Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 2, 2001 - Issue 37



Lummis Capture School Dream


by Mary Lane Gallagher and Kari Thorene Shaw The Bellingham Herald


Jay Drowns Herald Photo

In a stuffy, cramped classroom, Lummi elder Jack Cagey patiently strikes his drum.

Desks are pushed against walls. In the middle, third-graders in socks take careful, abbreviated dance steps.

"Let's see if you guys remember the eagle dance," Cagey says. "Don't hit each other with your wings, now."

Cagey's makeshift dance studio is one of seven one-room buildings built for temporary offices but used as permanent schoolrooms at Lummi.

Although school officials swear the rodent problem is under control this year, rat traps still line the portables along its rear side.

One hundred and thirty miles south, Sylvia Alden holds up a dream catcher in her fourth-grade classroom.

"What tribe makes dream catchers?" she asks.

Tiny arms shoot up from low tables that, like the Puyallup Tribe's Chief Leschi School that houses them, are brand-new and free of the scribblings children leave over the years.

"An Indian one," shouts one student.

"Ojibwe," says another.

"What is the bead for in the middle?" Alden asks.

She waits as the children confer. Finally, she tells them.

"It lets good dreams go by and catches the bad dreams."

Lummis' dream near

Lummi Tribal and Chief Leschi are part of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs school system, a rags-and-riches collection of 185 schools funded by the government to educate American Indian children across the United States.

Lummi Nation's dream is for its children to be schooled in a state-of-the-art facility like Chief Leschi. Now, with the Lummis nearing the end of a 10-year battle with the federal government for money for a new school, they may have caught their dream.

Congress set aside $133.3 million for BIA school construction in this year's budget, the largest amount ever. Lummi Tribal got $24 million of it for a new school slated to open in fall 2003.

Unlike Washington public schools, which raise money for construction through voter-approved property taxes, BIA schools rely on federal appropriations for construction dollars. The result is a school system that withers and thrives with the whims of Congress.

Lummi Tribal School is among the six most in need of repairs, according to the BIA.

The system faces a $2.4 billion construction backlog, the result, BIA officials acknowledge, of shameful neglect. As tribal schools drooped from passable to treacherous, Congress continued to ignore the need. Now, school and federal officials agree, neither can wait any longer.

Chief Leschi School is the BIA's flashiest school to date, with a price tag of $32 million. With its fully equipped classrooms and Indian-inspired motifs, it has come to represent the hope of Indian schools.

"In any community, the quality of their school is based on the commitment to their children," said Lummi Planning Director Darrell Phare. "We've always been in makeshift facilities."

How long is temporary?

"When I first started here, we were in ... a big brick building," said Will Fry, a computer science teacher at Chief Leschi School. "It was condemned for education six months after I started."

The building had asbestos in the walls and little structural protection from earthquakes. The school moved into portable classrooms in the early 1980s. There it stayed through a drought of federal funding for Indian schools, until the BIA rebuilt Chief Leschi in 1996 as its flagship school.

Portables and asbestos come up often enough in construction requests for BIA schools that they sound like a recurring theme.

Some schools, like Ojibwa Indian School in North Dakota, teach class in portables built in the 1930s.

At Wingate Elementary Dormitory in New Mexico, the carcinogenic exposure doesn't stop at asbestos: federal monitors have found lead paint and radon, too.

By the time Fry was packing up his boxes from the modular and moving into Chief Leschi's sleek new classrooms, Lummi Tribal School administrators were panicking.

Like Chief Leschi, Lummi Tribal's first schoolhouse in Marietta was condemned for educational use -- in Lummi's case, after the furnace blew up and spewed asbestos into the kindergarten.

Like Chief Leschi, there it stayed. Unlike Chief Leschi, it's still there.

"It was an emergency measure," said Phare, Lummi planning director. "We didn't expect it to be permanent."

Now the school has problems borne by its long tenure in emergency portables: no permanent safety measures have been taken to secure the campus. Children leave their classrooms and walk in the open, unsecured breezeway to get to the bathroom.

Shattered promises

If you ask tribal school administrators how long it takes to get construction money out of the federal government, you're bound to get a roomful of laughter.

The answer? A long, long time. As long as it takes to wear out a school -- often, much longer.

The BIA runs 185 schools with a total student population of about 50,000. Officials estimate 100 of the schools need to be completely rebuilt.

Many Indian school classrooms have areas with detectable levels of cancerous asbestos fibers; many have antiquated heating and plumbing systems. One school in the desert has no ventilation.

At many federally run tribal schools, there are no permanent structures at all; classes are held in portable classrooms.

This isn't news to people in Indian Country. They've watched school buildings crumble, watched the portables take root, watched them rot.

Now, as the price tag on repairs balloons with each passing year, the cost to fix the BIA school system looms at a hefty $2.4 billion.

The federal government runs only one other school system, the Department of Defense schools for military dependents. Although he doesn't keep tabs on those schools, former BIA spokesperson Rex Hackler said he would bet the defense schools are in decent repair.Tribal schools are not.

It's a hard thing for some tribal leaders to talk about without getting angry. Former Lummi Chief of Staff Sharon Kinley said people off the reservation will never see the failing school as an injustice to Lummi people, but rather dismiss it as the problem of "dirty Indians."

She would rather not talk about it in public.

BIA officials say the problem stems from geography and politics.

Geography, because though there are nearly 200 Indian schools, they are concentrated in just a few Western states, like Washington and New Mexico. Construction for schools in so few states is simply not a national issue.

Politics, because it can, and has, come down to which tribal leaders complain the loudest about their failing schools.

"You don't have the constituency," said Nedra Darling, BIA spokesperson. "When you have a public school, you could push in your county and your city. You don't have that here. Anything funded here has to go through Congress."

Whatever the reason for the lagging repairs, tribal and federal officials both point to the many Indian treaties signed in the 19th century as reason to start picking up hammers and nails. The treaties promised free schools for Indian children in exchange for land.

Lobbying Congress

For Lummi Tribal School, the attention didn't happen by accident. For the past year and a half, the Lummi Indian Business Council has had at least one person assigned daily to getting the school construction money.

It was the tribe's top priority last year, and required multiple trips to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about the school's moldy crawl spaces and fire hazards.

"We could show that we were in bad shape," said former Lummi Tribal School Superintendent Bob Brown. "There was massive non-compliance with any code."

To tribal leaders, the problem was obvious. But getting the press and guaranteeing the funding took constant attention from tribal leaders who took time out from budgets, policing and housing issues to pound the table about faulty school construction.

"Every place we went we talked about our school," recalled Lummi Chairman Willie Jones. "We've been doing that for years and years."

Now, President Bush is asking for nearly $300 million to fund BIA school construction next year. If his request is approved, $122.8 million will go to replace sagging buildings at six other schools in Washington, Arizona, North Dakota and New Mexico.

That would mean Wingate Elementary Dormitory and Ojibwa Indian School could part ways with their crumbling structures and join the ranks of Chief Leschi and Lummi Tribal by finally catching their dreams.

Lummi Nation
"Related by Family, Culture and History"


The Governor's Office of Indian Affairs - Lummi Nation




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