of all students in the United States. Thus there is a huge gap of 50% between Indians and non-Indians who are starting college. However, the huge dropout rate from college further widens the gap. Some 54% of all college students will earn a degree in four to six years, but only 18% of Indian students will earn college degrees during the same time period. Taking the 17% entering college and multiplying it times the 18% who finish college yields only 1.5% of Indians finishing college.

There are many reasons for this horrible situation with Indian education and the low numbers of Indians finishing college. The worst side is that there are huge needs and demands for all kinds of Indians—doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, veterinarians, teachers, engineers, computer programmers, writers, biologists, chemists, physicists, hydrologists, and many other types of professionals. The huge demand means that doctors and nurses are not available to treat sick people.

Indian people sicken and sometimes die because of misdiagnosis or lack of treatment for illnesses ranging from diabetes to ruptured appendixes. The Indian Health Service reports that its professional positions are typically 35% unfilled at any given time.

Thus racism in the schools, turning potential doctors and nurses away from medical schools by racist actions, has the long-term effect of denying life-saving medical treatment to sick Indian people. This may seem to some like a stretch, but it is literally true.

It means that teachers are not available to teach Indian kids. And unfortunately, too often the teachers who are available are the rejects who could not get hired elsewhere. In one case, a man with a degree in sociology was trying to teach physics on the Jicarilla Apache reservation. Of course all the kids knew he didn’t know the subject, and were bored to death in his classes.

Next month I will report in this column some of the results of lawsuits that have been filed by Indians against racist actions in the schools.

This column is adapted from the book “Racism in Indian Country.” Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a Native scholarship organization. His latest books are “Modern American Indian Leaders” published by Mellen Press and “Racism in Indian Country” published by Peter Lang Publishers. Contact him His next book is “Broken Promises: Termination of Indian Treaties and the Aftermath,” due out in 2011.

Marc Dadigan
Pictured, from left, are Pit River tribal members Tyler LaMirande, 7th grade; Mikaela Gali-LaMirande, 10th grade; Talissa Gali, 5th grade; and Alexis Elmore, 7th grade. They have reported systemic bullying targeting them and other Indian students at Burney Junior-Senior High School and Burney Elementary in Northern California.

The level of racism in Indian schools is astounding. But the level of its exposure is miniscule. Most of it is covered up, hidden, not talked about, and not acted upon. But the affect it has on Indian children is horrendous and debilitating. Most of them never recover from racist treatment. They quit school, become delinquents, become alcoholics, and get branded as losers. The schools are responsible for the failure of the last seven generations of Indian young people.

In Pit River Country, northeast of Redding, California, Indian students have been called disgusting, wagon burners, savages, and dirty Indians. At Burney High School, they have had notes like “Watch your Red Skinned Back” and “White Pride Bitch” pasted on their lockers. When they did Indian dances other students told them they were practicing witchcraft. One Indian boy let his hair grow to commemorate his recently deceased father and was castigated by white students—they told him his long hair was disgusting.

Students and parents reported these incidents to the Shasta County Sheriff’s Office, which ignored them. When Richard Oakes, Pit River Chairman Mickey Gemmill, and I were up there in 1970 protesting the taking of Pit River lands, the sheriff’s office arrested usen masse. We got hauled off to jail in Redding by the hundreds.

In 2005, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe chairman’s grandson got called a “prairie nigger” by a white student after school in the hallway. The name-calling ended with the white student pushing the grandson against a locker. When the grandson pushed back he was seen by a teacher, who reported it to the principal. It is always the second one, the one who reacts, who gets seen and caught—and punished.

The chairman, Rodney Bordeaux, has been my friend for the past 30 years. He is frustrated at the difficulty of improving the schools. The lawsuit,Antoine v. Winner School District, sought to remove many of the punitive restrictions then in place—students would no longer be required to write out statements that could be used against them later in court.

The Chamberlain, South Dakota schools have refused for several years to allow Indian students to sing their honoring songs in Lakota at school. The board voted 6-1 not to allow the song to be sung at graduation ceremonies. The student population is one-third Indian, and board member Casey Hutchmayer said, “It’s not in our language, and when I say our language, I mean English.” His remarks were in defense of the right of the white people in the district to force Indians to speak in English only.

RELATED:Is Racism Behind Banning of Honor Song From Graduation Ceremonies?

Students and supporters of last year’s Honor Song gathered outside the Chamberlain Armory in front of the graduation procession and played the Honor Song for the graduates. They did the same this year. (James Cadwell)
Students and supporters of last year’s Honor Song gathered outside the Chamberlain Armory in front of the graduation procession and played the Honor Song for the graduates. They did the same this year. (James Cadwell)

For the four years I worked at St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota, this was not an issue. Under Superintendent Larry Parker students gathered at the start of each day to sing the traditional Lakota honoring song. That school has greatly improved in the past 10 years. It is a shame that Chamberlain allows its racist practice to continue.

Steve Cadue, long the chairman of the Kickapoo Nation of Kansas, is particularly frustrated at the high school suspension rates of their students from the public schools of Kansas. The rates for Indian students (13 percent) were twice as high as for whites (6 percent), and blacks had a rate three times the white rate. Native students were twice as likely to be held back for a second year of kindergarten than were white kids.

Four percent of white students in the Kansas schools are in the Gifted and Talented Education program, while only 1 percent of Black and Hispanic students are in this prestigious program. The rate for Indian is even lower, under 1 percent. Celia Lopez-Jepsen reported all this on Twitter in March.

Both the Rapid City and the Winner, South Dakota school systems specialize in arresting Indian students. According to the Rapid City Journal, Rapid City Area Schools had 658 arrests between 2007 and 2013. Many of these were Indian students. Children as young 10 or 12 were arrested, booked into jail, and charged with offenses. This is the so-called “school to prison” pipeline as defined by Gaye Kingman Wapato. It is not written or talked about much in Indian country, but it is a real phenomenon.

RELATED:Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 2

Welcome to Winner, South Dakota sign. (
Welcome to Winner, South Dakota sign. (

The student arrest rate in Rapid is 300 percent higher for Indians than it is for whites. In Winner, the Indian students were 33 percent of the total enrollment in elementary school, but dropped to below 5 percent in high school. Less than 25 percent of the Indian students in Winner finish high school. Most of them are from the Rosebud Reservation, which is just to the west. Students have very few Indian role models; the total Indian staff consists of one cook, one security guard, and a Native American paraprofessional advocate.

The Gallup-McKinley County schools have for decades mistreated Indian students. Students as young as 12 years old are pushed out and their lives ruined. The state law says they are supposed to be in school until they are 16, but that gets overlooked. When I first started working in GMCS in 1986, the dropout rate for Indian students in this large school district was 65 percent. One teacher, a Navajo woman, who told the school board about that high rate, was blackballed for life; she could not ever get another job in the district.

In Sisseton, South Dakota, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe has been fighting a difficult battle to help their students complete high school. They start high school with 50 students, but only 10 to 15 of them finish. Tribal Education Director Dr. Sherry Johnson filed a petition to have the school open its Impact Aid files, and the school promptly banned her from the school grounds.

RELATED:Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 3

Dr. Sherry Johnson presenting to school board members, the board member in the forefront is school board Vice President Ron Evenson. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department)
Dr. Sherry Johnson presenting to school board members, the board member in the forefront is school board Vice President Ron Evenson. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department)

The school district, under school board president Leroy Hellwig, said it has no obligation to let the tribe have a say in its policy or to recommend budgeting of Impact Aid funds. The U.S. Education Department reported 20 years ago that fewer than 20 percent of school districts complied with the federal requirement to get Indian input into its Impact Aid program. In one district where I worked as a consultant to help the Indian tribes develop Impact Aid policies and procedures, they had never had any Impact Aid policies, going back to the start of the program in the 1950s.

Impact Aid is such a huge program that most Indian school districts could not operate without it. The typical pattern is for the non-Indian superintendent and the non-Indian school board members to ignore the Indian people and tribes in the district. They know they can get away with it because the feds have never done anything about it.

In a lawsuit I helped the Otoe-Missouria tribe to file in 1994, the Frontier School District said the same thing. The district made Indian students ride in the back of the school buses. They put them into bonehead classes such as driver’s education and welding. They called the Indian students racist names like redskin, savage, and squaw, which refers to a woman’s sexual organs.

When the first Indian valedictorian was graduated that year, he almost flunked out of college at Southeastern. “The teachers said I didn’t need Algebra Two or Geometry,” he told his dad. So he started college without strong enough credits in math, science, and English.

A recent study by ACT found that 52 percent of Indian students did not meetanyof the four College Readiness benchmarks. In other words, over half of Indian students were totally unprepared for college. The study was based on self-identification by Indian students; the failure rate would have been much higher if the data had included only enrolled Indians.

The worst subject was science, where only 18 percent of Indian students met the benchmark. Only 10 percent of the Indian students met all four benchmarks in English, reading, math, and science. Some 16 percent had met one benchmark, 13 percent had met two, 11 percent had met three, and 10 percent met all four. From 2009 to 2013, the rate was flat, varying only from 9 percent to 11 percent.

According to data reported in my next book,The American Indian Dropout, only 18 percent of Indian students will ever earn a degree. This is the lowest success rate of any ethnic group.

The recent wearing of racist anti-Indian sweatshirts by students at the University of North Dakota will apparently go unpunished. Both the Chancellor and the President have condemned the action by students, but have not suspended any of them. These actions are not helping the success of our Native students.

This image of UND students happily wearing their "Siouxper Drunk" shirts was posted to Twitter. (Twitter)
This image of UND students happily wearing their “Siouxper Drunk” shirts was posted to Twitter. (Twitter)

RELATED:UND Students Create ‘Siouxper Drunk’ Shirts, Apologies Issued

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His next book is “The American Indian Dropout.” He was the mainland coordinator for the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969.

Rash of Racism Toward Native Americans in Schools

Brown Hall at South Dakota State University (top left), the Chief Short Cake math assignment handed out by a Lakeland Union High School teacher in Wisconsin (top right), the cowboys and Indians theme party thrown at the University of Denver in March (bottom left) and one of the offensive banners from the homecoming game at Lewiston-Porter High School in Youngstown, New York (bottom right).

Rash of Racism Toward Native Americans in Schools


Seems there’s been an abundance of racially charged news coming out of schools across the country over the last couple months.

In October, Indian Country Today Media Network reported on the Syracuse, New York mom who was appalled by the game of “Cowboys and Native Americans” played in her son’s elementary school as well as the racial epithet against Native Americans written in the dormitory bathroom of Brown Hall at South Dakota State University.

Then, there was the Chief Short Cake math assignment handed out by a Lakeland Union High School teacher in Wisconsin.

There were also the offensive banners from the homecoming game at Lewiston-Porter High School in Youngstown, New York.

And we’re sure this just scratches the surface. There are also the many mascot issues that still plague the country including theFighting Siouxin North Dakota and theWashington Redskins.

And remember thecowboys and Indianstheme party thrown at the University of Denver in March?

While all of these schools seemed to handle the incidents well and many led to teachable moments for those involved, what can be done to better teach everyone more cultural sensitivity before the incidents occur?

Especially now during November, which isNative American Heritage Month.

Read all the school racism articles here:

New York Mom Offended By ‘Cowboys and Native Americans’ Game at Son’s Elementary School

Racism at South Dakota State University in the Form of Bathroom Graffiti

Chief Short Cake Math Assignment Gaffe Has Lac du Flambeau Members Urging Cultural Sensitivity

Students to Apologize for Cowboys and Indians Party

Offensive Banners Waved at Homecoming Game in New York


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