(Part 1 of three parts)

The newspaper man Tim Giago has written movingly of his experiences in a Catholic boarding school. The founding publisher of Indian Country Today says in his book Children Left Behind that he was beaten, starved, and humiliated during his ten years at Holy Rosary Mission at Pine Ridge.

When he could no longer understand why he was so depressed at times as an adult, he started healing himself by writing about his treatment at the hands of the priests. Later he submitted these writings to Rupert Costo, publisher of the Indian Historian Press, who published them as a book, The Aboriginal Sin.

The treatment that Tim and tens of thousands of Indian kids received in the BIA and mission boarding schools developed a love/hate relationship that is so deep in Indian Country that outsiders cannot understand it. While Indian parents know their children need to have an excellent education, their own experiences at schools make them leery of even being on the campuses.

Teachers and principals are constantly amazed at the low turnout on Parent Night. They expect to see huge numbers of parents to show up, but only a few do. In fact, the ones who do are the few who have been visiting the school already. The vast majority of Indian parents never set foot in the school—except maybe for a basketball game. The parents are still feeling the effects of the racist treatment they received a quarter of a century earlier.

A meeting in Rapid City in October 2007, one of the first of its kind in that state, had people reporting that racism is alive and well in the public schools of the state. South Dakota is often called the “Mississippi of the North.” The non-Indians of the state still hold a grudge over the defeat and massacre of George Custer in 1876, and they take it out on Indians whenever they can.

Martin Reinhardt, a research associate at Colorado State University, said racism prevents the tribes from having access to information on their students, while the states have full access to all student records. Indian students are the lowest performing ethnic group in the United States. Test scores for fourth or eleventh graders typically find students are below the 20th percentile, and the lowest students are down around the fifth percentile.

Dropout rates for Indian high school students nationwide run about 50%, but with a variation from a high of 90% for San Diego County, California, to a low of 25% or so for a few places. The Phoenix area has rates in the area of 85%. South Dakota dropout rates hover around 80%. The rate in Albuquerque was determined by an outside research group eight years ago to be 67.2%, quite a contrast to the district’s “official” figures, which they said were 19% to 23%. The lower figures had been reported for years by the research arm of the district.

I wonder how many other districts lie about their Indian dropout rates. Most people do not want to believe it. A decade ago, in a public hearing, I reported that the dropout rate was 65% for Indians in Albuquerque. Joe Carraro, a state senator from Rio Rancho who ran for Congress and lost, argued with me for ten minutes that it could not be.

“I believe the rate is 19% to 23%,” he told me. “But it is impossible for it to be 65%.” A year later, when the independent study came out, I copied the graph and sent it to him as proof, but he never answered me.

Schools and districts often try to hide or disguise the real dropout rates, which happen over a four-year to six-year period. They will give, as Albuquerque does, a one-year rate, stating it as a fact, without explaining it. Few school districts with Indian students, in fact, try to determine what the four-year rate is.

A dozen years ago I computed the following figures to compare the actual production of Indian college graduates and non-Indian college graduates. It shows there are 20 non-Indian college graduates for every Indian graduate. Since 1970, the gap has gotten larger, when most folk probably assumed it has gotten smaller.

Only 17% of Indian students finish high school and enroll in college the next year, compared to 67% of all students in the United States. Thus there is a huge gap of 50% between Indians and non-Indians who are starting college. However, the huge dropout rate from college further widens the gap. Some 54% of all college students will earn a degree in four to six years, but only 18% of Indian students will earn college degrees during the same time period. Taking the 17% entering college and multiplying it times the 18% who finish college yields only 1.5% of Indians finishing college.

There are many reasons for this horrible situation with Indian education and the low numbers of Indians finishing college. The worst side is that there are huge needs and demands for all kinds of Indians—doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, veterinarians, teachers, engineers, computer programmers, writers, biologists, chemists, physicists, hydrologists, and many other types of professionals. The huge demand means that doctors and nurses are not available to treat sick people.

Indian people sicken and sometimes die because of misdiagnosis or lack of treatment for illnesses ranging from diabetes to ruptured appendixes. The Indian Health Service reports that its professional positions are typically 35% unfilled at any given time.

Thus racism in the schools, turning potential doctors and nurses away from medical schools by racist actions, has the long-term effect of denying life-saving medical treatment to sick Indian people. This may seem to some like a stretch, but it is literally true.

It means that teachers are not available to teach Indian kids. And unfortunately, too often the teachers who are available are the rejects who could not get hired elsewhere. In one case, a man with a degree in sociology was trying to teach physics on the Jicarilla Apache reservation. Of course all the kids knew he didn’t know the subject, and were bored to death in his classes.

Next month I will report in this column some of the results of lawsuits that have been filed by Indians against racist actions in the schools.


This column is adapted from the book “Racism in Indian Country.” Dr. Dean Chavers is Director of Catching the Dream, a Native scholarship organization. His latest books are “Modern American Indian Leaders” published by Mellen Press and “Racism in Indian Country” published by Peter Lang Publishers. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. His next book is “Broken Promises: Termination of Indian Treaties and the Aftermath,” due out in 2011.