Montana: On the Reservation and Off, Schools See a Changing Tide
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Wed May 28 14:11:50 UTC 2008
May 25, 2008
On the Reservation and Off, Schools See a Changing Tide
By KIRK JOHNSON
HARDIN, Mont. — One of the last traditional chiefs of the Crow Indian
tribe, named Plenty Coups, had a vision as the Old West was fading.
Education would be the way of the future, he said — a choice to be
either the "the white man's victim" or "the white man's equal."
Roberta Walks Over Ice was among those who heard that message, from
her grandfather. She then continued the tradition, preaching the value
of education to her daughter, Jasmine, 15. But the zeal for learning
that took root in such families is now coming with a cost. Many
families like the Walks Over Ices are deciding that off-reservation
public schools in this small, mostly white ranching town are a better
choice than schools on the reservation. Hardin High School, 55 percent
white in 2000, is now 70 percent American Indian. On the reservation,
at Lodge Grass High School, more than a third of the student
enrollment in 2000 has melted away.
The stigma that was once attached to sending a child off the
reservation — the legacy of forced boarding-school programs in the
early 1900s that tried to strip Indians of their culture and language
in the name of assimilation — has faded as elders who remember the old
days die off. "If they had all the same resources, programs,
assistance, whatever, I would have said, 'O.K., yeah,' but I didn't
want her to struggle," Ms. Walks Over Ice said about her daughter.
"Jasmine was falling through the cracks. I asked them to help her at
Lodge Grass, and she didn't improve." Home games for the Hardin
Bulldogs football team — majority Indian this season for the first
time — now begin with traditional Indian drumming, and the Crow
language is studied alongside French and Spanish. There is an
unofficial line in the school parking lot, one side for whites, the
other for Crow. Indian pottery-making is so well established in the
art department that schools from other parts of the state now come to
Even the principal at Lodge Grass, John Small — whose Crow pedigree
extends back to an Indian scout for George Armstrong Custer named
White Man Runs Him (who survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn,
fought about 15 miles from Hardin) — feels the winds of change blowing
in his own family.
All five of Mr. Small's children graduated from Lodge Grass, as did
he. But five of his nine grandchildren attend Hardin schools, and his
daughter, Roxanne Not Afraid, is a teacher there. This spring, the
Hardin district nominated Ms. Not Afraid to be Montana Indian Teacher
of the year. The turning tide of students has rippled far beyond
education, to culture and the delicate economic balance of an area
where resources like student head counts and the government dollars
that come with them are highly coveted assets.
Since the early 1990s, Montana has lost about 1.5 percent of its
public student population every year, according to state figures, with
even deeper hits here in the eastern half of the state, an area
largely untouched by the second-home culture that is transforming
places like Bozeman and Missoula.
At the same time, the national demographic groove of people moving
from rural to less rural places — for jobs, choices and lifestyle —
has accelerated, with Indians participating like everyone else. While
schools on many reservations continue to thrive, those in places like
Hardin — a small community struggling in its own way as the economics
in this dry, rural corner of the West erode — or in Parker, Ariz.,
adjoining the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation south of the
Grand Canyon, have caught some of the surge. A housing shortage and
lack of jobs on reservations account for some of the shift too, as
does the simple fact that many Indians have come to see the public
schools as better than reservation schools.
For the Crow or Apsáalooke Nation — about 11,000 people, three-fourths
of whom live on a reservation the size of Connecticut in Montana's
southeast corner — the intertwined arcs of Hardin and Lodge Grass have
made for a bittersweet experience. Positive things, like ambition,
hope and expression of free choice, are countered against the harm to
an institution that many people look back on with fondness and
nostalgia. At Lodge Grass, teachers have been let go and the number of
paraprofessionals who once could help students has been slashed. There
are only 357 students in all grades of the Lodge Grass schools, down
from 559 in 2000, and the small community of Lodge Grass itself has
stumbled, too, residents say, with burned-out and abandoned homes
lining the road to the hilltop school.
"We've had to tighten our belts, and that hurts enrollment and money —
it's a vicious circle," said Dennis Maasjo, the superintendent of
Lodge Grass schools. An education spokesman for the Crow tribe, Larry
Blacksmith, said each family must decide for itself on the schools
issue — the tribe takes no position. But the advantages from growth
have clearly made programs blossom in one place and not another, Mr.
Blacksmith said. "Advanced math, English, sciences — Lodge Grass
hasn't been able to offer things like that because of the money,
whereas Hardin has," he said. State administrators say more exacting
yardsticks of school performance, a hallmark of the federal No Child
Left Behind law, and loose state rules about where children must
attend school have allowed parents all over Montana to comparison
shop. Then there is simply the momentum of the crowd. "My friends are
going to Hardin, so I should go to Hardin," said Dr. Maasjo at Lodge
Grass, quoting the iron logic of teen life.
Some tribe members and school officials at Lodge Grass also see a
calculated grab by Hardin for students. A decision by the Hardin
district in 2004 to stop allowing buses to take students from Hardin
to Lodge Grass shifted 55 students from one district to another. That
alone was a big jolt, especially on the reservation side. Lodge Grass
High has only 135 students this year, compared with about 500 at
Hardin. Hardin school officials say the changes that benefited them
were mainly about education and discipline, especially a crackdown on
absenteeism. The busing decision, they say, was about holding down
transportation costs, not stealing students away. "You hate to say
we're more academically motivated," said Albert Peterson, the Hardin
Schools superintendent. "But we definitely push to have kids achieve."
How to balance academics and the new cultural mix of the Hardin system
is another question. "We do a lot of things differently now than we
did when we were predominantly white — we infuse Native American
culture in a lot of what we do," said Keith Campbell, Hardin High
principal. But when tribal leaders announce a spontaneous event or
celebration on the reservation, and call to ask that students be
released, Mr. Campbell said his first priority was not to the
tribe."Maybe I should feel more accountable to them, but I don't," Mr.
Campbell said. "I feel accountable to our school board."
Jasmine Walks Over Ice, a freshman at Hardin who wants to become a
veterinarian, said she liked Hardin better specifically because it was
more demanding than the reservation school she attended until fifth
grade. "There's more structure and a lot of respect for the teachers,"
Jasmine said. Her old school, she said, "didn't challenge me."
Parents like Ada Bends, whose son, Chaz, tried Hardin but then
returned to Lodge Grass, said an emphasis on test scores did not
necessarily mean everyone received a great education there. "The
environment in any school is what every child chooses to make," said
Ms. Bends, who works in Hardin as a case manager for a welfare-to-work
program. "I wanted him to go to school where he was happy. When a
child is happy with where they're going, they're able to put more into
Chaz Bends, who is half Crow and half white, said he had felt a little
lost at Hardin, where he transferred for a few months in late 2006. On
his first day, he said, he was chided for parking his car on the white
side of the parking lot, not the Indian side — one of the little
unwritten codes of the school's ethnic mix that he found jarring.
Lodge Grass High, by contrast, is 100 percent Indian. Chaz, who
graduates this month and plans to attend Sheridan College in Sheridan,
Wyo., on a rodeo scholarship, said the teachers were the main thing he
liked better about Lodge Grass. "The teachers are just like us," he
said. "We treat each other equally. Over there, you've got to do
everything their way, the way they want us to learn — kind of like,
straight-up strict." Roberta Walks Over Ice also loved Lodge Grass
High. But she remembers it in the '80s in the same sort of terms that
Mr. Bends used to talk about Hardin. It was tough. "I had teachers who
were motivated," she said, adding, "They gave you a goal, and said,
'This is what you're going to do.' "
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