Results from state and national standardized testing shows how dire the situation has become for Native American students, who continue to perform far worse than white students in South Dakota across almost all measures of academic achievement.
During the 2018-19 school year, fewer than one in four Native American students in grades three to eight and grade 11 was rated as proficient in reading and writing on state standardized tests. Roughly one in seven Native American students was proficient in math, and just one in eight was proficient in science.
The 2019 National Assessment of Educational progress found that the state's Native American fourth and eighth graders were between 25 and 30 points behind their white peers in math and reading.
On-time graduation rates for Native American students also are lower than for every other racial group in the state at 54%, compared with the rate of 85% for students of all backgrounds, according to the state report card. In McLaughlin on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, too few of the system’s roughly 440 students scored proficient in any subject for statistics to be reported.
Educators and experts were interviewed as part of a two-month reporting effort by South Dakota News Watch to examine Native education in the state. They agreed the problems are rooted in circumstances far outside a student’s control.
“I believe wholeheartedly that we are extremely intelligent, innovative people, but this system is not designed in a way that nurtures that,” said Sara Pierce, director of education equity at the West River nonprofit advocacy group NDN Collective.
Pierce, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who has worked in school systems in Omaha and Rapid City, said the state’s schools have struggled to teach Native students in a way that is relevant and responsive to the culture in which they grew up. There also are relatively few Native American teachers in public school districts, which reduces emotional and educational connections and relationships, she said.
The number of different school systems serving Native American students can also be a problem, said Juliana White Bull-Taken Alive, director of the state Office of Indian Education.
Each system has its own set of rules, philosophies and goals, she said. The lack of consistency hurts Native students, who tend to be more mobile than their peers and often hop between school systems one or more times before they graduate.
Students in the Oglala Lakota County School District, for example, endure a built-in disruption to their educational path when they reach high school because there has not been a traditional high school in Pine Ridge for decades. Students must move to a virtual school online or transfer to a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs or private school on or near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in order to stay on track to graduate.
“Over the years, as an administrator working for the tribal departments and now for the state, I’ve seen that the biggest challenge in terms of our students, ultimately, is building consensus among our schools in the state,” White Bull-Taken Alive said.
Native students also have the long traumatic history of their peoples treatment at the hands of the federal government to contend with, both Pierce and White Bull-Taken Alive said.
They are hampered as well by the most recognizable consequence of that history — a deep cycle of poverty that persists in tribal communities. In South Dakota, roughly 60% of Native American children were considered to live in poverty in 2018, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report. Only 8% of South Dakota white children were living in poverty that year, the report said.
School districts where Native Americans make up the majority of the student body also tend to be in remote, rural areas, said Julie Garreau, director of the Cheyenne River Youth Project and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. The youth project is a nonprofit that provides a variety of after-school programs and services to children in Eagle Butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in north-central South Dakota.
Some rural districts do not have access to the same educational programs or job-training opportunities found in more urban districts. Transportation costs and time, teacher hiring and retention challenges, and restricted funding also hamper rural districts where Natives commonly attend.
South Dakota’s Native American population is not unique. In North Dakota, the graduation rate for Native American students was 72%, 20 points lower than that state’s white students. In Montana, Native American fourth and eighth graders were 20 to 30 points behind their white peers on the 2019 national assessment tests.
More school districts across South Dakota have begun to implement pieces of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, educational standards that seek to encourage schools to incorporate Lakota language, culture and history into everyday lessons. Lakota-language classes have been showing up in schools around the state in districts such as Oglala Lakota County.
Last month, Department of Education Secretary Ben Jones announced the formation of a partnership with education-consulting firm McREL International to design and implement programs to improve Native American educational outcomes in the state. Those efforts, he said, could include a new look at culturally relevant curricula and efforts to improve Native American teacher recruitment.
A push also is underway by the NDN Collective and other Native groups to pass legislation in 2020 to allow for development of the state’s first public charter schools that would provide educators the flexibility to innovate to better reach and teach Native students.
Generations of trauma
As a freshman in Wagner about a decade ago on the Yankton Indian Reservation, Alexander “Zane” Zephier found going to school nearly impossible.
He lived with his grandmother and younger brother and sister. Zephier’s mother, suffering from addiction and substance-abuse disorders, had left the family. His father was in prison. Zephier, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, had bounced between schools in Lake Andes and Marty before going to Wagner to start sixth grade.
When Zephier started high school, skipping class to play video games was easier than dealing with school and the other hardships in his life. Eventually, he did find friends that came from similar circumstances and started drinking with them.
By the time his grandmother started getting phone calls from the school threatening charges of truancy, Zephier said, he’d gotten so far behind that going back to class seemed impossible.
“It was just kind of a vicious cycle,” he said.
Zephier’s struggles are common in tribal communities. Native American students have the lowest attendance rate of any racial group in South Dakota at 72%, according to the DOE report card. Native children also have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism of any racial group in the state at 37%.
In 1819. Congress passed the Civilization Fund Act, which appropriated $10,000 (about $202,000 today) to teach Native Americans “the habits and arts of civilization.” The money was mostly allocated to religious groups to fund mission schools on the country’s frontier.
By the 1870s, most of the country’s indigenous population had been conquered and forced onto remote reservations. That decade also saw the beginning of the federal government’s Indian boarding-school program. Native American children were forced to attend the federally funded schools that systematically stripped them of their cultural identity through a combination of harsh discipline and forced religion.
Generations of Native youths as young as 6 were required to attend schools where their hair was cut, their clothes were replaced by military-style uniforms and they were denied the right to speak their own languages. Instructors routinely disciplined students physically and mentally for even minor infractions. Often, these schools were hundreds or thousands of miles away from their families.
“In theory, it was supposed to be this great tool for assimilation, and we would all coexist together. But what it really did was it compromised indigenous culture in a way that we’re still repairing,” Pierce said.
Education at Indian boarding schools was usually trade-focused for boys and focused on domestic chores and skills for girls. Reading, writing and math were taught, too, but the idea was to give Native children practical skills that could lead to jobs in cities or in agriculture.
Racism often prevented former boarding-school students from finding work in American cities, Pierce said. Often, those former boarding-school students were driven back to the reservations.
“There weren’t industries on the reservation conducive to those trades, and so what happened then is, they go back to the reservations, and they would feel super isolated because they didn’t have deep understandings of their culture, language and spirituality,” Pierce said.
The federal system of boarding schools failed to erase Native culture or force Native Americans to assimilate. Instead, they created several generations of traumatized youths with tenuous connections to their culture, history and families. Many turned to alcohol as a way to self-medicate for serious mental health problems, Pierce said.
“If you’re using alcohol to adapt and address some deep mental health issues, and then you start having a family, getting married, having children, when your children misbehave or you and your spouse disagree, you address it in ways that you learned … the boarding-school movement really yielded chemical dependency, extreme mental health issues, abuse both physically and sexually,” Pierce said.
Until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, Native Americans hadn’t been granted automatic citizenship at birth. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants nearly anyone born within the country’s borders citizenship, had been interpreted by Congress and the courts to exclude indigenous people. Native Americans were instead considered almost as wards of the state.
Those who had been granted citizenship and were born before 1924 had to give up their tribal affiliations, join the military and accept land grants carved out of reservation lands, and start paying taxes on the land. That system led to tribes losing hundreds of thousands of acres from reservations to private ownership. Often the lands were sold to non-Native buyers.
Full citizenship wasn’t granted to all Native Americans until 1948. By the 1950s, nationally, about half of all Native American children were being educated in locally controlled public schools. But Native Americans still had little say in what and how their children were taught in those schools. The same was true of the federally managed BIA schools.
Beginning in the late 1960s, tribal governments started taking on a larger role in the education of their children. They began taking over boarding schools and creating new partnerships with local school districts using federal grants authorized by the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, as well as the Tribally Controlled Grant Schools Act of 1988.
Forced placement in boarding schools wasn’t ended until 1978, when Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Zephier, for his part, said he was able to graduate high school in 2013 and go to college thanks to the teachers and students in the Wagner High School Jobs for America’s Graduates program. He was automatically enrolled in the program as a freshman, because the school deemed him to be at high risk of dropping out due to his family history. Zephier was joined by 12 other students, all of whom had similar backgrounds, in his JAG class.
Zephier, now 24, graduated from the University of South Dakota in 2017 after having served in student government. He now works as a field counselor for USD’s Upward Bound program, which helps low-income high school students graduate and explore college opportunities.
White Bull-Taken Alive said each school’s culture also plays a big role in how successful children of any background can be. Unfortunately, she said, there is often a culture of low expectations when it comes to Native American students.
“Actually hearing people say that Native kids can’t learn or this work is too hard, that’s devastating. Can you just imagine the trauma or the devastation to understand that here is your trusted adult saying that, you know, Native kids can’t learn this?” White Bull-Taken Alive said.
Native American students also tend to be disciplined in South Dakota schools at much higher rates than their peers.
According to the most recent data reported by the federal Civil Rights Data Collection system within the Department of Education, despite Native Americans’ being roughly 10% of South Dakota’s student population, they made up more than 30% of both in-school and out-of-school suspensions as well as roughly 54% of expulsions during the 2015-16 school year, the latest year for which data is available.
Of the 221 violent incidents reported in the state’s schools, 50 involved Native Americans. A total of 127 violent incidents involved white students. There were 123 Native American students arrested in South Dakota public schools, accounting for roughly 45% of the 270 arrests reported in the state’s schools. A total of 109 white students were arrested in schools.
“The discipline data is indicative of the need for more culturally proficient strategies,” Pierce said.
Ultimately, small improvements may help, but many believe that sweeping changes will be needed to the South Dakota public education system before outcomes improve significantly for Native students, Pierce said.
Jones, a former college dean who became state education secretary in January 2019, said he was not sure why it has taken so long to embrace Native American perspectives and input on education. Jones said he was optimistic that with strong input from Native leaders, educators and families, South Dakota can find a way to improve education outcomes for Native American students.
“For many years Native American (education) improvement has been an objective, and there’s been various things tried … it brings to mind a Winston Churchill quote: ‘You can always rely on the United States to do the right thing after they have tried everything else,’” Jones said. “Regarding Native American education, we’ve tried a wide variety of things, and now we’re going to try and listen to them and see how they’d like to approach it.”