When the Europeans first landed on the coast of what would become the United States, there were more than 300 languages spoken by the indigenous American Indian tribes living in this country. Now, according to the Indigenous Language Institute, only 175 remain. During the next 30 years or so, 20 more languages may disappear into the annals of history, unless new generations learn them and keep them alive.
Over a century ago, when American Indians were moved to reservations, their children were sent to government boarding schools and missions to assimilate them into American society, or, as Dodie White says, to "kill the Indian, save the child." The schools punished children for speaking their native language, forcing them to speak English and remain isolated from their parents and grandparents. But in 2000, Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), apologized publicly for the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians, saying that it amounted to nothing less than ethnic cleansing.
Fortunately, with the passing of the Native American Languages Act of 1990 and the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act of 2006, there are more and more American Indian reservations across the country teaching Native studies. Not only are these efforts saving languages from extinction, they are empowering Native American children with a sense of pride in their heritage. "Our people hold our children sacred," says Dodie White, a longtime social studies teacher at Wyoming Indian Middle School and member of the Arapaho tribe. "They are our greatest asset, and we work to connect them with our cultural heritage, so they know who they are, so they have purpose."
A group of elders on the reservation who remember the boarding schools felt a calling to build an institution that would bring quality education and cultural dignity to reservation children. The Wyoming Indian School opened as a BIA school in 1972. In 1983, it became a public K-12 school system. The elders chose to call the school Wyoming Indian Schools after their state, and because tribal veterans said they went into wars to fight as 'Indians' rather than as 'Native Americans'. The school's mascot-the Chiefs-was named just as intentionally. The school, located on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming, is next door to the Wind River Tribal College and across the street from the Little Wind Casino. Students at the Wyoming Indian Schools are taught not only the Shoshone and Arapaho languages, but also traditions such as archery, storytelling, singing, dancing, drumming, and hand games. It is the only public school system in Wyoming where Native American languages and culture are a standard part of the curriculum.
Most of the residents of Wind River depend on their per-capita share of the tribe's income from casinos and leased land in order to survive. The cycle of poverty is perpetuated by rampant alcoholism, and in recent years, meth addiction has begun to infiltrate reservations. The educators and administrators of Wyoming Indian Schools are hoping to break Wind River's cycle of poverty and high unemployment that has become the way of life in many reservations across the country. And their strategy appears to be paying off.
Test scores have demonstrated that Native American students at the Indian Schools perform better academically than Native American students at schools where indigenous culture is not a part of everyday studies. Research has shown that cultural context is essential for American Indian students to succeed in school and continue on to college. Many students do not return to the reservation after attending college, because the cities are where the jobs are. But White says that the new approach to include a cultural context in curricula is working to help students want to stay in school. Data from 2005 showed that Natives had the highest dropout rate in the country, but the graduation rate has risen every year since. The key is adding the culture.
White grew up on the Wind River Reservation, which is home to more than 5,000 members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. It's the third-largest reservation in the country, sitting on more than 2 million acres of the windswept Wind River Basin, nestled between the snow-capped peaks of the Wind River Range and Owl Creek Mountains. She graduated from Wyoming Indian High School in 1991. "Like my students today, I was a child with goals and dreams, but I had to overcome obstacles," she says. White was a teenage mother who dealt with alcoholism and abuse among those close to her. "I see and I know what these kids are going through."
White knew that she wanted to go to college and become an educator, so she could return to the reservation and serve as a role model to encourage students. She earned a tribal scholarship and studied full-time at the University of Wyoming, living on food stamps to feed her two young children. "It was a struggle," she admits. But it was worth it for her to be able to come back to the reservation and help other students preserve their heritage. "When they look at me, they think, 'If she can do it, I can too," White says.