Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

`What Was Missing For So Many Years Was Hope'

Awakening To the Hope of Education

`THE building is a dramatic architectural presence jabbed into the side of two hills overlooking the plains. From a distance it looks like a brazen, nomadic ship painted in bright, swirling colors and plowing defiantly and alone through a rolling brown sea. After a week at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation here, where the domestic problems of life are so overwhelming, seeing the Oglala Lakota College (OLC) headquarters is like finding an oasis just when thirst is about to become dehydration.

Perhaps architect Dennis Sun Rhodes saw it that way and created a building that would supply moral sustenance while it pointed a clear direction to a thirsty people.

About these ads

``We were offering a few classes back in 1971,'' says Tom Allen, director of institutional development at OLC. ``But when Congress passed the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act in 1978, then we started to roll.''

With a budget of $4.5 million (about 36 percent federal funds, the rest from fees, private donations, and direct-mail solicitation), OLC serves two educational functions: opportunities for a second (and even third) chance at education for Indians of all ages, and access to a fully accredited college right on the reservation. OLC also serves as keeper and disseminator of the tribal culture known as the ``Lakota way,'' with its emphasis on spiritual values as well as family, friendship, and respect.

The heart of the college is in the nine district teaching centers located throughout the reservation. ``We are a college for the people,'' says Mr. Allen, ``and we've got 7,000 square miles to serve.'' Realizing that most adult students would be unable to travel great distances to a traditional college, OLC has taken the college to them.

Drop into the College District Center in Kyle, S.D. - two big trailers pressed together side by side - and center director Marcell Bull Bear explains the programs. ``Our students are doing part-time study programs, some two-year degree programs, and basic adult education.''

Because of their failures in high school, years of drifting, and personal difficulties, plus lives spent partially away from the reservation, most of the students who walk in the front door have greatly differing needs. Often students in their 30s or 40s have poor basic skills and need remedial help to acquire a high school equivalency diploma before tackling college level work.

Last year the Kyle district center served 107 students, with 37 of them in regular attendance. Total OLC enrollment at the nine centers is about 1,300. ``We're starting to get more 17- and 18-year-olds, both girls and boys,'' says Delores Bear Killer, a tutor at the center. This means that OLC is becoming known as genuinely filling a need.

``The majority of my students are women with kids,'' says Ms. Bear Killer, who arranges Saturday night movies at the center in the middle of winter for the children of her students. Her day sometimes stretches to 10 or 12 hours as she involves herself in student's lives well beyond academic tutoring.

About these ads

Next to the two trailers, a new college center is being built. The Bush Foundation in Minneapolis donated $225,000 for the project. The building is a handsome, natural-wood structure with classrooms, a child-care center, and offices. An all-Indian construction crew is finishing the building.

``Our biggest problem,'' says Mr. Bull Bear, ``is counseling students, trying to help them with all their needs. Some need a ride to class, or they don't have books, or they want to drop out, or they are too lazy, or their family problems are too much for them.''

Most students are eligible for grants or other financial support through federal programs, state funds, and a combination of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and tribal funds. College tuition rose from $25 to $50 a credit this year.

Lowell Amiotte, president of the college, expects the years ahead will produce graduates to fill tribal needs. ``We were short eight school administrators when schools opened on the reservation this year,'' he says. ``Low salaries mean a big turnover and a lack of qualified people applying. We want some of our graduates to be able to serve reservation needs.''

In many ways, because of the need to improve elementary and secondary education, OLC's presence is even more remarkable. ``The college is hope,'' says Tom Allen, a non-Indian who came to here as a VISTA volunteer 22 years ago. ``What was missing for so many years was hope.''

INDIVIDUAL hope usually disappears on the reservation under the weight of problems related to poverty. Church-sponsored private schools or BIA public schools, themselves handicapped by low pay and high teacher turnover, struggle to educate children who often come from homes with no electricity, no running water, poor nutrition, and alcoholic parents.

Many older Indians had humiliating experiences in school and now discourage their children from going to school. Bennett Sierra, a former tribal council member and now a member of the Pine Ridge High School board, says, ``I can remember when kids were punished because they spoke Lakota in school.'' Those days may be gone; from elementary schools to college, pride in Indian language and culture is strongly encouraged.

Randy Plume, executive director of the tribe and a former school principal, offers a realistic assessment of high schools on the reservation. ``Over 1,500 people have achieved their GED [high school equivalency diploma] at our college,'' he says. ``There is no doubt that this is an achievement, but it is also an indictment of our high schools. Why is it that we've had 1,500 people drop out of our high schools?''

The question is not new; Mr. Plume knows the answer is complex and leads to a discussion of the nature of being an Indian and the difficulty of finding an identity while living in two worlds. It is not just a school problem; it is the fundamental Indian question.

While answers are sought or avoided from tribal councils to Congress, what continues is the challenge of making the reservation schools work on a day-to-day basis.

At the Pine Ridge High School, a BIA-funded boarding school, the energetic new principal, Mona Miyasato, is valiantly trying to change years of social and educational decline. One of her first tasks, before school started, was to rally the staff to remove graffiti from all the old brick buildings and walls. ``The BIA said they wouldn't replace any more broken windows,'' says Ms. Miyasato, ``so we knew we had to create an environment here that means we can be a good school.'' In the sixth week of school, when this writer visited, no graffiti or broken windows were in sight.

Miyasato issued a mission statement ``so that we're all heading in the same direction,'' she says. She set up a system of expectations and consequences to support the mission. Using the initials of the school - PRHS - she and the staff encourage the students to be ``proud, responsible, healthy, and successful.'' Pep assemblies, posters, and slogans reinforce the possibilities of what can be accomplished.

To help a handful of students who have been at the school six to eight years, Miyasato created a ``school within a school,'' and is working out contracts with parents and creating special classes and incentives for students to assure their graduation.

``We've come a long way,'' says school superintendent Imogene Horse, ``and we've got a long way to go. We used to have fights galore here, and we knew we had hit the bottom when the kids refused to go to class. All these changes, I think, are helping to make the kids want to be responsible.''

Says Allie Brewer, an alcohol and drug counselor at the school, ``You've got to remember there is no bowling alley in Pine Ridge, no movie theater, or anything for kids; so the school is the main source of entertainment and energy.''

Drinking among students continues to be a problem. As students work on parade floats one afternoon to celebrate a homecoming basketball game, a senior girl says, ``I look around here and I don't see a single kid that doesn't drink.'' Snuff, too, she says, is common among girls. Another student shrugs and says, ``Everybody drinks, except maybe some of the athletes.''

And what about teacher salaries at reservation schools? ``Average teacher salaries in South Dakota are $20,000; that's 51st in the nation,'' says tribal leader Plume. ``Average teacher salary on the reservation is $16,500, which makes us the lowest.''

There are 13 elementary schools and four high schools on the reservation, with about 5,000 students. ``We don't have a tracking system,'' Plume says. ``One kid will drop out of one school and not show up at the other school for days or months. And when he does show up, there isn't any information about him.''

Charles Zimiga, who has been working at Pine Ridge High since 1963 and is now the basketball coach, says, ``Many of the kids here don't feel like they are equipped to go to the outside world. Like kids anywhere, they're confused about what to do, and there is so little for them to do on the reservation. That's the tragedy. I suppose if anybody knew how to solve this for us, we would have had answers a long time ago.'' Last in a five-part series.

Further Reading

THE SIOUX: LIFE AND CUSTOMS OF A WARRIOR SOCIETY By Royal B. Hassrick, University of Oaklahoma Press, Norman and London, 359 pp. 1988

A scholary, definitive, and lively history of the Sioux.

I HAVE SPOKEN: AMERICAN HISTORY THROUGH THE VOICES OF INDIANS Compiled by Virginia Irving Armstrong, New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Shuster 242 pp. 1972

A hard-to-find compilation of angry and sometimes poignant quotes from native Americans down through the years as they asked for justice and fairness, and were usually ignored.

MOON OF POPPING TREES By Rex Alan Smith, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 219 pp. 1981

The best book available detailing what happened at Wounded Knee on Dec. 29, 1890, and the reasons why.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.