Native Americans left behind in state education system

By Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch
Editor’s note: This story is one in a series of articles by South Dakota News Watch on Native American education in the state. The full series is at
The South Dakota constitution demands that state government provide equal opportunity to education for all of its citizens, yet for decades Native Americans – who make up 9 percent of the population – have been left behind by a system that fails to meet their needs and has resulted in generations of Natives suffering the consequences of inadequate educational achievement.
The systematic failure to properly educate Native American students is seen as a major source of devastating later-in-life consequences that have plagued Native people and communities for decades: generational poverty, high unemployment, substance abuse, high incarceration rates and reduced life expectancy.
The latest results from both state and national standardized testing provides a window into just how dire the situation has become, as Native students continue to perform far worse than white students in South Dakota across almost all measures of academic achievement.
During the 2018-19 school year, less 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. A separate test, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational progress, found that South Dakota’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 just 54 percent, compared with the rate of 85 percent for students of all backgrounds, according to the state report card. Some Native-dominated school systems in South Dakota suffer more than others, such as in McLaughlin, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where too few of the system’s roughly 440 students scored proficient in any subject for statistics to be reported.
The reasons for the poor performance are varied and complex, but many educators and experts interviewed as part of a two-month reporting effort by South Dakota News Watch to examine Native education in the state agree that 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, Neb., 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.
“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 traumatic history – a deep cycle of poverty that persists in tribal communities to this day. In South Dakota, roughly 60 percent 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 percent of South Dakota white children were living in poverty that year, the report said.
Numerous studies show that people of any race who come from a low-income background are more likely to struggle in school. Impoverished students tend to have smaller vocabularies and are less likely to attend school regularly and graduate high school on time.
Poverty also tends to be self-replicating. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 82 percent of children whose parents didn’t have a high school diploma were living in low-income families. 
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 can also hamper rural districts where Natives commonly attend.
Furthermore, a lack of post-graduation options in small communities where Native populations reside can indirectly hold students back. If students who are trying to figure out what they want to do after finishing high school – whether it’s finding a job, going to tech school or college or joining the military – don’t see realistic opportunities ahead, they can be prone to giving up on school and perhaps turning to substances for solace, Garreau said.
“Kids are growing, they have a need to learn, they have a need to be active and to do things, and if that’s not there, I think any child will find something else to do,” Garreau said. “And sometimes that’s a negative activity.”
South Dakota’s Native American population is not unique in facing challenges to getting a good education. Indigenous people across the country are struggling to close school-success gaps, including in North Dakota and Montana, which face similar achievement gaps.
In South Dakota, there is new hope on the horizon. More school districts across the state have begun to implement pieces of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, a set of educational standards that seek to encourage schools to incorporate Lakota language, culture and history into everyday lessons. In majority-Native districts such as Oglala Lakota County, teachers have started Lakota Immersion classrooms, which teach all their lessons in the Lakota language.
Department of Education Secretary Ben Jones recently announced a partnership with education-consulting firm McREL International to implement programs to improve Native American education 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 is also 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 could better reach and teach Native students.
As a high school freshman in Wagner about a decade ago, on the Yankton Indian Reservation in southeastern South Dakota, 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, had left the family. His father was in prison. When Zephier, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, started high school, skipping class to stay home and play video games was easier than dealing with school and other hardships in his life. Good grades didn’t seem to matter too much in the grand scheme of things.
Eventually, Zephier did find some friends who came from similar circumstances and started drinking with them. The booze was in his community, unfortunately, a readily available coping mechanism, Zephier 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 percent, 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 percent.
While many factors play into whether any child, indigenous or not, will show up at school every day, Native communities have the added burden of a long history of historical, cultural and societal trauma. Zephier’s story is one example of the impact such historical trauma can have on Native students.
No other group of Americans has as troubled a past with government-funded education than the country’s indigenous population. Generations of Native youths as young as 6 were required, by law, to attend remote 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. 
In the end, the federal system of boarding schools failed to erase Native culture or force Native Americans to assimilate. What the boarding schools did instead was create several generations of traumatized youths with tenuous connections to their culture, history and families. Many turned to alcohol as a way to self-medicate, Pierce said.
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. 
Zephier, now 24, graduated from the University of South Dakota (USD) in 2017 after having served in student government. Zephier now works as a field counselor for USD’s Upward Bound program, which helps low-income high school students graduate and explore college opportunities.
His brother and sister, though, have both struggled. Zephier said his sister dropped out of high school and his brother has been sent to a juvenile-detention facility.
“I don’t know how you fix generations of trauma,” Zephier said.
White Bull-Taken Alive, head of the state Office of Indian Education, 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.
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.
“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,” he said.

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