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Native Language Key to Academic Success

A sign outside Red Lake High School warns against prohibition of weapons in school on Red Lake Indian Reservation
The school year is nearly over at Red Lake High School in the midwestern state of Minnesota. Seniors graduate May 28. But the community is still healing from the fatal shooting there in March. Many students finished the year at home, choosing not to return to class after Jeffrey Weise, a 17-year-old member of the Red Lake Ojibwe tribe, killed 10 people, including himself.

News reports described Weise as a troubled young man, but also noted that many American Indian teens in Minnesota face serious problems, ranging from suicide to alcohol and drug abuse. But the problems have more to do with growing up poor than growing up Indian.

On Minnesota's Leech Lake Indian Reservation, where 17-year-old Chris Stouffer lives, the unemployment rate is 31%. While tribal casinos provide paychecks for some members, Chris says they are also places where many Indians just gamble their money away. "A lot of people, it's just ruining (their lives), because they spend all their money in casinos."

There are other problems on the reservation as well, including alcoholism and too many broken families. Chris's friend, Royal White, says his family is among them. "My father is an alcoholic on the reservation, and I don't know where he is. Royal adds that his mother is struggling to support Royal and his younger brother since she was injured at work.

Both Royal and Chris say they believe that despite the problems on the Leech Lake Reservation, life there is very much like life in other American communities. Yvonne Novak, manager of Indian education for Minnesota's Department of Education agrees. "Is it hard to be an Indian? At times, (yes), but it's also glorious," she says. "I think what's harder is poverty and economic issues. I think THAT is what makes it hard to go to school, NOT that you're an Indian."

American Indian educators say students find powerful incentives to stay in school when they can connect with their Indian heritage. "I have an 11th grader right now that is failing everything but language and culture," says Merlin Williams a teacher in Elk River, Minnesota, about 50 kilometers north of Minneapolis. When he told the student he had to improve his other grades in order to stay in the Ojibwe language class, the teacher says he got results.

Merlin Williams is in charge of Minnesota's Heritage Quiz Bowl, an annual competition where American Indian students get to demonstrate what they have learned about their language.

Students put in a lot of extra work to prepare for the big event. "Kids work for four months," says Yvonne Novack. "Their reading list is intensive, (as is) the studying, and oftentimes it's after school. And lots of times these are students who may not be the best students in school. But this engages them. It acknowledges who they are, where they are from and the importance of their history."

This year 27 teams, nearly 150 students in all, competed in the Heritage Quiz Bowl. Melly Johnson, Royal White, and Chris Stouffer from Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School on Leech Lake Reservation took home second prize.

They all plan to continue studying their language and culture after they graduate and they have other plans as well. Melly wants to be veterinarian. Royal plans to study engineering. And Chris says he'll probably go into computer science.

There is no way to prove that studying their heritage has given these 3 students the self-confidence to reach for those goals. But Dan Jones, who teaches Ojibwe language and culture at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota, says elders believe when people don't know who they are or what they are, they are more prone to be self-destructive.

Mr. Jones says he believes that's what happened to Jeffrey Weise. "If that person (Jeffrey Weise) knew their language, their culture and their history," Mr. Jones says, "he wouldn't have acted out the way he did. Because within our history, language and culture is a built-in, positive self-image, positive views on the world. It's built in that we are respectful to one another. We are respectful to the land, and have respect for life. And obviously that person did not have respect for life."

Right now there is a shortage of teachers in Minnesota to provide classes in Ojibwe language and culture. To help meet the need, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College will soon begin offering a four-year degree in elementary education. While the program will not be limited to American Indian students, graduates will be required to have a minor in the Ojibwe language.