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Learning Language, Crafts Instills Pride in Students : Reservation Schools Keep Indian Tribe's Culture Alive

February 02, 1986|ROBERT O'MEARA | Associated Press

KESHENA, Wis. — At Menominee High School, the reading, writing and mathematics of modern education mingle with the sounds of the Menominee language, the beat of drums and the cadence of tribal dances.

This is the 10th school year since the Indians of the Menominee Reservation separated from the Shawano-Gresham School District to open their own district among the pines of northeastern Wisconsin.

"In Shawano, we had no cultural programs of any kind, no language," Lisa Waukau, a social studies teacher, said. "Most Americans can go to Ireland, England, Europe or whatever and find their background.

Knowing 'Who You Are'

"Ours is a strong oral tradition, and we came close to losing our language. It helps to know who you are," she said.

School officials say the move has paid off in a new pride among students in their Indian identity and heritage.

"The big advantage has been the improvement in the students' basic performance, their basic education, and a greater performance in extra-curricular activities," said Supt. John Tomasich, 57, who was assistant superintendent in the Shawano-Gresham district for 15 years.

A reservation-owned sawmill is the main source of income in this forested county, the boundaries of which match the reservation's. Poverty is common; unemployment in October, 1985, was 16.5%, compared to a statewide rate of 6.2%.

Under State Supervision

The district has 921 students attending an elementary school and the high school at Keshena and an elementary school at Neopit. Like other public school districts in Wisconsin, it is under supervision of the state Department of Public Instruction and meets all state curricula requirements.

The sleek, modern high school was opened in 1982 with 24 classrooms and has 401 students attending seventh through 12th grades.

The district received permission to leave the Shawano-Gresham district on July 1, 1976, as a result of a petition signed by Menominee residents.

"People here felt they should have control of the education of their children rather than sending them to an outside school system," Tomasich said.

Ninety-eight percent of the students are Indians. Most are Menominees, but some are members of other tribes such as the Stockbridge-Munsee and Oneida.

The Menominee language is a required subject in all elementary grades and an elective at secondary levels.

Language Might Have Died

"I am of the firm opinion that, if the school did not make the effort to maintain the Menominee language, it would have disappeared in the near future," Tomasich said.

Participation is encouraged in Indian cultural activities, such as art and music, including student "powwows," Tomasich said.

The tribal legislature requires that all students stay in school until their 18th birthday unless they are graduated earlier. The dropout rate was 4.9% in the 1983-84 school year, down from 5.9% a year earlier. The statewide rate was 3.6% in 1983-84.

Twenty-five percent to 30% of the teaching staff have native American backgrounds. John Teller, a Menominee language teacher, and Waukau are Menominees who attended school in Shawano before the current district was created.

Menominee fields a debating team that was invited to the statewide competition last school year and came away with an 'A,' the highest rating. Its dance group regularly tours other schools around the state.

Ecology Stressed

Principal Richard Peters says the school was designed to take advantage of the Indians' interest in ecology, with the botany classroom looking out over a wetland.

"Our curriculum reflects the tribe's care for the environment. Biology is a required course," he said.

All students, except those studying chemistry or physics, are required to take courses in environmental science.

Courses include French, American history, mathematics, business and traditional arts such as oil and watercolor painting. However, a Menominee student can also learn to tan a deer hide in the Indian manner, do traditional beadwork and produce pottery of native clay.

The Menominee Eagles, part of the Central Wisconsin Conference, field teams in baseball, basketball, track, soccer and volleyball.

About 30% of the high school's graduates go to vocational-technical schools and colleges, Peters said. Statewide, the Department of Public Instruction says, 53.7% of seniors graduating from public high schools in 1984 said they intended to attend postsecondary schools.

The district, which had a budget of $4.1 million this year, is 40% federally funded and 50% state funded and gets 10% from property taxes, Tomasich said. No funds come directly from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Generation Gap

For all its successes, the school has produced a generation gap between parents and students. Schoolchildren often speak the Menominee language with their grandparents, but not their parents, who no longer know the ancestral tongue.

" . . . Students put on a play totally in Menominee," Waukau said. "Their parents couldn't understand it, but the old people in the audience were delighted."

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