A reservation school in Nebraska graduates 100% of students, with focus on tribal culture

[Omaha World Herald] A reservation school in Nebraska graduates 100% of students, with focus on tribal culture

Student pride — and the graduation rate — are on the upswing at the public school on the Santee Reservation. School leaders trace that success to a new effort to teach students the tribe’s culture.

For the first time, students are learning Santee Dakota history, language and customs – subjects long ago banned.

The new cultural program has boosted attendance and helped the iSanti Community School in Niobrara hit a 100% graduation rate two years running, school leaders say.

It hasn’t always gone smoothly. A recent teacher dust-up related to teaching Santee culture led to three suspensions and a teacher being banned from the reservation.

But school leaders, teachers and parents say the cultural program is improving student enthusiasm and performance.

The proof follows fourth grader Wakiyan Curry home from school.

"He comes home and tells me what he learned in culture class," said his mother, LeAnn RedOwl. "He doesn't tell me about what he learned in math. He loves what he learns in culture."

More than 150 years ago, federal agents ordered students at the Santee Normal Training School on the Santee Sioux reservation in Knox County to forget their native language. They forbade the Episcopalian ministers running the school to teach in Dakota, said Redwing Thomas, iSanti Community School culture director.

The goal: Force assimilation by forcing students to speak English, cut their hair and wear western clothing.

Today, Santee students — from preschoolers to high school seniors — take daily courses created by Thomas.

Grade schoolers learn Dakota words for months, seasons, flowers and numbers. High schoolers study the tribe’s forced exile from Minnesota to northeast Nebraska.

“This is their story, and we get to help them on their journey,” Thomas said of the students.

It's a major development at one of the Nebraska Department of Education's priority schools, which include the state's lowest-performing districts. Among Santee's challenges: A historically low graduation rate, subpar test results and spotty attendance.

The cultural program has helped to achieve the school’s goal of removing state oversight, said Jessica Crossman, the junior-senior high school principal. Santee has achieved a perfect graduation rate the past two years, eclipsing the 80% state goal. The school is also on track to surpass the 88% attendance goal, Crossman said.

"The kids are really immersed," she said. "They're willing to take risks in the classroom."

Both Crossman and Cindy Nagel, elementary school principal, credit Thomas for creating a program that has students engaged.

Thomas, in his fourth year at the school, previously taught Dakota as a language. Culture was discussed intermittently.

Now, preschoolers to middle school students spend 20 minutes a day on culture. It’s part of hour-long classes at the high school level.

"The kids are really excited. They're not just learning a language, they're applying it," Nagel said.

Many teachers incorporate language and culture in their lessons. Nephes Justo's third grade class intertwines Dakota words with English, creating a Santee version of Spanglish.

Posters hung in the school hallways feature a Dakota word and its English version. There’s a mural featuring Ozuyapi (O-zoo-yaw-pi) — the school's warrior mascot — and The Three Grandmothers, representing Lakota, Dakota and Nakota, the three nations of the Great Sioux Nation.

In Thomas' classroom, students learn the tribe originated in “Spirit Lake” about 90 miles north of the Twin Cities. The Santee students also learn the hardest parts of their history, like the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862.

"We have generational trauma. It's not told as a story of sorrow or sadness, but one of strength," he said. "We've survived so much. This is our story of how we persevere."

That war started in southwest Minnesota after drought and hunting restrictions left the Dakota hungry. The U.S. government then didn’t deliver a promised annual stipend — compensation for surrendering land.

Tribal leaders met with government officials and local businessmen and asked for credit so Dakota could buy food for the winter. They were denied. One local trader suggested that Dakota people “eat grass.”

Days later, that trader was found dead, grass stuffed into his mouth.

He was among the first killed during a war that lasted a month and killed several hundred white settlers and Native Americans.

After teaching the history, Thomas asks his students what caused the war.

“One student blew me away with his answer. I was expecting 'we hated them and they hated us,'" he said. "But, he simply said, 'Misunderstanding each other.'"

The U.S. government hanged 38 Santee warriors on Dec. 26, 1862 — the largest mass execution in American history.

Another 1,500 non-combatants — elders, men, women and children — were imprisoned at Fort Snelling in Minnesota.

The captives were given scant food and separated, with men on one side of the camp and women and children on the other.

Thomas tells his students of the women who survived that hellish year while doing everything they could to ensure their young children survived, too.

“If that baby died, you wouldn’t be here. My great-great-grandparents were there. I might not be here.”

The Dakota were then forcibly moved from their homeland, relocated to central South Dakota — and then forced to walk nearly 200 miles to the present-day Santee Reservation in northeast Nebraska. The walk is known as the Dakota’s own Trail of Tears.

That's a lot of history. Students soak it up, Thomas said. At the end of the lesson, students create a video, telling the story through their eyes.

While support for the cultural program is strong, a recent incident threatened to jeopardize the school's progress.

A middle school teacher, a non-Native, allegedly told a student's parents that Santee kids were stupid, and needed to learn core subjects, not culture, Thomas said.

The parents told Thomas, who reported it to school leaders.

The teacher then confronted Thomas, saying he didn't say those words and demanding Thomas rescind his complaint, Thomas said. After Thomas refused, the teacher came to his classroom with another teacher and repeated his demand.

All three teachers were suspended.

School leaders declined comment on the matter.

But the students — and the tribe — did speak. Roughly 60 students staged a walkout to protest Thomas’ suspension. Roughly 50 elders and parents, including tribal council and school board members, then met at the lodge. They worried they would lose Thomas, his staff and the cultural program itself.

A few days later, Thomas was reinstated. The other teacher is no longer employed at the school.

The Santee Dakota Tribal Council voted to ban the former teacher from the reservation, an act usually reserved for criminals.

The former teacher didn’t return several messages, emails and phone calls from the Flatwater Free Press.

Thomas returned to school. Soon he hopes to prepare the cultural staff to become tribally certified language instructors.

In the meantime, Santee kids continue to learn the tribe’s language, culture and history.

Nagel, the elementary school principal, expects the program to grow.

Thomas says it has awakened something inside the students. He points at his T-shirt, emblazoned with the word, “Ozuyapi.” He explains its significance.

“This word, at one time, was foreign to these kids,” Thomas said. “It even scared people to say it. But now you see it everywhere around school. Kids wear it with pride. ‘I’m an Ozuyapi. I’m a Warrior.’”

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