Joe Whetzel, Jr. comes from a Blackfeet family that has boasted basketball stars for generations. His grandfather played on a college team that beat the Harlem Globetrotters, completing a career that was deemed worthy of a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Whetzel has grown up playing ball with his cousins and uncles, possessing a formidable, aggressive style that those familiar with streetside three-on-three tournaments will recognize, and he exudes the easy confidence of someone who is comfortable with his skill. Which is why he was flabbergasted when he didn't make Sentinel High School's varsity team last fall.
"I worked hard so I could try out," Whetzel explains. "Then the time came to make the cuts, and the coach told me that I was a 'street ball' player who couldn't be on his team."
Whetzel describes being cut as the culmination of ongoing harassment, including getting chased by a group of Hellgate High School football players who were threatening to shoot him in retaliation for a fight he was involved in earlier. He became depressed and started failing his classes because playing basketball meant everything to him.
"When you keep getting torn down, you lose your concentration," he says. Because he was dating an African-American girl, Whetzel says he was called a "nigger lover" and a "dirty Indian" at school. Then four weeks before the school year ended, he got into a fight with a classmate that turned physical. Already having received the maximum number of reprimands, he was kicked out of school, nullifying an entire semester's credits.
"The only way I found a kind of peace was to be feared," Whetzel says. "If they weren't going to respect me, they were going to fear me. Scaring them was the only way I got any respect at all."
Janet Robideau, an organizer with Indian Peoples Action (IPA), says Whetzel's experience isn't unique, and points out that there are currently no Native Americans playing varsity basketball in Missoula County Public Schools. What happened to Whetzel, she says, is just an indication of what IPA sees as a larger problem-MCPS' inadequate job serving Indian students.
Robideau says stories like Whetzel's were part of the reason that IPA and concerned parents had a series of charged meetings with MCPS Superintendent Mary Vagner, the district's school board and other administrators two years ago.
"First there was denial," Robideau remembers. "Then they asked why the students didn't come to them, and then they called it hearsay. That's why we're angry with the district: Students have to take it and take it. They can't go to administrators because they're told they're too sensitive or they're liars, and they're told if they don't like it they can leave."
"Emotion is the key word," adds IPA secretary Carole Meyers, who was also at those meetings. "A lot of people were carrying that on their backs and it just came out."
Robideau says Vagner suggested they "calm down" and work on some solutions. After conducting studies, IPA released its first report this June, which recommended that Missoula improve its disciplinary, parental participation and cultural competency policies to better meet the needs of both Indian and low-income students.
IPA also completed an additional report for MCPS last week that details the significance of recruiting and hiring minority teachers. Key points include the importance of students learning to understand people with a different culture than their own, minority teachers providing a professional role model and the fact that hiring more minority teachers could help rectify feelings of alienation that Indian students cited in a national study as a reason for dropping out.
"Through [the district's] eyes, a teacher is a teacher," says IPA chair Scott Moffett. "But through the students' eyes, looking at a teacher of color makes all the difference." Moffett says IPA isn't targeting specific teachers, administrators or even schools, but instead the district as a whole. "Our goal is equality in education. The vehicle is policy change, so it isn't us versus them."
In response, Vagner says the district is concerned with finding the best qualified teachers and that ethnicity is not a consideration. There are currently four out of 750 certified teachers in the district who are Native American, a figure IPA finds disturbingly low.
"We researched it, and 30 percent of the Native American students graduating from the University of Montana major in education," Robideau says. "Where do they all go?"
And though IPA hoped its report would be heard by the school board and be included in the district's policy meeting for the 1999-2000 school year, scheduled for August, Vagner says the report must be processed internally with every MCPS administrator before it can be heard by the board in October.
In the meantime, Robideau urges the school board to "do right" by the district's Native American students, because too many are falling through the cracks and missing out on a successful learning experience. And, she warns, the kind of alienation felt by these students carries over into their future lives.
For his part, Joe Whetzel says because of all the problems he's had in the past, he doesn't go anywhere he might run into former schoolmates alone. He's considering enrolling in Big Sky High School in the fall, but wonders if there's even a point in risking the harassment and fist fights.
"I lost my trust the first time," he says. "I don't know if I'll go back."