Tuesday, January 23, 2007


This morning the Great Falls Tribune ran a story about the Baker Massacre, which seems to have a new name every time I see a story about it. It is the Blackfeet version of 911 -- a mistaken cavalry attack on an innocent (in fact, desperately ill) camp where old folks, women and children (the only ones there since the men had gone hunting) were slaughtered in the snow. It was meant as a reprisal for an attack by a renegade.

When I went to get gas for my monthly provisioning loop up to Shelby, over to Cut Bank, and back, Heart Butte kids were chattering at the service station and a teacher reminded me that they were going to the annual commemoration on the actual spot of the massacre-- not in a bus but in cars. They’ve been doing this for several years now -- maybe a decade.

Back home, unpacked, fed and napped, I sat down to listen to Brian Kahn’s Yellowstone Public Radio program, “Home Ground.” The subject was Indian education. There were two guests: Carol Juneau, the state representative for the Blackfeet reservation and a school bureaucrat for thirty years -- not a teacher. Her expertise is in organizing programs and getting funding for them. She has a good reputation on the reservation and she’s a “separatist” in the way that Quebec is separatist in terms of Canada. That is, the answer is ALWAYS “put us in charge of our own affairs and give us more money.”

Here’s the problem: “Last year, Indian students were more than three times more likely to drop out of school than white students, with an 8.4 percent dropout rate compared to the 2.7 percent rate among whites, according to data gathered by the state Office of Public Instruction.

Dropout rates for Indians peaked in the 10th grade, but were not limited to upper grades. Among junior high students, for example, American Indians constituted 72 percent of the dropouts and were 12 times more likely to drop out than white classmates, the figures show.

This is all Indians on all reservations. To put this in terms of my own experience, half the kids drop out as soon as they’re legally able (sixteen years old) and half of the remainder drop out before they finish high school. That’s the way it was in 1961 when I came, and that’s still the way it is.

Studies show that on average, American Indian children begin to fall behind peer groups in Montana between the ages of 22 months and five years, reflecting a lack of emphasis on reading and learning in the household, said Chris Lohse, the OPI director of policy research.

Chris Lohse, the OPI specialist and analyst, is a new voice. He does not address culture and all that, but goes directly to the poverty problem. (When clueless people used to say to Darrell Kipp, “Why are these people so poor?” he’d say, “They don’t have enough money.”) Chris sets out four criteria:

1. The place has concentrated poverty -- that is, the poor are crammed together.
2. The poverty is generational rather than situational -- it’s not a matter of temporary hard times but rather goes back and back.
3. The poor people are isolated in space, either across acres of prairie and timber or across many blocks of run-down housing. All they know about the rest of the world is from television.
4. The poverty is DEEP, defined as being less than fifty percent of the official federal poverty line and characteristic of at least a quarter of the population.

Says Chris, these four criteria are typical of inner city and also reservation schools. If one creates a category of schools that achieve at least 60% of the national levels of achievement, NO SCHOOL in any inner city or on any reservation will meet this measure. The fact that there are special federal grants for these schools doesn’t matter -- it is the individual households that count.

And this is circular: if the education achievement is low, the poverty is recreated, generation after generation. Expectations and morale sink lower and lower.

So here’s one of the more surprising things. Some reservations suddenly came upon money through casinoes. As soon as the average income level of households went up, the educational achievement also went right up. They are directly linked. No one has looked at this information in quite this way before. In short, education is an aspect of economics, pure and simple.

Brian Kahn has the idea that Indians are just like “immigrants” and ought to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Chris says flatly that it’s not the same thing. If you look at immigrant groups who meet the four criteria above, even some Asian groups (Hmong, Samoan) show the same lack of achievement.

There are a few other elements here for Indians, mostly political, and this is where I stand with the separatists. The Indians didn’t come here to seek a new life -- they were invaded. They were destroyed, their country was seized and now even the land is being destroyed. For many years white people siphoned off any profits and many assets -- it still continues. The US Government has ripped off lease money and other assets from the very beginning, probably far in excess of money spent on the tribe.

How can they help but be resentful? It was as though they were innocent Iraqi families who just happened to be in the wrong place when the fire-spouting attack helicopters came and devastated their neighborhood. (The irony is that some of those US soldiers, a high proportion, are Indian because the military is one way to escape poverty and rack up a little self-esteem.) Their only power is a refusal to cooperate, whether in the classroom or in the larger world. Even corruption is defiance, subversion.

The Baker massacre was reprisal for Yellow Owl killing Malcolm Clarke who was married to the sister of Mountain Chief, Yellow Owl’s father. Regardless of how you argue over “who started it,” the fact is that it was originally a family quarrel. That revenge murder became the justification for wholesale massacre of more than a hundred people. Malcolm’s son rode with the Cavalry. Now think about the invasion of Iraq, which some believe is retaliation for Saddam Hussein’s attempt to kill George Bush’s father. Think about the massive poverty now in Iraq: the vineyards, aqueducts, olive groves, electrical plants and (yes) oil fields destroyed since we invaded. We think it’s their problem, but it’s not. WE pick up the bill, one way or another.

Bush’s administration has done its best to roll all the money into the CEO pockets, those guys being caught red-handed all over the country, guys (very few gals) who make 400 times what their employees make and evaporate the pension fund. The middle class is disappearing. In short, Bush (whom I admit is only a pawn and a symbol) is trying to make Indians of us all. We’d better smarten up!

Education means prosperity. Prosperity means education. My Social Security automatic deposit comes in the morning. They gave me a raise -- but then confiscated more than half of it for that prescription medicine boondoggle. I don’t feel any smarter, but I’m studying on it.

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