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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 22, 2003 - Issue 83


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Teen Hopes to Return to Reservation With Degree, Answers to Problems

by Jon Walker Argus Leader
credits: Paul Plume, 17, (right) plays guitar with his teacher, Roger White Eyes, at Red Cloud Indian School. Plume has been inspired by White Eyes and plans to attend college and become a teacher.

Paul Plume, 17, (right) plays guitar with his teacher, Roger White Eyes, at Red Cloud Indian School. Plume has been inspired by White Eyes and plans to attend college and become a teacher. PINE RIDGE, SD - Behind the dark eyes of Paul Plume is the mind of a young man with a plan to help those growing up after him on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Nearly 18 years old, he wishes to finish classes this spring at Red Cloud High School just north of town, go to college in Kansas, then return to the reservation, to the same high school if possible.

"I'd like to come back to teach here - world and U.S. history," he says, "I'd like to educate students and tell them the good and bad about America."

He sees that role - teaching and encouraging - as his contribution to breaking a cycle of poverty, restlessness and wasted opportunities among the people he cares about most.

"A lot of students leave the reservation and never come back. That's one of the things I want to change. They quit college, end up working a bad job. I'd like to help them change their minds. That's what I'd like to do here."

Perhaps, among the Lakota of Pine Ridge, Plume's hope is more than the musings of an optimistic teenager.

The Oglala holy man Black Elk prophesied his people would suffer from sickness and war only to be healed after seven generations. Young people of Plume's generation fall roughly in that seven generation gap since the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. While it may just be myth, the middle-aged residents of Pine Ridge see in these young people a cultural pride that did not exist 30 years ago.

Plume's plan to teach would fulfill a need on the reservation, says Cheryl Medearis, chairwoman of the education department at Sinte Gleska University in Mission.

"People who go away and want to come back to teach would be welcomed with open arms, because there's a shortage of teachers and a shortage of male teachers in particular," Medearis says.

It would also illustrate a rekindled attraction to reservation living.

"It's the strong family ties and cultural connections that bring people back," Medearis says. "That is a possibility, wanting to come back and make a difference on their own reservation. We hear that a lot now. Hopefully now with tribal colleges, people will stay and get their education. They'll live and work and be good role models for the young ones coming up."

The model Paul Plume would provide today would be someone trying to balance his Native American background with the majority culture around him. At 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds, his job was to push people out of the way when he played offensive line on the school's football team. In a classroom at Red Cloud High School, he's far more diplomatic in assessing life's inequities and prospects for change.

The second oldest of four children, he lives up the highway in Manderson and catches a ride to school with his brother Michael in a 1982 Chevrolet. His father is director of education for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, his mother a rehabilitation center counselor in Rapid City. He cares about the occupation of Wounded Knee 30 years ago, a conflict that saw the American Indian Movement oppose tribal government backers nicknamed the GOON squad, an acronym for Guardians of the Oglala Nation.

But he's not a fire-breathing descendant of the protest movement. He's more attuned to damage control and healing.

"A lot of things have to change here," he says. "We're still split. We're still in the big fight we were in 30 years ago. AIM is gone, and GOON is gone, but the families are still here. It's hard to forget and harder to forgive. Relationships have to mend here before we can start with everything else."

If time helps healing, he will mark that time as someone with his feet in two places. On one hand, he says the standoff in '73 sparked "a revival of our spirit" and applauds the new emphasis on sun dances and other tribal ceremonies. He can recite events in the U.S.-Indian war over land rights and is amused to retell of once hearing a worker at Little Big Horn assure a tour group that hatred between races is a thing of the past.

On the other hand, he's also engrossed in a world that tilts toward mainstream. As he works on his Lakota language skills, he speaks exemplary English. As he explains the 19th and 20th century boarding school movement designed to "kill the Indian and save the man," he's more intrigued by a conspiracy theory for the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Lunch is Vanilla Coke and beef jerky in the Lakota studies classroom, where he tries to find a willing foil for a card game with a cribbage board he carries in his jacket. Waiting for his next class, he gets out his electric guitar to practice chords he found on the Internet.

Attraction to life off the reservation is common to today's students, says Roger White Eyes, one of Plume's teachers and a mentor at Red Cloud High. "Lakota kids are more interested in the hip-hop music and culture - the dress, the style, music and talk," says White Eyes, 41.

"We have to be this way," Plume answers.

The dual nature of the mission Plume has designed for himself leaves him straddling a fence on a reservation known for health problems and high unemployment as much as its rolling hills and open sky. Asked whether he's an optimist, he says, "I can't say."

His challenge, however, is clear to him in wishing to help others who follow.

"This is where you either keep going or you quit," he says of high school. "Those who quit are either unemployed or working minimum wage. I'd like to help them ... do their best so they can go on to college and do better things."

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