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Top education official in North Dakota insists Defenders of the Water School lacks approval

Filed Under: Education | National
More on: alayna eagle shield, dakota access pipeline, kirsten baesler, languages, north dakota, standing rock sioux, youth
     
   

Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa in North Dakota. Photo from Defenders of the Water School

The state of North Dakota is taking a heavy-handed approach to one of the success stories of the #NoDAPL movement -- a small but thriving school that has educated youth about indigenous culture, language and history.

In an October 7 letter, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said the Defenders of the Water School is not operating in accordance with state law. Arguing that she was concerned about the "educational well-being" of youth at the #NoDAPL encampment, she insisted that students be enrolled in institutions elsewhere.

"As you know, both public and nonpublic schools must be state approved," Baesler wrote in the letter, which was addressed to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Baesler also brought up the state's "compulsory attendance law." The implication was that parents whose children are attending Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa -- the Lakota name for the school -- could be cited with infractions or even charged with misdemeanors for not sending their kids to an "approved" institution.

"I request that you ensure parents enroll their students in a state approved school," Baesler told Chairman Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.


North Dakota's Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler sent a letter about the Defenders of the Water School to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on October 7, 2016.

The Defenders of the Water School is preparing an official statement in response to the state's letter. But organizers believe they are educating youth in accordance with all applicable laws.

"The children of our school are registered homeschoolers, and we believe that each student is fully compliant with his or her state's homeschooling laws," an organizer said on Wednesday.

"But we will continue to work with the State of North Dakota to resolve any possible issues," the organizer added.

Children who receive a "home education" are in fact exempt from the law cited in the letter. But Baesler said the #NoDAPL students should be enrolled in the Mandan Public School District.

Although Baesler said the district is willing to send a bus to the #NoDAPL encampment, all of the schools in the Mandan District are quite a distance away. The closest elementary, Fort Lincoln, is about 35 miles north while the only high school is about 38 miles, one-way.

Those distances could be made even longer if authorities in North Dakota continue to restrict the flow of traffic on Highway 1806, which leads to the campsite and the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Getting to the high school, for example, would require a 104-mile round trip for students who currently don't have to travel anywhere to learn about indigenous ways of life.

Sacred Stone Camp Standing Rock, North Dakota 2016 I haven't been able to share about my journey to North Dakota, but...

Posted by Voices From the Four Winds on Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Voices From the Four Winds on Facebook: Drum Project for Students

"Our older students are currently learning skills in order to film their own documentaries," the school wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, sharing one example of the activities occurring at the camps.

Rafael Rodriguez just showed the students how to make drums. He came all the way from Mexico to share his people's traditions with the school.

"We were able to complete 14 drums, and all the children who participated were able to keep their own drum," Rodriguez wrote on the Facebook page for Voices of the Wind on Wednesday.

In the alternative, the students might be able to attend schools on the reservation that are much closer, Baesler suggested in her letter.

Alayna Eagle Shield, an educator and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, debuted the Defenders of the Water School on August 29. The effort immediately generated widespread support as elders, youth, teachers, volunteers and others helped out in any way they could.

"From the start, Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa has been a project of love and community," Eagle Shield wrote in the middle of September, after classes had been going strong for a couple of weeks. "Together, we can all work to decolonize education and create the best possible learning experience for our incredible students."

We are nearing the end of our third week at the Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa (Defenders of the Water school) and it's...

Posted by Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa on Thursday, September 15, 2016

Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa on Facebook: 'An Amazing Experience'

The school drew media coverage beyond Indianz.Com and The Lakota Country Times so it's not clear why the state waited until now to question its existence. But it comes at a time when authorities are stepping up law enforcement and other efforts near the campsites.

The Oceti Sakowin Camp, the Camp of the Sacred Stone, the Red Warrior Camp and related sites have attracted thousands of people to North Dakota to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline. The controversial project runs through private and federal land immediately north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Construction was put on hold by a federal appeals court for nearly a month but the order was lifted on Sunday evening. But the Obama administration has not approved an easement for the pipeline to cross Lake Oahe, along the Missouri River.

While work has resumed on private lands in the area, the lack of an easement means a crucial portion of the pipeline remains in limbo. It's not clear when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make a decision but it's expected within "weeks" rather than "months," government attorneys have said.

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