Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 30, 2000 - Issue 26


School Offers Homeroom for Tribal Kids

by Erica Curless-The Spokesman Review


Kootenai Tribal School a haven for those struggling elsewhere

BONNERS FERRY, Idaho-- School complicated Crystal Weaselhead's life.

Her mind swirled with bigger problems than passing eighth grade.

The teenager's mother was in an Arizona prison. Her father lived in Montana.

Besides, she says, other schoolchildren were never too nice to Weaselhead or other Native Americans from the Kootenai Reservation.

After many absences and a few fights, Weaselhead dropped out of school, opting to flop on her friend's couch to watch TV.

But now she and the handful of Kootenai children have an alternative -- the Kootenai Tribal School.

"I think it might be good," said Weaselhead, 17, who recently earned her GED from a North Idaho College program. "I know when I was younger I dealt with a lot of racism in school. It's better for the little kids out here so they won't have to deal with that."

Looking back, Weaselhead knows she made some poor choices. She's working hard to right those wrongs and eventually wants to become a dermatologist.

She believes the Kootenai Tribal School, which opened last year, may save other Indian children, including her brother and sister, from falling into a similar trap.


Language: KTUNAXA
Language Family: KUTENAIAN
Actual translation in this language:

Being no different than any other (human to animal,
or plant to water, etc.) as said by the Creator

Having high regard for land, chiefs, and the Creator above all

Laws and orders given to the Ktunaxa People by the Creator with respect to the land

Her advice: Stick it out and stay in school.

The Kootenai Tribal School, a new blue double-wide trailer house, is nestled among homes and the tribal headquarters on the 400-acre reservation in Boundary County.

Neighborhood dogs nap on the ramp leading to the front door.

Most of the 23 students live in the village, mere footsteps from the school.

The idea is to lure dropouts back to school and keep them there until they graduate. The Kootenais want an educated tribe.

"We were getting dropouts at grade seven," said Tribal Chairwoman Velma Bahe. "I'm not blaming teachers, not blaming parents, but there was a bump there they were not getting past."

So with the Tribal Council's blessing and about $400,000 annually from the tribe's casino, members scrambled to open the K-12 school.

And many Kootenai children have returned to class. Eight students are former dropouts.

Baptista Aitken, 14, is giving the Kootenai Tribal School a try.

"They actually help you," Aitken said, staring down at his tennis shoes.

He found the Boundary County Junior High School difficult and the teachers unhelpful. He feels more comfortable among his Indian peers and jokes because the school is on the reservation, he no longer misses the bus Bahe said the school will give children like Aitken a shot at success.

"We want them to go beyond high school whether it's a technical school or junior college," she said. "I want them to go beyond and find that there is a life after high school instead of settling for marriage."

Doreen Manuel, the school's education director, sat earlier this week in her small office talking over the low rumble of a small portable heater.

Poverty, loss of culture and depression historically are reasons Indian children drop out of school, she said.

Part of the Kootenai Tribal School's goal is to reinstate the Kootenai culture.

Children and staff are learning the native language, Ktunaxa, together. Students are taught to respect elders and to have pride in their heritage.

"Children will struggle in school if they don't know who they are," she said.

Manuel knows firsthand about shame. She grew up in boarding schools and was often beaten. It has taken her years to get over the trauma.

"We're putting back something that was taken away," she said. Darci Boychief, 9, likes the language lessons.

She munched on a grilled cheese sandwich while trying to recite numbers in her native tongue.

"I'm just learning," she said.

Dan Meeker, a former Bonners Ferry High School principal, is hesitant to comment on why Indian students have such a high dropout rate. But he is aware of the problem and said it doesn't have much to do with racism.

"If you go way back, there haven't been a handful of Native Americans who have graduated from the high school," said Meeker, who is now the Mount Hall Elementary principal.

He hopes the tribal school will make a difference.

"The proof is in the pudding," Meeker said.

Superintendent John Schwartz was unavailable for comment this week, but Clerk Sharon Smith said nobody has assessed how the tribal school has affected the district.

During the 1998-99 school year, 126 Indian students in Idaho dropped out of grades 7 through 12. That compares with 4,372 white students, said the state Department of Education.

For the same school year, the Boundary County School District had 30 enrolled Indian students. It's unknown how many of those students completed the school year. But Bahe said she knows at least five Kootenai students have quit school in the last three years.

Manuel is realistic about the school's future challenges.

Already it is overcrowded. The older students cram around a rectangular table in the open commons area. Some hang out in the tiny computer lab. Next door the younger children sit in desks scattered a small room. The middle-school-aged children fill another room.

There's a small kitchen where Wayne McCoy, who teaches the children the native Kootenai language, makes soup and sandwiches for lunch. He also does some janitorial work.

Another challenge is having three teachers, two of which are Indian, cover 13 grade levels.

The school has one kindergartner who attends half days and expects one student to get a diploma this year.

But Manuel said the arrangement works and that students are learning.

Many of the children are behind academically, while a few are ahead of their grade. Manuel spends hours working one-on-one with these children. Small class sizes also help.

The atmosphere is free and homey.

First-grader Jasmine Lange bursts into Manuel's office, interrupting the principal in midsentence.

"Could you please deliver this note," Lange said, leaving as quickly as she came.

Another student comes in to use the copier. One asked to borrow a calculator.

It seems like a big family.

And many of them are family.

Manuel's son is in fourth grade and her sister, Arlene, is the teacher aide and counselor. Arlene's daughter is also a student. Many others are cousins.

Although it may appear loose, with students running around without shoes, Manuel said there are boundaries. But she believes in giving the students the opportunity to negotiate the rules. Behavior has improved.

"There's been a tremendous change," Bahe said. "A lot of these kids I know would have already been suspended from school."

Parents often drop in if there's a discipline problem or if a younger student needs comforting.

Although most tribal members are supportive of the school, some parents have chosen to keep their children in Boundary County schools.

Bahe's granddaughter attends public school. The chairwoman said she's adjusting well.

"My daughter is one of those who wanted to put her through public schools to give her that challenge," Bahe said.

About 10 Kootenai children remain in Boundary County schools.

Manuel's overall goal is to develop a curriculum that fully involves the Kootenai culture. She said some tribal schools even teach math in native languages.

"This school makes a statement that this tribe values education," Manuel said.

Erica Curless can be reached at (208) 765-7137 or by e-mail at


Kootenai Tribe of Idaho




SEED Ktunaxa Nations Resources



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