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Is Racism Hindering Native Student Achievement?

The level of racism in Indian schools is astounding, but the level of its exposure is miniscule. Much racism is covered up in schools as well.

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.

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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 us en 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?

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.

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.

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)

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 meet any of 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.

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.