When Lewis and Clark Middle School eighth-graders prepared questions for a panel of American Indian educators, Jacie Jeffers offered some advice.
“It’s a no-holds-barred kind of thing,” said Jeffers, a School District 2 American Indian Education Achievement Coach.
Students heeded her words, and got honest answers from Carolyn Rusche, a longtime educator and current American Indian Education coach for SD2; Autumn Whiteman, a home-to-school coordinator; and Walter Runsabove, who previously worked for SD2 Indian education.
“We have different perspectives on a lot of your questions,” Runsabove said. “If you think it’s offensive, ask it.”
Did any of your relatives attend boarding schools?
Runsabove’s great-grandmother attended a boarding school — institutions that were known for oppressing tribal cultures and attempting to force students to adopt European-rooted customs.
“She kept her language hidden from the boarding school,” Runsabove said, and was often reluctant to speak it when she moved back to the reservation. She later spoke it more often as part of church services that emphasized tribal language.
Rusche’s grandpa was forced to go to a boarding school in Oregon.
“He ran away on foot in the winter,” she said, traveling 1,600 miles to return to Montana. “I’m lucky to be here, that my grandpa was able to make it.”
“Even though that experience happened, my grandpa encouraged us to go to school.”
Whiteman had older relatives who attended boarding schools in three different areas, including the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania — famous for coining the phrase "kill the Indian, save the man."
Do you prefer to be called Indian or Native American?
Runsabove compared the labels to terms like Italian-American or African-American, arguing that they don’t really reflect the origins of American Indians.
“I like the term indigenous,” he said.
“I don’t really feel strongly either way,” said Whiteman, noting that she prefers American Indian.
When Rusche was younger, she said she didn’t like being identified as an Indian, whose main representation in popular culture was through cowboys vs. Indians movies.
“Indians were the bad people,” she said.
Someone told me Indians are inherently alcoholics and poor.
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“I think it’s just a stereotype,” said Whiteman. “There are some people that are like that … I think you’ve just got to talk to people and meet people and find the truth.”
Rusche cited experience working in alcoholism treatment, and that genetic factors can make some people more susceptible to alcoholism. She also pointed out historical factors.
“Their lands were taken away, their food was taken away,” she said, and diseases like smallpox killed up to 90 percent of American Indians by some estimates.
“When you have to deal with the loss of a loved one … it’s traumatic,” she said. “A lot of times when people are trying to deal with trauma, they turn to alcohol.”
Rusche, who doesn’t drink, said that American Indians who aren’t alcoholics still struggle against the stereotype.
“I have a lot of people that think because I don’t drink, I’m an alcoholic. I’ve never been an alcoholic.”
What do you think about the Washington Redskins?
Whiteman thought such mascots were cool when she was young, but has since changed her position.
“Having a mascot as a Native person has unintended consequences,” she said. ”If there’s going to be no understanding behind it, or respect, then I’m not OK with it.”
Rusche agreed with Whiteman, but it wasn’t a problem for Runsabove.
“I don’t care about sports mascot issues,” he said. He actually has some family ties to the creation of the Redskins logo, he said.
“Why can’t we have that focus, and help my dad, who has diabetes,” Runsabove said. “I’d rather argue more for a health care system than a mascot.”
Montana students are required to learn about American Indian culture in their regular curriculum as part of Montana’s Indian Education for All requirement. But Tuesday’s presentation goes well beyond the minimum requirements.
“It’s kind of an opportunity for them to showcase their knowledge,” said Jeffers about the speakers, who represented several different tribes.
Runsabove is Northern Cheyenne, Ogala Sioux and Red Bottom Nakoda; Rusche is Nakoda; Whiteman is Crow and Northern Cheyenne.
The two eighth-grade teachers whose students attended, Casey Visser and Nels Jensen, often integrate Indian Education for All into their lessons. Sometimes teachers without personal experience about American Indian cultures can be apprehensive about teaching the topic in the classroom, Jeffers said, especially about tough topics like Tuesday’s panel took on.
“The extent that they go to for Indian education is really important,” she said.