Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department
Every year students dress up as school royalty for homecoming. While the Sisseton High School Redmen is a name that would offend many, much of the Native and non-Native community are not offended. The request, however, is that the portrayal and usage be more sensitive. Blond curls and Pocahontas dress, is not considered appropriate by many tribal members, but it is a school tradition.

Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 3

Christina Rose

Over the last two weeks, Indian Country Today Media Network has examined discrimination in South Dakota school districts. This week, the focus will be on the Sisseton School District.

Discrimination in education is not always cut and dry. The Rapid City School District instituted programs to ensure Native students are in a school they can call their own. Lakota language, culture, role models, after-school programming, and community support are thriving in the city’s schools. Not yet problem-free, Rapid City schools, as well as the Winner Schools, struggle with other challenges.

The American Civil Liberties Union states that many schools in border towns have an alarming high arrest rate of young Native students, Rapid City among them. The Winner Public School District overcame the “Pipeline to Prison” model of discipline, but still resists implementing role models and cultural programs.

But sometimes the problems are harder to discern, as in the Sisseton School District, which claims sincere efforts for the success of their Native students.

Sisseton School District School Board President Leroy Hellwig said school attendance is close to 100 percent, “Because if they don’t come to school, we go get them.” Since transportation is a challenge for many Native families, that may be a welcome approach.

Hellwig also said Native graduation rates were 100 percent in 2012, which is higher than many other schools in the state. However, according to statistics provided by the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribe, that rate is skewed because so many students drop out before they reach their senior year.

“Retention drops three to four students a year,” said Sierra Wolcott, a parent and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate employee. “This year there are 76 percent American Indians in K-5, and that is roughly typical. But by high school, it’s about 55 percent. Last year, there were 13 American Indian seniors, but the year before there were 23 American Indian juniors. That is pretty standard.”

Dr. Sherry Johnson, Dakota, tribal education director of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, filed a complaint with the Department of Education, which has been accepted for review. Johnson, who is only in her fourth month in the position, said, “I jumped into the middle of an Impact Aid battle, and they won’t let us into the school for anything.”

Dr. Sherry Johnson presenting to school board members, the board member in the forefront is school board Vice President Ron Evenson. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department)

Impact Aid is federal funding for public schools that lack a strong tax base, either because of the number of military families or Native Americans. The Sisseton School District insists that the tribe should not be involved in budgeting Impact Aid funds or developing Indian Policy and Procedures. However, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the tribe is entitled to actively participate in those decisions.

The Sisseton School District’s legal team wrote, “The tribal council is a political entity, and a public school cannot report to that political entity, much the way the school superintendent does not report to the Republican Party.”

The new multi-million dollar sports stadium is a bone of contention in the Impact Aid battle. “Did we need to spend millions of dollars on that when we have kids who can’t afford lunch and they are letting the teacher’s aids go?” wondered Chad Ward, assistant to the tribal vice-chairman.

The Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribal Education Department has been asking for a Native American Parent Committee to be involved in developing curriculum as test results show that white students are faring far better in school than their Native counterparts.

Pictured, from left, are Dr. Sherry Johnson; Sierra Wolcott, administrative assistant to the tribal secretary; and Sara Lincoln, a school board member and tribal vice chairwoman. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department)

The current focus on Native curriculum takes place specifically at the middle school in Sisseton, and Johnson noted they do a very good job at that level. But when Hellwig was asked if the district includes contemporary culture in the high school, he stated, “Culture... these kids have to learn to read and write, and we can’t step backwards. Some people think culture is the only answer, but we have to make sure they learn.”

In previous years, the school taught Dakota language and parents proudly reported seeing Native and non-Native students conversing in Dakota. However, the teacher left a few years ago, and has not been replaced.

Discomfort between the school and tribe is also evident. The school administrators do not attend tribal educational events and the Native community is not comfortable in the school setting, either. At a recent school picnic, only four Native families signed up for an activity, while 42 signatures were obtained at a Native picnic for the same event. Johnson said, “The administration wonders why that is. Our parents just don’t feel comfortable, they don’t feel valued in the schools. We can help that.”

The school board assumes low attendance by Natives at meetings is due to a lack of interest. But Wolcott said that is not so. Describing herself as a very involved parent, she signed up to help in her son’s classroom. When she got there she was ignored by the other mothers. “I just sat in the back by myself.” Wolcott struggled for two years to keep her son in the public school, which was just around the block from her house. But by second grade, she pulled him out.

When Wolcott tried to help the school board see how they were alienating the parents, one school board member reportedly “threw back her head and laughed. She said, ‘It’s a school! How could anyone feel uncomfortable.’”

Wolcott recounted, “They ask why parents don’t attend meetings and conferences, and then when we tell them, they laugh. If they are going to ask a question, they have to at least respect the answer.”

Johnson notes there are very few Native employees, teachers or administrators in the school. Native education experts like Nicole Bowman of Bowman Performance Consulting say having Native role models in the school is critical. In assessing a school, Bowman said, “I look for Native American employees. I listen and observe interpersonal and communication styles, cultural knowledge, a contemporary programming policy as simple as having elders or traditional teachers work side by side with the non-Native staff.”

More than 55 percent of students at the Sisseton Public Schools are from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation. (Sisseton-Wahpeton Education Department)

The district employs non-Native teachers who have worked in tribal schools, noting that those teachers will be more sensitive towards Native students, and that Native teachers have not applied for teaching or administrative positions. The response to the complaint does not say they recruit Native teachers or administrators, as the Rapid City School District does.

In sports, most teams consist of 35 percent Native students, which is impressive compared to many other South Dakota schools. Still, Johnson notes that doesn’t reflect the 55 to 60 percent Native enrollment in the schools. “Until Native Americans are more fairly represented on the school board, they will never get Native American culture in the school,” said Cory Christofferson, school board director of the Warwick Public School in North Dakota.

The district says the last time they attended cultural training was in 2005.

RELATED: Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 1

RELATED: Taking Racism Out of South Dakota Schools, Part 2

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only me's picture
only me
Submitted by only me on

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
from the distance of England, it looks and sounds like all the excuses I saw in the American South when they had to finally integrate. If it looks like racism, sounds like racism, and appears to be racism, its RACISM. No excuses. Time the local tribal people stopped making nice. A student strike, public activism, and public campaigning is the only way. I am amazed that people just accept what is happening to them. This is so sad.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
They should not be interfering with the Sisseton school district. They have there own school they need to worry about. No, their is no room for political stuff that goes on at the tribe. All that is is people throwing there weight around nothing ever becomes of it

Ellen Robertson's picture
Ellen Robertson
Submitted by Ellen Robertson on
“The tribal council is a political entity, and a public school cannot report to that political entity, much the way the school superintendent does not report to the Republican Party.” THIS IS WEAK IN MORE THAN ONE WAY, THE SCHOOL REPORTS TO THE STATE AND SHOULD ALSO REPORT TO THE TRIBE. THE COUNCIL IS NOT A POLITICAL PARTY, IT IS A GOVERNING BODY! WEAK

Angelique EagleWoman's picture
Angelique EagleWoman
Submitted by Angelique EagleWoman on
I am so proud of the SWO Education Director, Dr. Sherry, Johnson, Sierra Wolcott, Sara Lincoln and others who are standing up for the tribal children, and for all children in the school district. The Sisseton School District has many opportunities to provide a cross-cultural learning experience for all students, but has dismally failed to role model even basic courtesy by non-Indians to Indians. The school mascot needs to be changed and the issue of racism openly addressed. Racism hurts everyone in the community.

Les Graff's picture
Les Graff
Submitted by Les Graff on
I noted the Home coming king is wearing what is suppose to be an eagle feather head dress, often called a war bonnet in the old movies. It was not a war bonnet. It was a record of all the good or brave deeds that the person wearing it had earned over their lifetime. It was not worn in battle. It was worn during ceremonies. A little education at the High School level appears to be in need. I have traveled through all the western states and South Dakota, by far, is the most racist state I've ever seen in the west.

DaughterOfWarriors's picture
Submitted by DaughterOfWarriors on
I understand, culture is important but, can we please stop fighting about racism? When are we all going to see that yes, we are different on the outsides but, the similarities with each other is so much deeper than just skin color or our cultural upbringing. We are human beings people, HUMAN BEINGS, we express our emotions, we all bleed the same color, and yes, we might differ a little on the outside, but we all so much more than what lays on the outside. We have brilliant minds, filled with creative ideas, ways of implementing new change of bettering our community, but we still chose to fight, and argue as if this all this racism happened yesterday. Why can't we just come together as equals and make a future for these children. Instead of fighting over politics and money. Can’t we teach these children morals, teach them the importance of an education, come together as a community, and build bridges -not walls. Instead of Sisseton having to report to the Tribal politics, why not just have monthly meetings with one another, to share ideas, plans, and so on -together. This isn’t about whites vs natives. This isn’t about Sisseton vs Tiospa Zina. This is about the community’s future, these children, they all have so much potential but, instead of resolving growing problems within the community. You all sit there and argue about money and politics. Always about yourselves and your own agendas. You don’t try to inspire these kids to go off and do something great with their lives. Show them a better life than alcoholism, violence, and substance abuse. Help them understand that without the foundations of academics, the world out there is going to be hard to live in, and help them learn how to take care of themselves. Like always, I assume a lot of people are going to bash on my comments, my opinions, but you know what? I’ll take it. Tell me how foolish I am for wanting my community to come together, and tell me how foolish I am for wanting the racism from both sides to stop. This is a new age, we have so much information, so much technology, so many new ways to try and change -for the better. Can we please stop fighting and start trying to work towards making a better future for these kids? Please?