The brass ring held in most esteem is often said to be education. Studies show children of economically disadvantaged communities, particularly indigenous nations on the Northern Plains, run a systemic gauntlet to reach this prize.
Oglala Lakota County—roughly half of Pine Ridge Reservation, and often dubiously cited in national media as the poorest county in the United States—should be the poster child for this view. The gauntlet is here, but Red Cloud Indian School’s executive vice president, Bob Brave Heart Sr. does not accept that.
Brave Heart, Oglala Lakota and former schools superintendent, has been with the system for 20 years. “We do what we do—in the midst of whatever controversies and difficulties—we just keep moving on.” By any measure, what they’ve done is remarkable—72 Red Cloud graduates have been named Gates Scholars, one of the premier scholarships in the country.
Gates Millennium Scholarship winners receive financial support that nearly amounts to a full undergraduate ride. Should these scholars choose even more advanced degrees, the scholarships, with a few caveats, fund that as well, to the school of the recipient’s choice. The scholarships, reportedly funded to the tune of $1 billion, are endowed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Red Cloud Indian School says it has “the highest number [of Gates Scholars] of any school of its size in the country,” and that “Red Cloud’s previous Gates scholars have gone on to study at universities including Stanford, Creighton [and] Dartmouth…” At Red Cloud High School’s May graduation ceremony, five seniors were added to the list of Gates Scholars who have gone before them.
The 2016 recipients are Jacob Cousin, Isabella New Holy, Justin Mesteth, Bobby Pourier and Antone Morrison. “When he learned he was a Gates Scholar, Mesteth said, “It was a moment I won’t forget. There was a lot of relief—it was a moment of joy.” Said Cousin: “I was amazed and shocked … I was so thankful for everyone who told me to do to it.”
“I’m the first in my family to go to college. My teachers and my grandmother [inspired me],” Morrison said. “Countless times my grandmother woke me up and drove me to school, half asleep… and that made me feel like that was important. She was serious about my education.”
Courtesy Red Cloud Indian School
This year’s Gates Scholars from Red Cloud Indian School.
A statement from Red Cloud notes: “The eligibility standards for the Gates are exceptionally rigorous: in addition to having a minimum GPA of 3.3, applicants must demonstrate leadership skills and a commitment to community service. Only 1,000 scholars are selected from a pool of over 53,000 applicants. For those who earn the scholarship, it represents an extraordinary opportunity to pursue both personal and professional dreams.”
On a recent visit to Red Cloud, U.S. Secretary of Education John King said, “It’s powerfully important for teachers to be prepared, to be culturally responsive in their classrooms, to understand kids’ language and cultural experiences and to build that into their instruction. That’s part of what happens here at Red Cloud and it’s part of what’s helping Red Cloud to support young people who have a vision for their future and an optimism about their future.”
Red Cloud’s Dean Huerter said: “I think there’s an amazing support system at Red Cloud for these students… [We] all understand our mission of educating the whole student. Having that support to really create that foundation, in order to feel secure in their academics and secure in who they are before they go to college, is so important.”
Noting King’s response to Red Cloud’s Gate’s Scholars statistics, Brave Heart said: “The secretaries visit is certainly good for Red Cloud, but will there be resources? Will there be initiatives as a result? That’s yet to be seen. My hope is that this is the beginning of a dialogue.”