Rosebud: Changing the trajectory of the Lakota-Sioux youth through education and community

By Brian Munoz | @BrianMMunoz

MISSION, South Dakota — Half a dozen elementary school children gather on the stoop of an Ace Hardware store, bikes in hand, as older students and family members line the storefront.

There aren’t shopping malls here, nor theaters. When you ask locals what people do around town, many hesitate and respond with a shrug.

Chatter about the new school year and about the evening’s festivities spills out on the streets while the smell of sizzling meats on a nearby grill fills the air.

Tonia Marshall and her 17-year-old daughter Tianni Arrow drove over 40 miles to attend the block party, a first of its kind, held by the Sicangu Youth Program.

Arrow is a senior at Todd County High School, the local school just down the road. She has been very involved during her time in high school –– participating in basketball, volleyball, track, theater, cheerleading, band and she was even recently inducted into the school’s National Honor Society.

Unlike traditional high schools throughout the United States, Arrow lives at the high school in dormitories during the week–– she’s done so since she was 6. Then on the weekends, she travels back to Norris, a rural unincorporated community of roughly 150.

“It’s hard to process I’m a senior now,” Arrow said. “My classmates feel the same way that I do — they can’t believe that they’re seniors.”

This year’s class of seniors is accomplishing a milestone at Todd County High School. Arrow is one of 102 students to graduate from Todd County High School at the end of the academic year — the first group to graduate a class of over 100 students in the history of the school.

Despite breaking records on the number of students graduating from the school, students throughout Native American reservations and the communities they reside in have been found to be disproportionally impacted by the effects of poverty, substance use and mental health challenges.

On the Rosebud Lakota-Sioux reservation in rural South Dakota, community members and educators are attempting to change their youth’s trajectory as they look to their futures after high school.

Todd County by the numbers

Richard Bordeaux, the interim superintendent at the Todd County School District, said their high school typically graduates classes of about 80. Of those, he said about 30 have aspirations of going to pursue higher education.

The Todd County School District only has about 2,100 students but covers about a 30-mile by 60-mile swath of land, Bordeaux said. The district is made up of eight elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and a juvenile detention center — with roughly a 95 to 98 percent Native American student population.

Many of the schools are largely subsidized by the United States Department of Education through its Title I designation. The designation, which is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides financial resources to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.

The federal support is designed to assist local school districts in ensuring their students meet state academic standards. Bordeaux said Todd County receives about a quarter of its annual budget from the program. “The education part of the system has to accommodate what we have to do to keep the [state] happy,” he said.

In addition, the district largely relies on federal impact aid to help bridge the needs of their students. This is the same federal funding in which some military schools receive.

Federal Impact Aid is designed to assist school districts that do not gain funding from property tax revenue due to federal tax-exempt property. The vast majority of schools located in Native American reservations fall under this category as well.

Now under Donald Trump’s administration, Bordeaux said the funding they receive through the program has improved with the president’s push to increase military budgets. “Some of that comes around to the education side,” he said.

In turn, the school district receives over half of their funding from the federal government, roughly 40 percent from the State of South Dakota and only seven percent from local funding, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

While the district is able to operate largely through governmental support and as the high school moves along with one of their largest graduating classes to date — there are many unique challenges which the district faces.

Only 10 percent of students met proficiency standards in English and 6.4 percent of students met proficiency standards in math during the 2016–2017 school year, according to the South Dakota Department of Education.

The challenges for Todd County’s students extend beyond academic proficiencies in school. The school was found to have a 37 percent attendance rate among Native students, according to a report commissioned by the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation.

“Our data shows as [our students] get into high school, their attendance gets worse and worse,” Bordeaux said. “We can’t make them come to school but we can ask if there’s anything we can do to help.”

The report also found what was described as “troubling high school dropout rates” and a need for increased resources to ensure better preparedness after high school, whether students were pursuing a college degree or entering the workforce. Only 55 percent of Native American-identifying students at Todd County High School reach graduation, according to the report.

Marshall, Arrow’s mother, said the large number of students not reaching graduation is a common problem on the reservation, adding she doesn’t see those students receiving enough encouragement from their parents and peers about the importance of education.

“Parents don’t really talk to their kids about the importance of finishing school,” Marshall said. “For some people, [school] just phases out of their daily routine.”

In an attempt to help resolve the grim outlook on many of the reservation youth’s futures, Bordeaux said many community groups have been meeting to have discussions on how they can attempt to help the youth while pushing past the adversities on the reservation.

“It goes to having discussion [on] poverty issues in the reservation and all of the bad things that happen with families because there aren’t jobs — there aren’t successes that the students can see,” Bordeaux said. “We have to battle that in our system. It’s a big challenge.”

Over 50 percent of Mission residents fall under the poverty line, 37.4 higher than the national average as reported by the US Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. The town is one of the highest populated towns on the Rosebud Lakota-Sioux Reservation.

Understanding their students

Bordeaux said, as educators, they strive to connect with the students by reassuring they understand where they’re coming from and are ready to help.

“We have an objective to help students with their social and emotional health,” Bordeaux said. “We are trying to train our staff to respond to those needs — teaching them how to observe things in the classroom.”

While many schools traditionally assess their students based on academic benchmarks, the Todd County School District takes an innovative approach to assess their student’s wellbeing through four wellness goals––academic health, social/emotional health, cultural health and spiritual health.

Todd County Middle School has their students go through wellness checks each day they are at school, an initiative to address their overall psychosocial health. These are often done through a “wellness wheel,” a checklist with each of the wellness goals, the student completes.

“The wellness wheel is a visual tool [to] help students take a self-reflection of ‘this is where I’m at’ and ‘how can I improve,’” said Sage Fast Dog, Todd County Middle School’s Native American Achievement School Fellow. “It helps us break ourselves down as humans.”

Educators at Todd County Middle School said they have seen positive results in how their students talk about and visualize the different aspects of their physical and mental health through the use of the wellness checks.

Making a change in Native American education

Fast Dog, the Native American Achievement School Fellow at the local middle school, was offered a Lakota Studies teaching position but did not take the job right away.

“To be a Lakota Studies teacher, It meant that I had to be like my mentors — you had to live a Lakota way of life,” he said. “You have to be practicing the customs of Lakota — other than that, you would just have knowledge from books on what Lakota is.”

But, that wasn’t the case–– Fast Dog said he quickly realized there were many students who weren’t being exposed to Lakota culture, language and customs in elementary school.

“I used to think the [students] would be fluent speakers but I realized it would take more than just one class and it would take a lot of hours and effort from the entire organization,” Fast Dog said, adding he would have to adapt the ways of teaching to fit the needs of his students. “I focused on a few phrases in Lakota and did a lot of history, philosophy, and guidance.”

Fast Dog, a graduate of Sinte Gleska University, said he also wanted to fight stereotypes of his culture in academia he had faced — and not allow others to define what Native American culture is.

Reminiscing on grade school, Fast Dog said he remembers opening a textbook in fifth grade and only seeing five pages on Native American history and culture. “There was a map on one page and on the next page — what stood out to me — was a half-naked man with a bridge cloth and he had a scalp block in hand,” he said.

Fast Dog said he closed the book and told himself — “we are savages.” Then he heard it on the playground from other students, from the people who didn’t live on the reservation and from those who wrote the textbook. “That’s three things that are saying I’m a savage — the only ones who didn’t were my teacher, my parents and my grandma,” he said.

But, Fast Dog said knowing the challenging parts of his personal history has made him a better educator. “Knowing that part of history allows me to know about the society I’m working with,” he said.

Implementing new curriculum

In his role, Fast Dog spearheads the implementation of the new curriculum which incorporates Lakota culture, history, and language into the classroom, with the help of a $590,000 state grant aimed at improving academic outcomes for Native American students.

“These schools will be infusing Native American culture and language throughout their curriculum,” said Mato Standing High, director of the South Dakota Office of Indian Education in a Dec. 2016 press release. “Sometimes Native students struggle to feel a sense of belonging in our education system. It’s hard to learn when you don’t feel like you fit in.”

The schools who are part of the program have two and a half years to implement their curriculum proposals with an official roll-out in Fall 2019.

The curriculum change comes after the passing of the 2007 Indian Education Act, which mandated the development of course content for curriculum and coursework in South Dakota American Indian history and culture.

Following the passing of the act, the Indian Land Tenure Foundation awarded a 2008 grant to the South Dakota Office of Indian Education to develop the 2011 Oceti Sakowin curriculum project. The project is aimed at incorporating content from a variety of experts in various Native American subjects such as culture and history.

Todd County Middle School is one of South Dakota districts quickly picked up on the Oceti Sakowin curriculum and now has only been able to further the development and implementation of the program through the $590,000 grant.

Higher Education

On the edge of Mission, a red, yellow, white and black metal tipi towers over the treeline — the Lakota educational center at Sinte Gleska University, a private four-year tribal college on the Rosebud Reservation that was founded in 1975.

Cheryl Medearis, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Sinte Gleska University, has been at the institution for 29 years serving in a wide range of roles after receiving her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at the university.

“The mission of SGU is to plan, design, implement and assess post-secondary programs and other educational resources uniquely appropriate to the Lakota people in order to facilitate individual development and tribal autonomy,” according to the 2017 Rosebud Sioux Tribe Community profile.

Lionel Bordeaux, the university’s president, is the 10th oldest serving university president in the United States and was part of creating the first fully accredited reservation-based institution of higher education at the bachelor’s degree level.

Like many educational institutions located on reservations, much of the financial backing doesn’t come from local support. Medearis said the education system in Mission does not receive much, if any, money from the Rosebud Casino and students from the reservation don’t always go to college for free. “There are times that our accrediting agencies say that we do miracles on shoestrings budgets,” she said.

Medearis said she’s seen a variety of changes in the educational system throughout the years due to expectations and the student population but serving the students remains at the center of what the university’s mission is and “helping one child at a time.”

“Our students are our best role models,” Medearis said. “If you attend one of our graduations you can see that when someone walks across the stage, it’s really their whole family that has earned that.”

Sicangu Youth Program

While the situation may seem difficult in Mission, efforts from both educations and community organizations are slowly shifting the trajectory of the Lakota youth.

The Sicangu Youth Program provides development in key life skills for the Sicangu Oyate, a Lakotan subtribe. The program is spearheaded by William “Bebe” Long IV with backing from the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Council.

While the program isn’t an entirely new concept, Long said, it took the place of a similar program that was discontinued after director turnover and loss of funding. “We changed the name and completely started over, from the ground up so to speak,” he said. “One of the main reasons Tribal council revamped this program is to restore hope and address the high number of suicides of our young people.”

Long said he commonly heard people say “there’s nothing for our kids to do” and now while operating full time, his organization hopes to change the perception through various programming.

“We have been active in the communities providing activities and other assistance to our youth,” he said. “We have been creating a stronger sense of community [and] I see kids from other communities showing up at our events.”

Long said the Back to School Block Party, one of the group’s inaugural events, started off as an idea to get the community together. “I was standing on Main Street in Mission one day looking down the block and I thought it would be good to have a block party and invite all the youth of the reservation,” he said. “As I spoke to more people about it, I quickly gained support and just went for it.”

While the newly-established program was not able to fully fund the event, Long said many other tribal programs and businesses stepped up to help their cause. “I wanted to show our youth that if we work together — anything is possible,” he said.

Local leaders say organizations, like the Sicangu Youth Program, are “vital” to their community youth’s success as they continue through life.

“Through culture, education, life skills and sports, we can teach our kids how to be successful in life,” Long said. “We will restore hope and make sure our youth know we care about them — they are sacred and they are our future.”

Taking the opportunity

While many see limited opportunities within the confines of the reservation, Arrow said being involved in what she has been formative in her educational experience. With the support of the school’s principal, she’s been able to see what opportunities are out there for life after graduation.

Arrow is hoping to study paleontology or become a veterinarian. Her list of dream universities to attend include some in-state universities but also include Ivy-league schools like Columbia and Brown.

“I feel like school is really helpful — especially if you’re trying to leave,” Arrow said. “Just trying to be better than what goes around here.”

In a farewell letter to the freshman class, the biggest piece of advice Arrow said she was able to impart on the underclassmen was to take any opportunity you are given.

“The thing I learned in high school was how small reservation really was and how small the opportunities here were,” Arrow said. “If you just go out into the world, you’ll find more and it’ll just be better overall — it’s kind of overwhelming but exciting.”

Marshall, Arrow’s mother, beams with pride as she listens to her daughter speak about her future.

Marshall beams with pride as she listens to her daughter talking about her future. “She came here from the reservation and she has been to Washington D.C. twice — I’ve never been there,” she said. “She’s done a lot of things in her short life that I haven’t […] I encourage her on everything that she does and try to support her to get her there.”

Breaking assumptions

Arrow is one of many students in underserved communities fighting towards a better future for themselves. But, those within the community note it is important to remember that while there may be challenges in the educational and socioeconomic landscape, life on the reservation is more than test scores and public assumptions.

“You walk out in the hallway, you don’t see students sitting there and sobbing about poverty and their way of living,” Fast Dog said. “They’re running around — there are a lot of things going on in their lives.”

Fast Dog said while there may be times of sorrow in the student’s lives, there are many times of rejoicing and happiness. Bordeaux shares similar sentiments — one of the things which makes the youth resilient “is having a sense of humor.”

“There’s more to us than what you may read or what you may have been told,” Fast Dog said. “We’re more than what you think.”

Holly Piepenburg contributed to this report. This project was supported through a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Brian Munoz is a freelance multimedia journalist based in southern Illinois who tells stories out of the Midwest. He also enjoys playing classical trombone.

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