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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 28, 2001 - Issue 41


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Native Schools Grow in Many Directions


by Doreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald

The school, as it is built and adorned, is a strong symbolic reminder for the children of the culture.

The Tate Topa (Four Winds) tribal elementary and Ft. Totten High School sit on a slow rise in the southern part of the Spirit Lake Reservation. The school has grown a wing. The wing will unfold in the fall to house middle school students, who have outgrown the main body of the building.

The new middle school will help with some of the overcrowding at the school. The overcrowding is also reflected in a poor pupil-to-teacher ratio: 20 to 1, and in some case even 25 to 1, Patricia Walking Eagle, principal for the elementary part of the school, told me. As someone who taught school several years ago, I know that makes teaching difficult.

Like the other three North Dakota reservations and unlike many non-Native school districts in the state, Tate Topa's student population is growing. Also unlike many non-Native schools, some of the reservations are looking for ways to expand their facilities to meet those needs.

For example, enrollment in the pre-K through 8 program will be up by 5 percent in the fall. The May enrollment was 443, but 467 students already have registered for fall, said Winona Fox, registrar for the school.

Part of the increase can be attributed to people returning to the reservations and to higher birth rates among Native people. In addition, part is due to the fact that those returning to the reservations are finding schools such as Tate Topa are teaching and promoting the culture of the Dakota. Walking Eagle attributes the growth at the Spirit Lake schools to those factors, as well as to a better system of retaining students. In the past, she said, some of the students transferred from Devils Lake to Warwick, N.D., then maybe to Four Winds at Ft. Totten.

But they paid a big price academically for those transfers. By changing schools, they had holes in their academic programs, and some were failing.

The schools agreed to hold transfers until the end of each semester, and that seems to be helping, she said.

The alternative school at Ft. Totten is helping students who have fallen behind -- some because they played musical chairs with their enrollment. Most are doing very well in the alternative program and will graduate, she told me.

Marty Gray Water is one of those students who became entangled in the transferring game. Walking Eagle said he is a good example of what the alternative school can do for students. Gray Water is currently working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs police department. He has his own car and apartment. Gray Water told me he is considering police work as a career when he turns 21 next year.

Tate Topa and the Ft. Totten school are housed in the same building. It is a windowless cement building in the shape of a teepee that is a giant symbol of the culture of the Dakota people at Spirit Lake. The building towers above the community and says, "We are Dakota."

Like the faces at Easter Island, four giant circles sit on top of the building, enclosing the school in a tradition that pays homage to each of the four directions. These circles are symbolically painted in the traditional colors of the four directions.

The 50-foot-high banners of black, red, yellow and white represent the spirit keepers of the four directions. West is for the thunder people, North is for the hoofed people, East is for the buffalo people and South is for the bird people.

The school, as it is built and adorned, is a strong symbolic reminder for the children of the culture.

Inside the school, all the traditional elements of learning are apparent, but there is more. In addition to the trophy cases, there are items of Dakota traditions -- traditional garb, war bonnets, bead work and bits and pieces of who the Spirit Lake people are. Sprinkled into the curriculum are kernels of the culture, including the language.

Walking Eagle told me she can remember when she was in school, things were not like they are today. Being "Indian" was a negative thing -- something shameful. Yes, I, too, remember those days. I was fortunate: My grandmother was a strong woman who kept alive that knowledge of who we were.

The school's students study the Dakota language and culture. The students also have role models such as Walking Eagle and Fox. So things are changing. The children are being taught from kinder and truer versions of who they are, thanks to Tate Topa and the Ft. Totten school district.

 Maps by Travel

Four Winds School

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

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