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Education on the Fort Peck Reservation
Education for Native Americans started long before the 1800s, when our Native people roamed free on their own land. The elders of our people were the educators. They taught the young how to respect every living thing: the trees, the grass, the animals, and the person standing next to you. They all took care of and looked out for one another. It was their way of life.
Then in the late 1800s, Native people were forced to assimilate into the culture of the Europeans. Native Americans were forced onto reservations, forced to send their children hundreds of miles away to boarding schools, and forced to give up their language and culture. Native Americans were taught that they were inferior to the Europeans.
When Native children were sent away to boarding schools they were badly mistreated. I remember my grandfather telling me stories of how he was treated when he was a young boy attending a Christian boarding school in North Dakota. He said that none of the Indian kids were allowed to talk in their language and if they did, they were beaten. He remembered that when he was caught talking Sioux to another boy one of the sisters grabbed him by the back of his hair. He said that stood him right up on his tip toes. He would always finish his stories with “they were really mean to us.” The harsh treatment he endured as a child prevented him from teaching his children and his grandchildren his Native tongue.
Native students are not being physically abused anymore in the school system; neglect is the new form of abuse. Neglect, because our school systems fail to educate children about Native culture. In the book, Montana’s Indian Education for All: Toward an EducationWorthy of American Ideals, Bobby Ann Starnes says that the only time Native culture is implemented into the school system is during the month of November at Thanksgiving when all the students make paper bag Indian vests and construction paper headbands (Starnes, p. 186).
Since school systems neglect to teach Native culture, non-Native students and faculty do not understand it. Not only are the school systems neglecting to teach Native culture, but they also neglect Native children. For example, my younger sister experienced it in the Poplar High School. She was a freshman in high school when our mom got sick. So my sister decided to drop out and stay home to take care of our mom. After a few months, my mom got better, so my sister decided to go back to school. But when she tried to return, some of the teachers discouraged her. Instead of trying to encourage her to stay in school, those teachers told her there was no sense in her coming back, as she was too far behind to catch up. This happened to some of my sister’s friends as well. If the teachers knew anything of our culture, they would have known that family is valued above all.
The school system is failing our Native people. We are at a disadvantage. According to Laura Blazard, a case manager for T.A.N.F. participants, 85% of the WoRC people who come into that program do not have a high school diploma or GED. A lot of this has to do with a lack of any Native teachers or staff members to relate to these children. Not only do our teachers need to be educated, but Native parents must become more involved in their children’s education as well. In her speech on April 9, 2014 to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Mandy Smoker Broaddus, who works for Office of Public Instruction in the Indian Education Division, states, “The work of improving educational outcomes for American Indian students cannot be the work of the schools alone. The achievement gap in Montana and across this country is very real, and the solutions are multi-dimensional and complex. We need better approaches to realize stronger, healthier, more stable, and better educated families and communities” (Broaddus, p. 2).
For the past four years, Larry Wetsit has been the Vice President of Community Services at Fort Peck Community College. In an interview with Mr. Wetsit, he said the educational system is not an issue but could be improved. He also stated that the problem he sees in our education system is there are not enough Native teachers or staff members in the school. He said he is a firm believer that Native children and Native people in general can respond better to other Native people. In order to fix these problems he stated, “The school board has to look like the community. If the community is 80% Native, a school board should be 80% [Native] and then you will most likely have 80% of your teachers be Native and so that could be defiantly improved.”
I’ve always been a person with a one track mind. If I find a solution and it works, I stick with it. But after my two interviews and all the research I’ve done on education on our reservation, I find it hard to come up with just one solution. Mr. Wetsit broadened my mind during the interview. He made me realize there are so many solutions to this one issue. This issue will not be able to be fixed with just one solution. It will take time to get our education system where it needs to be and stop generational poverty among our Native people. By educating our youth, we will survive as a people and move into a better future.
Fellini Adams is a student at Fort Peck Community College.
Blazard, L. Personal Interview, 30 April 2014.
Broaddus, M. Office of Public Instructions www.opi.mt.gov, 28 April 2014.
Starnes, B. A. (2006). “Montana’s Indian Education For All: Toward an Education Worthy of American Ideals. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(3), pp. 184-192.
Wetsit, L. Personal Interview, 23 April 2014.