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Circle of Life; A sacred trust of the people

WHITE EARTH, Minn. - In northwest Minnesota, a 14-year-old Chippewa boy
named Craig recently walked deep into the forest on the White Earth
Reservation and sat down at a special place near a stream. For four days
and four nights, the youngster sat calmly at the site, fasting and praying.

He wasn't out there alone. A handful of other boys were also fasting in the
forest, guided to their special places by a traditional spiritual advisor:
Mike Dahl, a pipe carrier of the tribe.

Among the Minnesota Chippewa, the custom of a "vision quest" has been dying
over time, and with it much of the rich heritage that once maintained
harmony and respect with the world around them.

Despite the presence of bears, wolves and rain, Craig kept vigilance over
his little place in the forest, contemplating his purpose in life, praying
to the "monitoug" and neither drinking nor eating for the entire 100 hours
of the quest.

Other boys made it through two days, but Craig would not leave the forest
site until his mission had been accomplished. The boys came out exhausted
and spent from the experience, but they all went directly to a sweat lodge
where they endured seven "doors" of the rigorous purification ritual.

Then their parents gave the boys a big feast and hugged them for their
resilience.

"I'm very proud of you, Craig," his grandmother, Linda Bellecourte, told
him at the feast.

"He is such a special young man," she said as she spelled out a list of his
other accomplishments: his prowess as a boxer, and how he became a champion
in a Nebraska tournament.

Bellecourte is a lifelong resident of White Earth, on the southern side of
the large Chippewa reservation. She attended elementary school in the
village and completed high school at Waubun. At the time, both schools were
public.

Now, Bellecourte is a supportive parent and grandparent of students
enrolled in the Circle of Life School, a K - 12 tribal grant system that is
funded in part by the BIA. The school has 132 students.

"I'm proud of our school," she beamed as she reflected upon the value of
the Circle of Life to her community.

"My daughter went to school here," she added, "and now she's in her third
year of college in Minneapolis." There are other stories of success.

The Circle of Life School was born in November 1978 when 12 Chippewa
students walked out of the Waubun High School, about 10 miles away, because
of conflicts they were experiencing at the public school. The "walkout," a
remarkable feat of civil disobedience by rural teenagers, forced their
tribal leaders to grapple with educational responsibility.

Their first school was a small two-room shack with nothing more than a
barrel stove, table, stumps for chairs and baloney sandwiches, according to
Denise (Bellecourte) Levy, a leader of the 12 who walked out. The Waubun
home-school coordinator walked out with them and became their first
teacher.

The tribal council created its own school to "provide a quality,
culturally-based education that emphasizes the academic, emotional, social
and spiritual development ... in a safe and supportive environment."

"From these humble beginnings in that shack," said Levy, "a spirit of
Indian pride was reborn in these young students, and yes, we could be
something good."

Levy, the school's first graduate, enrolled at Bemidji State University and
graduated with a double degree in Criminal Justice and Indian Studies.

Through the years the school has taken bold steps to reach its mission of
providing a quality, culturally-based, responsive education to American
Indian students with needs that "are not addressed by public schools,"
according to Bellecourte.

In recent years, the school has met the rigorous performance goals and
indicators of success required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Since 2001,
enrolled Chippewa students have made consistent annual improvements at the
"proficient" and "advanced" levels in reading, mathematics and attendance,
known in the business as "achieving AYP" - something that 77 percent of all
184 BIA and tribal grant schools have failed to accomplish. This puts the
Circle of Life School in special company.

The circle is a sacred and respectful symbol to Native people, and the
White Earth School uses this symbol to do what so many others can't -
achieve the academic success essential to fulfilled lives.