Graduating to Prison: Native Americans Sue School District

Graduating to Prison: Native Americans Sue School District
By Mary Annette Pember

February 2007 Issue

Nearly all the motels in Winner, South Dakota, are booked solid as folks make the annual trek back for the high school homecoming celebration. Businesses are festooned with banners lauding the “Warriors” football team. The little main street seems to shiver in anticipation of the big parade. On this weekend, all the restaurants and fraternal halls will be filled to capacity with revelers.

Everyone is coming home. Everyone except the Indians. Most of them are already home, and if they’re not, they seldom return for homecoming. This celebration is for the conquerors, not the conquered.

Birdie Ward is a nicely dressed woman with a warm smile who talks easily with strangers in the lobby of a fine Winner motel. A former homecoming “Indian princess,” she graduated in 1950 from Winner High School and currently lives in Rapid City.

She and her fellow alumni who are gathered in the lobby ruefully lament the loss of the old Indian-themed team mascots. The current Roman Warrior just “isn’t the same,” they declare. The homecoming warrior and princess used to be presented to the community in Plains-style garb as they emerged from their fake tepee on the school stage. The alumni nod in agreement, expressing a note of disgust regarding the Native community’s insistence that the Indian theme be dropped a few years ago. Ward and her friends declare that it was really an honor to the tribe and cannot understand how the Indians could be angry at such a noble gesture.

Ward and her friends sigh. “We’ve tried to help the Indians over the years, but you can’t get them to get an education, and it just breaks your heart to see how they live,” Ward says. While she acknowledges some discrimination, she adds: “I blame the Indians for much of what happens to them; they refuse to blend in. They insist on keeping to their old ways. After all, they are a conquered people.”

Ward also expresses disgust at the numerous government handouts she believes Indian people get. “They all receive checks, you know. Every Indian who has at least 1/8 degree of Indian blood receives a monthly check from the government,” she says.

She seems genuinely shocked and a bit embarrassed when I tell her I have 50 percent Ojibwe tribal blood quantum, and I receive no payments whatsoever from the government. She quickly responds, “Yes, well, you Ojibwe are so much more industrious.”

The racial rift between the Indian and non-Indian communities here in this town bordering the Rosebud Sioux (Lakota) reservation recently emerged in the form of a class action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas and the attorney general of the Rosebud Sioux tribe against the Winner, South Dakota, school district. The suit charges the district with discriminatory disciplinary practices and policies designed to result in unfair criminal prosecution of Native American students. The lawsuit is part of the ACLU’s national challenge to what it calls the “school to prison pipeline.” The organization claims to have identified a disturbing trend in which public schools disproportionately target children of color for criminal prosecution for minor school code violations. About 30 percent of Winner elementary school students are Native American, yet only 1 percent makes it to high school graduation. Native students are three times more likely to be suspended from school and ten times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white students.

“Living in South Dakota is a very different experience for white people than it is for Indians,” says Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas. “Discrimination against Indians here is a longstanding, dirty little secret.”

It’s as though the two communities live in completely separate realities, speaking different languages, and in a sense they do.

Beatrice White Buffalo’s adopted son Taylor, fifteen, attends Winner Middle School and is a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. White Buffalo herself is a 1964 Winner High School graduate and former teacher’s aide with the district. But she now spends much of her day at home sitting in her wheelchair. She lives on the outskirts of town in an enclave of Indian housing unofficially called “the Hill” by Winner residents. These identical 1970s housing styles are found throughout Indian country. They are split-level affairs made of materials that don’t age well, and many of the homes on the Hill are down at the heels. Most of the yards have long since given way to wild prairie plants and bare ground, a stark difference from the tidy lawns in Winner proper.

The White Buffalo home is spartan but well kept, and the kitchen table serves as the family hearth, where Beatrice and her husband, Dale, sit and talk over coffee, field phone calls, and issue household orders. After years of dialysis due to diabetes complications, she received a new kidney in 2003. Beatrice is grateful just to be alive these days. She is in fragile health, however, and needs constant help. After she broke her leg during a fall while in the house alone, Dale had to quit his job as a home health care worker. The period surrounding her surgery was an especially stressful time for the family. Beatrice and Dale were providing foster care for three of Taylor’s siblings (Taylor is Dale’s biological nephew) in an effort to keep the children together.

During part of Beatrice’s hospital stay, the children were left in the care of a relative, who was lax in his duties, allowing the children to be out after curfew, she tells me. Eventually, Beatrice and Dale say they were charged with neglect, and the children were placed in non-Indian homes. Taylor, however, was permitted to remain with them. When Beatrice went back to the hospital in Sioux Falls for several weeks, she and Dale felt they had no choice but to bring Taylor along. He missed a lot of school and fell behind in his class work. Beatrice thinks this and the trauma of losing his siblings contributed to his problems at school.
“The other kids teased him because he was having trouble keeping up,” she says. “His self-esteem went way down.”

Shortly after returning to school in 2004, Taylor hit a Caucasian student after the boy pushed Taylor several times during a disagreement over a basketball. The middle school principal allegedly prevailed upon Taylor, who was eleven at the time, to sign an affidavit confessing to hitting the student. Principal Brian Naasz allegedly notarized the document and handed it over to the Winner police, whom he had summoned. The police then placed Taylor in jail. Beatrice and Dale say they were not notified until after their son was arrested. He was charged and convicted of simple assault and was placed on probation for ninety days and ordered to complete several hours of community service. The Caucasian boy was not disciplined, allegedly because the principal said pushing does not constitute fighting. According to the lawsuit, the principal told the parents it was necessary to send their son to jail because Taylor might “kill someone next.”

Beatrice and Dale had had enough; they agreed to join the ACLU class action lawsuit in which these allegations are stated.

Calls to the principal were referred to Don Knudsen, an attorney with Gunderson, Palmer, Goodsell and Nelson, LLP, of Rapid City. He represents the school district and maintains that it uses an objective “discipline matrix” in all its punitive actions. The matrix is a simple grid indicating responses to first and subsequent violations. He insists that all students at Winner receive exactly the same disciplinary treatment. In response to statistics showing the high rate of suspensions and referrals of Native Americans, he says that one has to look at student behavior. “The evidence will show that students receive the same punishment for the same behavior, regardless of race,” he says. As far as the principal’s reported comment that Taylor might kill someone, Knudsen said, “I have never heard that. I don’t know where that statement is coming from.”

Beatrice recalls her own years at the Winner school district with ambivalence. “No matter how well you did, they always made you feel less than,” she remembers. Beatrice was a bright child and good student with a keen interest in archaeology. Her eyes light up as she recalls the day a local white woman brought a personal collection of fossils to share with the elementary students. “I was so interested by the thought of those animals existing so long ago,” she says.

All of her school accomplishments, however, seem to be tinged with parallel memories of shame. Shame of having Lakota as her first language and the teasing over her trouble learning English, shame of a teacher calling attention to her wearing the same dress for several days, shame of not having money for school events and outings, and shame of not fitting in with the white students. She still wonders why success in the white world always seems to come at such a high price: the rejection of all things Lakota.

In order to fit in, she worked hard to get the teachers and students to like her, ironing clothes and doing housework for them. She fondly remembers that the white woman with the fossil collection gave her a lavender dress to wear to her junior prom and that she was allowed to do all the painting of the prom murals of Mt. Fuji and apple blossoms to go with the Japanese theme chosen by the class.

Beatrice got pregnant the following year, and since her belly grew big by graduation time, she was not allowed to participate in commencement. She is still grateful, however, that they mentioned her name at the ceremony. “I wanted to go to school to become a teacher so the teachers tried to talk me into giving up my baby, telling me it would be better off and that I couldn’t support it,” she says. “I tried to think like them but I couldn’t. Traditionally we don’t give up our babies. I listened to my grandparents and kept my son.”

Beatrice says her life has been tough and she has always had to work hard but proudly states that along with raising four kids, she got a degree in human services from Sinte Gleska tribal college in 1983. She later worked for two years in the Winner schools as a teacher’s aide, focusing on Lakota culture and language until funding for the position ran out.

“The students really enjoyed learning about our history and culture,” she says. “I’ve always felt that if they knew more about us, they wouldn’t be so suspicious and afraid.” Beatrice thinks classes on Lakota history and culture would teach students the truth about the Native community. “They would understand that we don’t all receive checks every month, that we work the same as they do and that a death in our family automatically means we have to be away from school for three days of ceremony.”

Robert Cook, Lakota Oglala from the Pine Ridge reservation, was named Indian Teacher of the Year at the 2006 National Indian Education Association conference. Cook runs the Lakolkiciyapi room (friends working together toward a common goal) at Rapid City Central High School. Lako has three full time teachers who are certified in math, English, science, and social studies. These teachers try to reach Native kids as they enter the ninth grade. Cook says that statistically if Indian kids can get through the ninth grade, they have a much better chance of graduating. He cites research published in the Journal of Indian Education indicating that integrating Native culture into school curriculum increases student attendance and graduation. On average, 92 percent of Native students participating in the Lakolkiciyapi room attend school versus 50 percent who attend only the mainstream curriculum. Students go to Lako for one half of the school day and mainstream classes for the other half. Cook stresses academics and responsibility in the program, integrating cultural elements into everyday lessons such as civics and literature.

“We focus on the average kid who in a normal mainstream setting might slip through the cracks or drop out,” he says. The program is only four years old, but the numbers are encouraging, with 80 percent of students passing on to the next grade.

If most of the Indian students don’t graduate, the schools need to acknowledge that what they’ve been doing isn’t working, says Cook, who is on the board of the South Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council. In response to such criticism, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds is backing a state Indian Education Act, which would require cultural training of teachers and some instruction about Lakota traditions.

Cook’s school district, for instance, in addition to the regular commencement program, allows Indian students and their families to have an honoring ceremony. Young men are presented with an eagle feather, and young women with an eagle plume. Cook says this lets the students know that the wicoti (camp of relatives and community) is there for them and is proud of them, which is traditional in Lakota culture.

Cook is optimistic about his Lako program, and he’s pleased that a number of non-Indian kids also attend. “Often they want to be with their friends or are interested in Indian culture and history,” says Cook. “After all, our state is named after an Indian tribe. It only makes sense to try and understand the community in which you live.”

During a recent tour of the Winner elementary, middle, and high schools, however, the dearth of Lakota history or cultural curriculum was impossible to ignore. Even though Native students make up more than 20 percent of the total district’s enrollment and Winner is located in the virtual heart of Lakota country, this journalist observed only one example of Lakota cultural inclusion. One room in the middle school included the Lakota words for the four directions listed on each wall of the classroom underneath the English words. When this fact is pointed out to Mary Fisher, school superintendent, she responds, “We are trying.”

According to the Native parents, however, the district isn’t trying very hard. Parents allege that high school principal Mike Hanson refused to allow a drum group formed by current and former Winner students to sing an honor song for graduates during last spring’s graduation, which featured a near record nine Native American graduates. In 2006, Robin Blackfeather was allegedly forbidden to expose her traditional Lakota buckskin dress during commencement and instead had to keep her regalia hidden under her graduation robe. Winner officials refused to respond to these allegations under advice from the district’s attorney.

One cannot help but note the look of hurt on Superintendent Fisher’s face and the tone of bewilderment at the charges lodged against her district by people who are effectively her friends and neighbors. She clearly loves her district and community and has a tough time keeping silent during the school tour. She has been quoted in other publications before the lawsuit that she feels the school and community have been unfairly targeted.

The big homecoming ceremony fills the American Legion hall. Despite the cold rainy night, the building is standing room only as students, alumni, and community members gather to see the presentation of the homecoming warrior and princess. The candidates file onto the stage; they are beautiful, mostly blond, healthy youngsters who bask in the love and approval.

In the crowd of about 200 people, there appear to be only three or four Native people, hardly representative of the 10.2 percent Native population of Winner and 20 percent student population in the district.

All alumni received invitations, but when several local Native graduates were asked if they would attend the ceremony, they simply shrugged their shoulders and smiled ruefully or said, “No, I don’t think so.”

Roger Milk, a former Winner High School student whose grandson is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit, responded simply and directly. He said, “We stay away because there’s no one there for us to cheer for.”

So far this year, Taylor White Buffalo is doing fair in his studies. He attended summer school, and he has been receiving tutoring. His parents’ great hope is simply that he gains and maintains self-esteem.

Initially, his reaction to his arrest and subsequent notoriety over the lawsuit was to ask to leave the district and enroll in a Rosebud reservation dormitory school. Students live in dorms during the week and can visit home over the weekends and holidays. But Beatrice did not want that. “In many ways, you lose your children when they go away to school,” she says. “You lose family and cultural ties. Our kids shouldn’t have to leave home to attend school.”

Since the lawsuit, however, the White Buffalo family agrees that the district has been making an effort to offer additional tutoring and involve parents more in the schools. Beatrice says it seems like the white community may be waking up from its long sleep of indifference. As she puts it, “At least it’s a start.”

Mary Annette Pember is a journalist and photographer based in Cincinnati. This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship, a program sponsored by the Independent Press Association.