American Indian School a Far Cry from the Past Much has changed since the days when off-reservation schools were used to expel Indian culture. Students at Sherman Indian High School in California say they appreciate that instructors teach about other tribes. But budget cuts may put the schools in peril.

American Indian School a Far Cry from the Past

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For generations, American Indian children were taken from their reservations and sent to government boarding schools. Many children were abused there. Most were taught that their traditional way of life was wrong. Now, there have been decades of reform since then, and the schools that remain have become havens for at risk youth, far away from the troubles and temptations on the reservation.

But some people, including prominent tribal leaders, and officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, think it's time for the federal government to get out of the business of running boarding schools entirely. NPR's Charla Bear has the second of two reports.

Unidentified Woman: Start moving around. Let's start moving around. Get up.

CHARLA BEAR: Students get up before the sun at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California. They have to clean their aging dorm building before class. Supervisor Teresa Iyotte says if the students don't rise and shine the bathrooms, they'll suffer the consequences.

Ms. TERESA IYOTTE (Supervisor): They get demerits if they're not up at 6:00 o'clock. If they're not up by 6:15, they get demerits. If they're not up by 6:30, they get more demerits.

BEAR: A lot is expected of students at Sherman. It's one of seven federally funded boarding schools for some of the most at-risk Native American youth. They come from more than 85 tribes from big cities and reservations across the country.

Sheila Patterson is from the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona.

Ms. SHEILA PATTERSON (Student): We have our traditional ways, where us girls, we become a woman and we wear camp dresses.

BEAR: She shows off the moccasins she wears with her ceremonial dress.

Ms. PATTERSON: And it's made out of the cows. And it's beaded and it has (unintelligible). It's really hard.

BEAR: Patterson misses home, but says she needed to leave.

Ms. PATTERSON: Back at home it's, like, a lot of people drink and a lot of young kids like to suicide theirself and just kill theirself and all that. That's why I had to get away and come here.

BEAR: Some students are ordered to Sherman by judges who see the school as an alternative to jail. Most come because they see the school as a way to do better. The national graduation rate for Native Americans is around 50 percent. Charlotte Longenecker is a counselor at Sherman.

Ms. CHARLOTTE LONGENECKER (Counselor): When you work with a population that has the highest suicide rate, the highest alcoholism and drug usage rate, the highest - I've never met so many people in my life who had lost family members, and so many in such rapid succession - that's going to happen.

BEAR: Sherman administrators keep temptation to a minimum with a tightly controlled environment. There's zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. And students can only leave campus if they've earned a group activity, like a trip to Wal-Mart.

Steve Yankton, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, says it can be tough.

Mr. STEVE YANKTON (Pine Ridge Reservation): We really can't live high school life like regular teenagers would. Like we can't just go shop at the mall whenever we want for how long we want. We can't go eat at a restaurant with our friends whenever we feel like we want. Staff always has to be around us.

BEAR: Every day at Sherman is rigorously structured. But students who stick it out say Sherman offers them opportunities too, like the chance to learn about other tribes.

Ms. TARA CHARLEY-BAUGUS (Teacher): Okay. Let's go and get started. (Singing in foreign language)

BEAR: In Tara Charley-Baugus's classroom, students are learning the language of the Dine - or Navajo - one of three native languages taught here.

Ms. CHARLEY-BAUGUS: One the reasons why we do this song also is it's cultural, you learn something about your culture, a little bit about the history, 'cause of the sheep, from way back in the 1500s, I think, when the Spaniards brought them in. And you can teach these to your brothers and sisters or little ones too, and it's how you pass on the language.

BEAR: Until the 1960s the government schools tried to expel Indian culture. Students were severely punished if they practiced Indian ways. Not anymore.

Ms. LORENE SISQUOC (Teacher): You tie this one right here like this. It's going to be beautiful.

BEAR: Lorene Sisquoc now tries to revive native customs at Sherman by teaching traditional skills like basket weaving.

Ms. SISQUOC: But why I have to be teaching it at a school? Why isn't it taught in our families, all our families? You know, because of boarding schools, because kids were taken from their homes and those traditional things weren't always taught.

BEAR: Dom Sims recently retired as the principal of Sherman. He says the off-reservation boarding schools have more applications than they can handle. But a federal budget change is reducing each school's funding by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mr. DOM SIMS (Retired Principal): We will be in dire straights 'cause we won't have enough money to start the school, to have enough staff, to give the services needed for the kids. It's an impossible situation.

BEAR: Officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs say they know these schools are in trouble. But they disagree over whether the federal government should even be running Indian schools in the 21st century. Angelita Felix is with the BIA Education Office.

Ms. ANGELITA FELIX (Bureau of Indian Affairs): You can talk to, you know, 20 people in our organization and ten people will say that we shouldn't have off-reservation boarding schools and ten other people will say that there's a need for these kinds of schools because of the at-risk students.

BEAR: In the past few decades, tribes have begun taking over boarding schools. They now control about half of them. Most are on the country's largest reservation, the Navajo Nation. The Navajos discourage students from attending boarding schools off the reservation.

Mr. EDDIE BIAKEDDY (Navajo Nation Department of Education): You know, a lot of other Indian tribes in the United States have lost use of their language and therefore their culture.

BEAR: Eddie Biakeddy is deputy director of the tribe's department of education. He says most Navajo students now attend public schools close to home.

Mr. BIAKEDDY: And there is a goal of the Navajo Nation to establish its own educational system, where the Navajo Nation would have control over all the schools and there should be no need for any on-reservation students to go to an off-reservation boarding school.

BEAR: But many smaller tribes don't have the money or political organization to run their own schools, let alone facilities for at-risk youth. At Sherman, many students and recent alumni say off-reservation boarding schools have helped them.

Ms. SEANA EDWARDS (Student): Sherman pretty much did save me, I guess, in a way.

BEAR: Seana Edwards, a Prairie Band Potawatomi, nearly failed freshman year at her public high school in New Hampshire.

Ms. EDWARDS: I'd probably be working at some dead-end retail job. I'd probably have my mom kick me out the house as soon as I was 18 'cause I wasn't going to go anywhere.

BEAR: But she transferred to Sherman, graduated, and now attends the University of California, Berkeley. She goes back to Sherman often to convince students that they too can go to college. She says she appreciates how far the school has come.

Ms. EDWARDS: They have pictures of, like, when students still had to wear uniforms and march in lines. And yeah, you feel part of that history and you get sad, but at the same time you realize that it's so much better today and you get the opportunity to change it. You get the opportunity to make it better. And not just for you but for other people, for younger generations.

BEAR: Edwards' own younger brother and sister are in elementary school in New Hampshire. She thinks they could achieve as much as she has at Sherman. But if they do need its tight structure, morning wake-ups, and nightly check-ins someday, she wonders if Sherman Indian High School will still be there for them.

Unidentified Woman: (Unintelligible)

Charla Bear, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: By the way, Sherman Indian High School encourages students to learn traditional customs, and you can hear students participating in a Native American drum circle simply by going to, where you can also listen to part one of this report.

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