Indian Schools Help Students Connect With Their Culture

Construction workers watch a ceremony at the new Indian Community School being built outside Milwaukee. It is one of at least 150 schools in the country where students' Indian heritage is celebrated and nurtured.
Construction workers watch a ceremony at the new Indian Community School being built outside Milwaukee. It is one of at least 150 schools in the country where students' Indian heritage is celebrated and nurtured. (By Kristyna Wentz-graff -- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
By Robert Gutsche Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 23, 2006

MILWAUKEE -- Fifth-grade teacher Amy Tromp lights a match and then the small pile of sage she holds in a shell. The sage begins to smolder, its smell stinging the nose.

Her students, sitting in a circle on the floor, try to catch the smoke and bring it over their bodies to get ready for the school day. They then share their concerns and stories from the night before. Someone played a lot of video games. Another tells of his pregnant sister who might lose her baby.

This morning's activity, called smudging, is an ancient American Indian tradition. And for many students and staff members here, it is the way of the future, too.

"This helps us connect to our students," said Tromp, 37, who is affiliated with the Oneida and Lakota tribes and sometimes starts her class with the purification ceremony. "It is also a chance to show students what kind of spiritual resources are out there for them at school and at home. Here, we have to teach our children to live in two worlds."

This is how a normal morning begins at the Indian Community School of Milwaukee, a place where tobacco and sage, both sacred instruments of thanksgiving and spirituality, are in every classroom. Outside, a sweat lodge and tepee stand ready. And the long list of possible field trips includes hours-long drives to northern Wisconsin to pick and dance over wild rice. Here, all 300 students have some kind of tribal affiliation.

The Indian Community School of Milwaukee, located in one of the city's rough neighborhoods, is one of at least 150 schools in the nation designed to help children connect to their native heritage. Located both on and off Indian reservations, the schools are growing in popularity.

Indian schools, once a term connected to this country's history of using educational facilities to assimilate American Indians into a new society, are back under different circumstances. This time, the schools are becoming havens for the native culture, a place where the languages, music and arts -- all part of a heritage that has been slipping away over generations -- can live and grow.

The resurgence of Indian schools is attributed in part to the growing charter school movement. There are currently 53 Native American charter schools across the country, 31 of which are located on non-tribal lands, according to the Center for Education Reform.

And with American Indians having some of the highest dropout rates of any group in the nation's public schools, the charter schools and some private schools are there to help students meet their highest potential in a society that still often excludes them, said Lillian Sparks, executive director of the Washington-based National Indian Education Association. "Simply, many want more tribal control over our education," she said.

Some experts and American Indian activists say that many native parents are becoming increasingly disappointed in the kind of education their children are getting from public schools and want an experience that is more focused on traditional ways.

"Indians are attempting to succeed educationally in spite of [public] schools," said David Beaulieu, director of the Center for Indian Education at Arizona State University in Tempe. "These schools provide a diversity of choices for Indians."

The Milwaukee school is growing so fast that native community leaders, many dressed in regalia and singing their native songs, this fall celebrated the building of a new campus: a $17 million school and resource center on nearly 200 acres of wild fields and wetlands in the bedroom community of Franklin, just outside Milwaukee. It is to fully open in the spring.


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