The K-12 system didn’t fail the American Indians.

The K-12 system didn’t fail the American Indians. Its methods have followed its own design to the letter…

Formalized education in the United States was not designed to empower us. It was designed to pacify us, while it extinguished our culture.

Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.
Credit: Otis Historical Archives National Museum of Health and Medicine, Indian Training School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. School room building.

The relationship between the American Indian people and formalized education within this nation is one of contention, controversy, and trauma. The school system of the United States was not designed to give our people an opportunity at having a stable, thriving life whereby our culture could flourish. For that reason, when evaluating it today, the educational system of the United States has in fact been a success.

From the earliest days, the federal government’s plan for “educating” American Indians was to forcibly relocate and assimilate our elders within the dominant American culture. The chosen vehicle to accomplish this task, after warfare, were the schools. The targets of these assimilative practices were the most impressionable and vulnerable population to be found – our youth. After years of rolling warfare throughout the American frontier (what the United States would refer to as the “Indian Wars” but what we refer to as our fight for survival) a deep desire to pacify the indigenous people once and for all permeated the halls of Washington D.C.

Yet even before the bloody conflicts of the 18th century came to their malicious conclusion with the massacre at Wounded Knee, the dominant culture had already philosophically justified their subjugation of indigenous people through their own legal opinions. Courtesy of the Marshall Trilogy of Supreme Court rulings during the 1820’s, our ancestors were deemed as nothing more than “wards of the state” – wayward orphans in need of the continual guidance and protection as rendered by the federal government. It was believed by elected officials of the day that the United States possessed an obligation to incorporate American Indians into the greater American diaspora. More importantly, the federal government sought to prevent us from disrupting the successful westward expansion of the nation through our ongoing resistance to white settlement as effected through force of arms.

A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023
A GROUP OF 15 HAVASUPAI INDIAN SCHOOL CHILDREN POSING OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL. 16 NOV 1938. Credit: Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection.

Sixty years later, as our warriors and spiritual leaders were killed, assassinated, and imprisoned, federal concern then turned towards the next generation. As described in the works by David Wallace Adams, John Reyner and Jeanne Eder, and Jacqueline Fear-Segal (Education for Extinction, American Indian Education: A History, and White Man’s Club – respectively) thus began a systemic conscription of American Indian children – often times taken forcibly against the will of their parents – on into a rigid educational structure situated far away from their families and ancestral lands. It was here at these remote locations, behind the high brick walls that bordered the stone barracks where our children were warehoused – that the public educational system set to work to purposefully exterminate our cultural identities. Today this period is referred to by American Indian scholars as the “Boarding School Era.” Yet within those institutions, despite the inhumane brutality imposed upon them on a daily basis, our ancestors heroically managed to keep our culture alive. In the face of corporal punishment, sexual and mental abuse, and isolation, the culture was somehow preserved by those that were there. This continuance of our language and of our ways – often times pursued in secret and at great risk to the individuals who dared – will serve as a supreme act of resistance from which our currently reality is derived.

By the 1920’s, when it became apparent that the forced assimilative practices of the boarding schools were failing to engender the desired results sought by government officials (i.e.: the complete extinction of indigenous cultures in North America), mainstream public schools in surrounding municipalities were then turned to as the principle means for acculturating American Indian youth. Here, as before, there were no considerations whatsoever regarding our unique cultural status, and our desire to preserve it. As a result, no allowance was made for any type of educational offering to support our indigenous identities. Instead, our youth at that time were enrolled into a public education system that had been modeled upon the estimable tenets valued by an industrialized society. Along with their non-Native peers and recent European immigrants, students were force-fed into an academic machine that provided assembly-line educational practices designed to produce “citizen widgets” – capable of little more than holding down menial, low-skill jobs upon graduation. Our boys were taught rudimentary skills within the industrial arts, and our girls were schooled only in the ways of home economics and child rearing. Such a narrow focus reflected the limited nature to which educators viewed the prospective futures for American Indian youth. These methods would continue on without disruption for the next forty years.

Credit: Canada Biblio Archives
Credit: Canada Biblio Archives

It was not until the political upheavals of the late 1960’s, where the civil rights movement and identity politics surged to the forefront of American consciousness, when the American Indian community began to galvanize for change. For our people, the work of Vine Delora, Jr., Richard Oakes, John Trudell, and the American Indian Movement brought forth a new awakening that called upon the need to practice and teach our culture in more overt ways – particularly if it were to survive for future generations. As detailed within Judy Davis’ 2013 work, Survival Schools, by the early 1970’s the American Indian people began to take community control over the education of their children. Parents and elders began placing emphasis on the practices and traditions of our people over the insistence of an industrialized educational system that had thus far failed to provide a stable future for our people.

As a result, within these new, small, community-controlled schools the American Indian culture became the fulcrum upon which the development of our youth would hinge. Yet despite these modest successes occurring in rather isolated pockets, the majority of our children were still ensnared within the machinery of American public schools, with their academic achievements wilting under the continual denial of the life-giving traditions and customs that were such familiar nutrients within their homes and amongst their families. For so many of our students, academic success was a near impossible realization as they found themselves being ground up between the gears of a system that continued to refuse to acknowledge cultural distinctions among their students.

Now with the 21st Century underway, many new and progressive educational approaches have begun to surface in several different locations, and have been applied towards American Indian education (many of which were pioneered right here in the Twin Cities). The work of the Minneapolis Public Schools District’s Indian Education Department, as well as schools such as Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, stand as powerful testimony to the efficacy of this new vanguard of pedagogy – whereby a strong hybrid of American Indian culture and traditional academic pursuits are offered in tandem for our students. Yet funding remains at a premium, rationed out among a myriad of other enterprises deemed of equal import by civic leaders. There is so much more to do, particularly when considering what is occurring beyond the city limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.
The massive brick building of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada Credit: David Stanley.

In this respect, the public school system continues to fail the majority of American Indian students, but when considering what it was designed to do by its original architects, it also could be argued that it has performed exactly as intended. As current academic data in the state of Minnesota indicates, the youth of our people continue to struggle mightily to achieve in this current educational system. In the end, as they reach adulthood, many cannot help but to emerge and live lives within the modern economy that resemble the very “wards of the state” designation bestowed upon us by John Marshall nearly 200 years ago. Yet despite these recorded failings, the current system remains incredibly rigid – still slavishly adhering to its own industrialized design and sense of self-import. Despite the successes demonstrated in certain arenas as mentioned above, the system continues to addictively reinvest staggering amounts of money back into its own failing enterprises without much in the way of incorporating new and innovative models that have proven successful. Why?

A century ago, the provision of a proper education for our people that included our culture, and that was supported with a full complement of resources was believed to be a dangerous enterprise – empowering designated enemy combatants of the United States. It was believed by government leaders that such measures would invariably reconstitute an indigenous resistance, that once reformed would have to yet again be contended with by the United States military – only now perhaps on more equal footing. This was simply never in the plans for this republic during its infancy, whose citizens found themselves squatting on foreign land and feigning ownership of a continent that was not theirs.

Here now, in 2016, evidence continues to pour in yearly demonstrating that the educational system simply does not work for all students – in particular for American Indian youth. Instead of diversifying their approaches, and further supporting differentiated delivery models that offer culturally contextualized programming (such as what is offered at Takoda Prep of American Indian OIC, or through Minneapolis Public School’s Department of Indian Education), the system powers forward insisting upon the preeminence of its own authority and efficacy – despite the data. For our community, such insistence by the system in favor of itself makes us wonder what its true motivations are. From our perspective, it is hard to see much difference from what has come before and what is in effect today. As we tend to our children and grandchildren, we are no longer interested in feeding them into a machine that merely produces wards of the state. We demand something different . . .

ABE Program Featured on MPR

Excerpts and images from Minnesota Public Radio.
Brandt Williams, Reporting
Caroline Yang, Photographs

High school dropouts try to get back in the game

For many, GED certificates are the ticket into the workforce or higher education that they didn’t punch in high school. …Minnesota ranks near the bottom of states when it comes to the on-time graduation rates for students of color.

Most high school dropouts in the state are white, reflecting the makeup of the state’s student population, but the trends among students of color are especially troubling when compared to their peers throughout the nation. By one measure, they didn’t get much help. MPR News found Minnesota ranks dead last in the portion of education money that schools spend on counselors and other support staff who can intervene in the lives of failing students.


Young people likely to drop out often show signs of trouble before reaching high school, said researcher Robert Balfanz, a leading scholar on graduation rates at Johns Hopkins University.

They might miss school or get in trouble in class or fail a course, he said. “Initially maybe it’s one course, and soon it’s a couple courses.”

Balfanz said school staff should measure what he calls the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course failure. Schools can improve graduation rates by focusing on freshmen whose middle school records raise red flags in these areas, he said.

And while students of color, who are more likely to be poor, have a weaker record of graduating on time than white students, Balfanz said focusing only on race and poverty is not the answer.

The bottom line, he said, is that all students need to earn enough credits to graduate.

“And to earn credits, you have to pass your classes,” Balfanz said. “And to pass your classes you have to be there. And you have to get your work done. And by focusing on those mechanisms we’re focusing on the mechanisms that most directly impact whether you graduate or not.”

…In 2009, researchers at Northeastern University in Boston dropped this statistical bombshell: 16- to 24-year-old male dropouts were getting locked up at a rate 63 times higher than the rate for young men with college degrees. The study also found that, on any given day, nearly a quarter of all young black male high school dropouts in that same age group are in jails, prisons or juvenile detention facilities. That is more than three times the rate for Asian, Hispanic and white dropouts.


That’s expensive. A 2013 report from the Council on Black Minnesotans found that state taxpayers spend more than $48,000 per prison inmate per year, just less than a year of tuition at Carleton College, the highest tuition in the state.

Alyssa’s Story


Alyssa Graves’ path to the GED program at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis started at Roosevelt High School and wound through several years of heroin use, school-hopping and homelessness.

The classes at Roosevelt felt too big to Graves. The school had counselors available, but Graves said she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to concentrate on school. She soon fell behind. “It was just too much with the big classrooms,” she said. “Once you missed one class, you fall behind. That’s pretty much where it was. When you miss a day, you have to keep going. That’s where my struggle was.”

During her sophomore year, Graves left Roosevelt and started attending the American Indian OIC’s alternative high school, Takoda Prep. She liked it and was doing well there because the classes were small and she got more individual attention. But Graves’ family moved to another part of the city and she was forced to change schools — twice.

“I wish I would have stayed at OIC,” she said. “I probably would have finished.”

Graves dropped out of that last high school. Her heroin habit turned into a full-fledged addiction. Soon, she was also homeless.

She stopped using drugs three years ago, when she found out she was pregnant. After her son, Aden, was born, Graves decided it was time to go back to school and get her diploma. At 23, she’s taking classes and studying for the GED tests.

Graves’ parents never finished high school. Her mom got pregnant with her at 15. Graves’ father was 18. He dropped out of school in order to find work and support the family; Graves is the oldest of four kids.

“Just like I’d seen my dad struggle with us, I don’t want to have to go through that,” said Graves. “I want to finish school, get a good job, so I can support my son. So he can have a good life.”

After she gets her GED certificate, Graves wants to get a degree and work as a drug counselor. She wants to help young people who are experiencing the same problems she went through as a teenager.

“I want to be able to be a drug counselor because I know how it is. I know how it feels. I know it’s hard,” she said. “The first few times it’s about getting high, but you get to the point where you need it to be normal. That’s what it got to me for. And I’m just thankful I found out I was pregnant. He changed my life.”

Read and listen to the complete MPR story here.

An Open Letter to Decision Makers

Leaders of the State of Minnesota:

The purpose of this message is to call your immediate attention to the ongoing needs of the American Indian community in Minnesota, as well as to the powerful capabilities that we currently possess. It appears to us that our people have once again been forgotten, or relegated to a second-class status by officials in the state.

We, the undersigned, are deeply troubled at the continued lack of attention given to our people by you, the leadership of this state. In recent months there has been much discussion regarding economic and educational disparities that persist for many communities of color. However, consistent with historical precedent, there remains an exclusion of our people in these discussions, despite the impact that these same disparities have on our community. Such omissions have emerged in several critical ways that, if not addressed, will only serve to exacerbate these existing disparities.

First, regarding the various enterprises and plans being put forth by state officials, legislators, and state departments, there has been absolutely zero consultation with the leadership of the American Indian community regarding the creation and development of these initiatives.The only form of engagement, if any, always comes after the fact – once the plan has been created and publicly disseminated. It is only then that our community is finally allowed to participate in the process within generic open forums typically referred to as public comment sessions.

Second, our community has no appetite – at all – for outside, non-American Indian enterprises to intrude into our community with the intent of providing services to help us. We do not need, nor do we seek, outsiders to “save” us -whether they are government, not-for-profit groups, or private sector companies. The American Indian community currently possesses a multitude of qualified and effective·service providers that are American Indian populated and American Indian operated – all of whom are more than capable of providing the needed services and possess a proven track record of success dating back over several decades. Successful services must be provided to our own, for our own, by our own.

Third, our community has no desire to be forced to participate within services or plans that are devoid of our culture, our traditional teachings, and our customs. We insist on the utilization of culturally contextualized programming for our people -which is the most effective, best practice models by which our organizations adhere -whereby our culture is omnipresent. By definition, these culturally contextualized services cannot be provided by non-American Indian entities, which further emphasizes the previous point mentioned above.

Finally, we are frustrated with the abhorrent lack of consistent, long-term, and robust investment of resources directly into our community from the state government – especially in light of several years of immense budget surpluses, and especially given the consistent acknowledgment the state government makes regarding persistent disparities that exist within our community.

This letter is on behalf of the indigenous leadership and the various agencies and corporations whom they represent that work directly with the American Indian community in Minnesota. Owing to the continued pattern of overt exclusion of the American Indian people within state affairs, we are now compelled to advocate in this manner on behalf of our own.

We are still here.

Here now are our recommendations that we believe need immediate implementation:

First, directly engage with our leadership regarding near-term issues currently exacerbating the economic and educational disparities harming the American Indian community.

We have deep concerns that we feel compelled to discuss with you, including but not exclusive to: issues regarding the implementation of federal WIOA legislation, funding inequities regarding Adult Basic Education for American Indian learners, inequitable access to proper health care for our people, prohibitive and exclusionary practices by established post­ secondary institutions such as the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system (MNSCU) towards our young adults, the deficiency in culturally contextualized chemical dependency treatment services, the ability for our people to procure assets to build their own economic futures (such as home ownership and small business development), and of course, respect and acknowledgment of the treaty rights which remain as supreme law of the land under Article VI of the United States Constitution.

Second; going forward, engage directly with our leadership at the point of inception for all planning and new initiatives regarding how ongoing economic and educational disparities afflicting this state are to be remedied. We insist on being a part of all such initiatives at the start of theprocess so that we may co-create a solution together with you. This is the essence of collaborative practice. Together, our insights will serve to meaningfully inform this work.

We know from experience as to what works best for our own people, and such input will only serve to strengthen future solutions for the state of Minnesota.

Third, we call on you to deepen the relationships and expand existing partnerships with established American Indian organizations in a more meaningful way (many of these organizations are signatories to this letter). Our organizations are reputable and well-respected entities within our community. We have a proven track record of positive outcomes and effective practice. Our people know us, trust us, and seek us out for the provision of services for we are direct reflections of our community -being led, governed, and staffed by our own people.

Fourth, begin making immediate, real, and more robust financial investments directly into the American Indian community. We are both tasked with undoing centuries of systemic failures brought forth by the very same government institutions to which many of you now belong. This work will require a consistent and long-term application of resources.

Such measures have thus far proven inadequate towards meaningfully addressing the economic and educational disparities now present in Minnesota, and have in reality further perpetuated the systemic oppression of these communities.

Finally, immediately include -in overt fashion that is easily recognizable – the American Indian people in all respects to your work regarding economic and educational disparities. Do this in your speeches, in your policies, and during your public appearances and interviews.

Acknowledge the history of the land that this state sits on. Our people need tangible evidence that they are not being ignored once again, or that they continue to remain invisible to the powers-that-be.

In addition, during these times of real economic crises for so many people, there is a tendency for more vocal constituencies to drown out other voices. This then makes your overt incorporation of our people within your actions even more important than ever. We need to believe that you know we exist and that you too share our interests. In this respect we need to see words and actions working in tandem to accomplish this objective.

We look forward not only to your response to this letter, but in your taking action so that we can begin a real collaborative process that is beneficial for all.

Our stated goals are the same, our motivations are fueled by the very same sentiments, so let us now come together and work towards making our actions match the will of our heads and passions of our hearts.

Chi Miigwetch and Pilamaya!


Joe Hobot, President & CEO, American Indian OIC
Michael Goze, President & CEO, American Indian Community Development Center
Clyde Bellecourt, Executive Director, AIM Interpretive Center
Monica Flores, Executive Director, Bii Gii Wiin Community Development Loan Fund
Deb Foster, Executive Director, Ain Dah Yung Center
Louise Matson, Executive Director, Division of Indian Work
Mary LaGarde, Executive Director, Minneapolis American Indian Center
Patina Park, Executive Director, Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center
Tuleah Palmer, Executive Director, Northwest Indian Community Development Center
Robert Lilligren, President & CEO, Little Earth of United Tribes

The Investment of Time

The extraordinarily high unemployment (13.1%) and jobless rates (40%) for Minnesota’s American Indian residents have resulted in significant economic disparities for the community. There are many factors that contribute to these problems including limited education, access to health care, lack of affordable housing, and limited chemical dependency treatment options. In a recent issue of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s Minnesota Economic Trends magazine, American Indian OIC president & CEO, Joe Hobot, highlights one important solution to these issues – the investment of time. So often, programs that are developed to address community challenges are restricted by short timelines. These time constraints are not beneficial for individuals served by these programs who have varied needs that often require more than one grant or contract period to address. Mr. Hobot lays out an argument that the investment of time is necessary in order to address the whole person and thereby mitigate the disparities that have plagued the American Indian community for so long.

You can read Mr. Hobot’s excerpt from Minnesota Economic Trends Magazine here.

The entire issue of the magazine is located here on Minnesota DEED’s website.