Brave lessons 

Education conference focuses on Indian empowerment

Howard Rainer says many people call him a brown Ann Landers.

But instead of just dispensing advice like the legendary columnist, the 57-year-old director of Native American Educational Outreach programs at Utah’s Brigham Young University also gives American Indian youths a kick in the collective pants.

Rainer, a poet, photographer and nationally known motivational speaker, brought his lively presentations to last week’s National Indian Education Association convention in Billings, where he urged native students and teachers to excel.

“Native Americans are either ugly or beautiful,” he told one of his workshop crowds. “What do you want to be?”

“Beautiful!” participants roared back in unison.

Nationally, Indian high school students have dropout rates that are typically double or triple those of non-Indians. According to figures from the Montana Office of Public Instruction, more than 19 percent of enrolled Indian students in Montana left high school during the 1996-97 academic year, one of the worst years on record. Many of their brethren had already dropped out in middle school, the numbers show.

Rainer, among others, contends that low self-esteem and low self-confidence deserve much of the blame. Boosting these basic building blocks of success is the responsibility of everyone in the Indian community.

“We cannot tell Indian people to be proud if we’re not,” Rainer said. “We have to start telling our Indian people we are intelligent. We are beautiful. It’s time for us to be seen, be heard, be respected, and it starts with you.”

Rainer spent much of his time picking out individuals in the room, asking them who they are and what they do. When one young student, who is raising all her siblings while struggling to stay in school, broke down and cried, Rainer suggested a scholarship fund be started for her on the spot. Participants, most of them strangers, responded by immediately donating an ankle-high pile of cash to her cause.

“There is hope in the future,” Rainer said, prancing around at times with his hands flailing and pointing. “Education is Indian power. When Indian people want to do something, give them the tools. Don’t put red tape and BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] tape in front of them. Get behind them!”

Many other participants told stories of hardship and pain. But Rainer told them that Indian people can no longer afford to feel sorry for themselves.

“Check out the graveyards,” he said. “Check out the dates, when they were born, when they died. These are the things that test our mettle. Hang around with positive people. Discourage whiners and complainers. We are on an urgent mission. Our kids need us now. Just help one!”

Rainer’s models for empowerment are timely. While some educational indicators for Indian students are showing improvement, others, like reading skills and retention rates, remain in the basement.

Susan Neuman, the U.S. Department of Education’s undersecretary for elementary-level programs, told several thousand convention participants that many endeavors in the past designed to boost test scores and keep Indian kids in school have clearly failed.

“Despite all our efforts, our children are not succeeding,” Neuman said. “We know the answer is not pouring more money, more money, more money into the system.”

Instead, educators must rethink their priorities, teach more cognitive thinking skills, and stick with methods that are proven, not just those that are sweet to the ear.

“We know how to teach young children,” she said, adding that cultural ethnicity and poverty don’t in themselves make poor students.

“We just don’t do it enough. Don’t blame the family. Don’t blame others. When I go to the doctor with a cold, he doesn’t blame my mother. Teach the child starting now.”

One problem, Neuman said, is that too many teachers rely on commercial vendors of academic materials to tell them what should be taught and how it should be presented. Then there are constantly shifting academic policies, which prompt additional instability in public schools.

“In God we trust, in all others we need data,” she said of her department’s informal motto about curriculum.

A main way to improve retention is for Indian children to embrace their native languages, added Darrell RobesKipp, co-founder of the Piegan Institute’s Blackfeet Reservation language immersion schools. Otherwise, Indians will continue to turn into a faceless conglomeration of everyone else.

Kipp maintains that tribal educators must become leaders in retaining native languages, which have nearly been extinguished. Government policy, boarding schools and religious do-gooders almost silenced the native tongue, he said, and many of this generation’s parents and grandparents decided to spare their children the pain of being fluent in their native tongue.

“They didn’t pass it down to us because they loved us,” he explained. “They didn’t want us to be abused.” Kipp, who, with his colleagues, has raised $3.8 million in private funding for their schools during the past five years, took aim at those who say Indian languages are unnecessary and are too difficult to comprehend.

“Everyone says Chinese is the hardest language to learn, but how come 4 billion speak it?” he asked. “Five hundred years they’ve been kicking the language out of us. But the past is over with. We’ve got to go on.”

Iris HeavyRunner, a research associate at Fort Peck Community College, said that along with strong ties to their culture, successful Indian students develop a support network to help them cope with the unfamiliarity of the formal academic setting. Registrars and financial aid counselors are key contacts for those just starting college. If these officials aren’t tuned into specific cultural needs, the students may be more likely to quit school, or not start at all.

“There’s a different way that you think,” said HeavyRunner, of indigenous people in general. “There’s a different way that you hear things. One of our most important retention specialists is our grandmothers. They have a lot of power.”

Linda Pease-Bell, director of the Native American Development Corporation and a key organizer of the five-day event, noted that the convention and the recent Indian national rodeo finals pumped as much as $400,000 a day into the Billings economy. Next year’s convention will be held in Albuquerque.

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