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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 7, 2002 - Issue 69


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Dance and Song at WVC Festival Belie Educational Challenges Facing Indians

by Tim Sullivan Salt LakeTribune

Ladies Fancy Dance"The circle is a way of life," said Alex O. Shepherd, nodding toward a group of children, some in lavish costume, others in street clothes, all of them dancing in the ring formed by tents in the middle of Granger Park.

"They have their own destiny, and they are tested to grow up to be adults and then grandfathers and grandmothers. It's a full circle."

Shepherd, a Paiute-Navajo, came over 300 miles from St. George to participate in West Valley City's Native American Festival and Powwow, which ran Friday through Sunday and, apart from nearly constant dancing, featured food, craft booths and traditional singing.

The theme of this year's powwow was "Empowering Our Youth," and while many admired the colorful outfits, dancing and the proficiency of youngsters in executing traditional songs inside the circle, just as important, said Shepherd, are the challenges outside it.

Belying the harmony at the powwow is a fractured picture of American Indian education in Utah. According to newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, 68.7 percent of Utah's American Indians have graduated from high school, as compared with 87.7 percent for the state's overall population.

The Ute Education Department, meanwhile, said about 80 percent of students from the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah do not finish high school.

It is a concern to American Indian leaders and parents alike, because, said Shepherd, "without education, you're not going to get anywhere. Nowadays you need that diploma."

The educational despair also is at odds with the cohesion and pride fostered at festivals such as this weekend's powwow, and even rank-and-file tribal members differ in their approaches to solving such problems.

A good start, said Shepherd, is schooling American Indian kids with everyone else. The five small bands of Paiutes in southwestern Utah largely attend mainstream public schools, and he said he prefers it that way.

"There should be cross-cultural diversity," he said. "You need to learn both ways."

But some tribes are too large and remote to bus to white schools. The Navajo Reservation, for example, with a larger land area than Rhode Island, has several schools that Navajo tribal member Emerson Bill said suffer from a lack of funds. Bill said the most critical needs for reservation schools, in Southeast Utah, Northern Arizona and western New Mexico are better-paid teachers, better facilities and more computers.

Bill's son Emberson, sitting with his father around a giant drum, agreed, saying he felt that his education at East High School in Salt Lake City was better than that received by his relatives on the reservation.

But Ira Waterhouse of the Northern Shoshone tribe, wearing a green costume flecked with feathers and bells at the ankles, said it is also important for reservation schools to concentrate on including tradition.

Waterhouse said formal education at Idaho's Fort Hall Reservation where he lives often veers away from the traditions he believes are important for young Shoshones to learn. As a result, said Waterhouse, parents end up with a bigger burden to teach their children traditions such as dancing, singing and perhaps most importantly, language.

Waterhouse said he has to speak the Shoshone language in his family's home "constantly" for his children to retain it. More American Indian teachers in schools teaching American Indian traditions, he said, would take the pressure off parents and give kids on the reservation a more well-rounded education.

Harry James, a Navajo and an organizer of the powwow, also said language should be a high priority for American Indian education.

"They need to learn to speak both languages," James said. "We need to keep language alive, to let them know who they are."

James' son Drew, meanwhile, said drug and alcohol abuse and gang violence are more immediate problems threatening American Indian kids, and also should be addressed in schools. Drew James said schools should hire American Indian counselors to talk to at-risk youth about these problems, preferably mentors who are former addicts, alcoholics or gang members and have turned their lives around. American Indian kids, he said, need these examples.

And if that doesn't work, Drew James proposes another solution -- traditional dancing.

"It's a nice hobby to have," he said, his face etching a smile in his white face paint. "It kept me out of trouble.''

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