Private Girls’ School on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation Is ‘Safe Haven’
Mary Annette Pember
It is not a question of if our students will go to college; it is a question of which college they will attend,” said Cindy Giago, Oglala Lakota, head of Anpo Wicahpi Pine Ridge Girls’ School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Anpo Wicahpi, Morning Star, signifies new beginnings in the Lakota language and is believed to be a source of strength for young women according to school leaders. Described as the first school of its kind by Anpo Wicahpi founders, the private school finished out its first year in Spring 2017 with 14 students from grades 6 and 7.
According to Giago, girls learn best in an all-girl environment. A girls’ school actively counteracts the negative and potentially dangerous influences of mass media and troubling depictions of women.
“It’s easier to be yourself around other girls. We can talk openly about our health and our bodies,” said Anpo Wicahpi student Tara Rouillard, 13.
“Our school is a safe haven for girls. It’s not only a college preparatory school with rigorous academic standards but also a place where girls can identify with the positive aspects of being Lakota,” Giago said.
For Lakota, constellations in the sky correspond with things to be done on earth. These sacred site visits are part of the students’ curriculum.
Historically Lakota women had the “final say” in community decisions, but the fallout from colonization and the boarding school era has served to diminish that traditional role Giago noted.
Many of the girls who come to Anpo Wicahpi may have struggled at other schools on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation according to Giago.
At Anpo Wicahpi, girls learn about traditional Lakota teachings and spirituality with the help and guidance of leaders such as Ethleen Ironcloud Two Dogs and her husband Rick Two Dogs. Ironcloud Two Dogs is also one of the founding members of the school.
Knowing Lakota traditions and spirituality helps the girls call to their spirits in times of need and helps foster resilience, according to Giago.
Although Lakota lifeways shape girls education at Anpo Wicahpi, the curriculum is academically rigorous, adopted from Anpo Wicahpi’s sister schools, the Young Women’s Leadership Network, a non-profit organization that began providing girls growing up in low-income communities with a high quality college preparatory education modeled on the finest private schools and the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles.
Anpo Wicahpi school board chair Victoria Shorr is co-founder of the Archer School for Girls. Archer school, founded in 1995, is known for its emphasis on incorporating research on ways that girls learn, develop and thrive into its curriculum and programming.
School leaders cite data from UNESCO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, that educated girls can help counteract problems like those found on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, including chronic health issues, poverty, and unemployment. According to the National Coalition of Girls Schools, nearly 80 percent of graduates from girls’ school hold leadership positions after high school.
Anpo Wicahpi expects at least 20 students for the upcoming school year and will include classes for the 8th grade as well. Last year, several students who lived far from the school on the large Pine Ridge Indian Reservation found it easier to board at the school during the week.
“At first it was temporary, but they liked staying here so much that we will continue to offer boarding to those who need it,” Giago said.
Although, the school currently serves girls in grades 6-8, Giago reported that leaders hope to expand capacity to include high school as well.
“It is believed that women are the backbone of the Lakota Nation; they nourish and nurture the minds, hearts and spirits of the people. As Lakota girls go through their stages of life, they are educated and provided teaching so that they will become ‘Winuhcala’ dear and precious female sources of strength,” says the Anpo Wicahpi website about the history of Lakota women on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.