Tim Giago: Standing ground against 'Dropout Nation'

“Reading, riting and rithmatic, taught to the tune of a hickory stick,” probably says more about early America than most of us dare to remember.

It was not uncommon for teachers to have a hickory stick or a ping-pong paddle within easy reach and to use these tools to punish unruly children. As a matter of fact, parents expected that their children be paddled or spanked if they acted up in school.

In fact, spanking at home by both parents was perfectly acceptable in the society when I was young. Although I don’t recall either of my parents using this form of discipline on me I observed it in other families, especially when I moved from the Indian reservation to the city.

The traditional Lakota families seldom used physical force to discipline their children. A sharp look and a “hiya,” (no) usually did the trick. I can still hear my father’s “hiya” that brought me to a halt if I was doing something mischievous.

I am sure that is why it was such a cultural shock for so many Indian children when they were shipped off to the boarding schools operated by the US Government and the Christian churches in the 1800s and into the middle 1900s. When I first saw a Catholic priest beat a classmate of mine with a leather strap for an infraction it was a very traumatic experience

But just as the children of the early settlers survived the hickory stick, many of the Indian children survived the boarding schools. And if I were a statistician, I would probably say that 50 percent of them did not.

We are now in a new time and a new place. The world has grown much smaller thanks to the Internet. Even on remote schools far out on Indian reservations the children now have access to computers. Instead of just learning from books and newspapers, the children of today have all of the vast resources of Google and Microsoft at their command.

And this is the time of the year when they don their caps and gowns and march to the podiums to receive their high school diplomas or their college degrees. If I spoke at a graduation ceremony this year of 2007, I would have this to say to those Native American high school graduates:

To those of you seated before me wearing your colors of graduation, I am very proud of you. You have stuck with something to its conclusion. Although many of you have lived in poverty, oftentimes never knowing if there would be breakfast on the table or clean clothes to wear, and although many of you have tried to help your parents overcome their addictions and have had to conquer your own fears in the process, the fact that you are about to receive a diploma after 12 years of discipline, commitment, and oftentimes uncertainty, it tells me more about you as a person than about the award you are about to receive.

During these 12 years of trials and tribulations, you have seen many of your closest friends walk through those doors never to return. You have learned that 50 percent of the children that started out with you 12 years ago never stuck around to finish school. You have seen these friends working at menial jobs, driving their own cars, and even snickering at you for your commitment to getting that diploma.

As educator John Reynor wrote, “Far too many Indian students have joined the ranks of the “Dropout Nation.” The fact that you stood your ground against all odds and are seated here today to receive that diploma speaks volumes about your courage and determination.

Some of you will go on to colleges off of the reservation and other will take advantage of the fantastic opportunities afforded you through the 36 Indian owned and operated colleges on the many Indian nations in this country. Colleges like Oglala Lakota College, Dine’ College, Sinte Gleska University, and Sitting Bull College are now at your very doorstep and these great colleges are probably America’s best kept secret.

Right here in Indian country you will find great educators like Tom Short Bull of Oglala Lakota College, Jeanine Pease, Gwen Shunatona, and one of my idols of all time, Lionel Bordeaux of Sinte Gleska University. These are Native leaders that have paved the way for you to be able to get a college degree on your Native lands.

The “Dropout Nation” can no longer tempt you or claim you. You have reached that first rung of the ladder that will lead you to a better life. There are still several rungs left to climb, but you have survived the hardest of times, the worst of times, and the most difficult of times to earn that diploma you soon will hold in your hands.

But as you reach for the next rung on the ladder, never ever forget who you are and where you came from. You are Lakota and you will always be Lakota and you will always live in the light of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail and all of the other great chiefs and warriors who made it possible for you to be seated here today. They gave their lives so that you could live.

(Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was the founder and editor of the Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1990 – 1991. His latest book “Children Left Behind” is available at harmon@clearlightbooks.com. He was also the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalists@rushmore.com)

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