Urban Indian school helps revitalize traditions and languagesBy Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk Correction: The post has been changed to reflect the number of languages taught at the Indian Community School. The number is three, rather than four. FRANKLIN, WISCONSIN — They came here to commune with nature — with the geese flying overhead and the tall grass swaying in the wind — and to reconnect with their past. Eight people, including two high school students, an Ojibwe language instructor and a college professor, walk on the grassy trail on this warm autumn morning. The wind is brisk and the sun is bright as language instructor Michael Zimmerman Jr. stops to point out plants along the trail. He speaks only in Ojibwe, and the students and college professor nod in agreement. No one is allowed to speak English on this nature walk. And for nearly an hour, the group walks through tall grass, over a pond and into a heavily wooded area, all the while conversing in Ojibwe. They begin and end their journey inside a stunning, majestic structure carved into the landscape like a figure cut into a mountain. The Indian Community School of Milwaukee rises from a high ridge covered in oak and shagbark hawthorn trees not far from where those on the nature walk traverse the trail. Immersion in the Ojibwe language is an effective method for reinforcing language lessons learned in the classroom, said Margaret Noodin, director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Three tribal languages are taught at the Indian Community School: Ojibwe, Menominee and Oneida. “The languages need to be revitalized so they’re taught there, but it really is a bigger goal to enhance wellbeing and identity of these sovereign nations for the generations right now but well into the future, too,” she said.
Nearly 370 students of Native American descent attend the Indian Community School, the largest enrollment in the school’s nearly 50-year history. The school educates students from age 4 through eighth-grade. Classified as a religious, private and nonprofit, the school seeks to provide a mainstream education to its students — who represent 20 different tribes — while incorporating cultural education into every aspect of its curriculum. The school’s history is as winding as the trail surrounding its new home just southwest of Milwaukee. It was founded in 1969 by three mothers who were frustrated with Milwaukee’s public school system. “There was just a lot of what we would call today bullying, a lot of racism, a lot of things that really left the students not proud of who they were,” said Jason Dropik, head of the Indian Community School. The mothers pulled their children out of the public school system and began home schooling them in the basement of one of their homes. Seeking a more permanent home for the school, the school’s parents decided to exercise treaty rights as set forth in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which stipulated that any abandoned federal land would revert back to the ownership of tribes.
Inspired by the American Indian Movement’s takeover of Alcatraz Island two years earlier, AIM members and parents from the school decided to occupy an abandoned Coast Guard station on Lake Michigan in 1971 and began holding classes inside of the facility. Their occupation drew national headlines, and the parents were actually allowed to remain in the facility, where they established a school until 1980. In the late 1980s, the school purchased a former college campus near downtown Milwaukee and began offering classes there in 1987. Facing funding shortages, however, parents at the school began looking for other revenue sources. “They were on the brink of closing,” Dropik said. They eventually turned to gaming and began working with the Forest County Potawatomi Community on a deal that involved giving the campus to the tribe, with the expectation that it would be placed in trust. The tribe could then establish a bingo operation, whose revenues would help fund the school’s operation. But protests from neighbors eventually discouraged that plan. Instead, the school decided to grant the tribe the land to use for educational and community services. In turn, the tribe leased part of the campus back to the school. The school and the tribe, meanwhile, continued trying to establish a bingo facility in Milwaukee and eventually succeeded in finding a 2-acre tract elsewhere in the city. That site was eventually placed in trust.
The tribe built the bingo facility and later a lucrative hotel and casino on the site but agreed to provide annual funding to the school — as much as $28 million a year — until 2010. The school remained at the former college campus until 2007, when the Indian Community School’s $35 million, 178-acre campus in Franklin, about 13 miles from downtown Milwaukee, was completed. Dropik said the school was able to develop a healthy endowment using funds from the Forest County Potawatomi Community, and it uses profits from that investment to fund the school’s operation. Those funds allow the school to provide tuition-free education to its students, nearly 63 percent of whom are eligible for free and reduced lunch. The school also offers free busing to 96 percent of its students, as well as free breakfasts and lunches. The school integrates cultural education into nearly every aspect of its curriculum and routinely hosts cultural ceremonies — such as powwows, and drumming and singing events — and teaches its students to make Native American regalia. “We want to give students all the best opportunities that we possibly can,” Dropik said. “We want them to have a strong cultural identity, to know who they are.”
The school tracks its students’ performance after they leave for high school. Those students demonstrated an 88 percent on-time graduation rate in 2016 and a 90 percent on-time graduation rate in 2017. “We’re higher than the national average in terms of that but not where we want to be,” Dropik said. “We want 100 percent of our students to graduate high school.” Dropik said the school’s grand building and surrounding grounds help students connect to nature and their cultural traditions. The 150,000-square-foot building features limestone walls built into prairie grass berms, a copper roof and large, glass-enclosed gathering spaces. “We needed a space to make sure that students could continue to learn and have a connection to outdoors,” he said. The exterior landscape features three ecosystems, including wetlands, prairies and forests and offers students ample opportunity to reconnect with nature, he said. Ariah Ortiz, an eighth-grader at the school, said the school has helped her establish her identity as a Chippewa woman. She attended a public elementary school until second grade, when she enrolled at the Indian Community School. “My old school did not teach us much about our culture and our languages that we learn here,” she said. The school is helping area tribes revitalize their culture and languages, she said. Next year, Ortiz will move to a public high school, a transition she is admittedly nervous about. “Here we’re a close-knit group and we know each other and we’re there for each other, and it’s going to be different going to a school where I don’t know anyone and there are a lot more people,” she said.
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