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Survival schools rescue Indian students, culture

It's an Indian answer to a universal question: ''How do we keep our children in school?'' Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis and Red School House in St. Paul stand as templates for a system of education known as ''survival schools,'' schools that teach basic education and living skills to those who probably won't go on to college. A dozen or more such schools offer an educational alternative to Indian children in the United States and Canada. Wisconsin, Oklahoma, California, and South Dakota also have such schools.

''The survival school concept is a very, very important one for Indian people in the country today,'' says Eddie Benton-Banai, director of Red School House since its beginning 11 years ago. Today, his school enrolls 150 students from kindergarden through the twelfth grade.

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Mr. Benton-Banai, who in 1976 received the National Education Association award of ''Indian Educator of the Year,'' speaks of transformation, of the miracle of creating willing students out of former dropouts. He knows, because he, too, was once a dropout. Now he holds degrees from the University of Minnesota and California Western University.

Heart of the Earth Survival School in downtown Minneapolis occupies a large red brick building. Inside the school, eight Indian boys huddled around a large drum beating out a steady rhythm, from time to time singing, ''Hai . . . i . . . i . . . i . . . i. . . .''

A history compiled for its 10th anniversary reveals that much of the school's leadership has come from the American Indian Movement, which strongly supports Indian alternative education.

The children in the halls are reluctant to be interviewed, but they watch with interest. They seem well behaved and orderly. ''Indian children are relaxed here,'' teachers say.

''There is no real educational alternative to the public and BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) system,'' says director Laura Wittstock. ''There is none that supports the cultural and language backgrounds of Indian students other than the survival schools.''

Ms. Wittstock points out that her students particularly love the courses on native-American tradition - courses in arts, language, and customs. The basics are stressed, but even the basics have an Indian slant. Reading is in both English and Ojibway; social studies cover Indian issues. For languages, the students study Lakota (Sioux) and Ojibway (Chippewa).

When Heart of the Earth opened 11 years ago, it struggled along on donations, with volunteer teachers, and an occasional grant from churches or local foundations. It charges no tuition.

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The year of its opening, 1972, marked the passage of the Indian Education Act Title IV, which promotes the concept of Indian control of Indian education. It has been the mainstay of both Heart of the Earth and Red School House ever since.

Within its first year, outside evaluators of Heart of the Earth began to realize that some Indian children progressed faster in an all-Indian environment. Minneapolis public school teachers began to refer native-American children from their classes to the school. Juvenile courts, too, began to make referrals. Eventually, the State of Minnesota officially endorsed Heart of the Earth school, and the City of Minneapolis funded some of the school's programs, such as buses and hot lunches.

An extension school for Heart of the Earth graduates now offers technical training, with a promise of a job in local industry. Support for this venture comes from local businesses.

The attitude at both Heart of the Earth and Red School House is one of quiet respect. This is expressed in the unusual dress code at Red School House:

''Personal cleanliness is next to Indianness. All is OK if it is clean. Be clean in mind and body. Respect your brother and sister - above all, respect yourself. Always remember, you are beautiful,'' Benton-Banai tells his students.

A poet and a writer, Benton-Banai has published several books, including the first written history of the Ojibway people, a children's text entitled ''The Mishomis Book, the Voice of the Ojibway'' (St. Paul, Minn., Indian Country Press ). In Objiway mishomis means grandfather.

Because few Indians go on to college, and even fewer to graduate schools, survival schools must provide the education needed for life. One aspect of this is knowledge of the law.

The Federation of Native American Controlled Survival Schools is sponsoring teacher training sessions on the law for teachers of Indian children. Under a $ 93,000 grant received last fall, workshops and seminars are being held in six states this year - in Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, California, Oklahoma, and Montana. The subjects will be international law, juvenile law, criminal law, and, of course, Indian law.

The concept of survival schools is beginning to attract national and international attention. Inquiries have come from several native-American groups , as well as from Alaskan natives, Europeans, and Central Americans.

At least one survival school has already been formed in Europe - Annaig Le Guiban Survival School of Brittany, France, modeled after the American survival schools. The people of Celtic descent in Brittany face absorption into the dominant culture of France, in much the same way that native Americans face absorption here.

Benton-Banai sees these schools as a matter of cultural survival, finding one's identity, searching for one's roots. In his words: ''We can begin the journey back to find what many of our people left by the trail.''

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