left, Naash-Niish Garza, 6, Shi-bah-sii-qwe Garza, 3, and
Komoah Garza, 7, display handmade regalia. These siblings
are a third generation to attend Kickapoo Nation School in
Powhatten. They live on the reservation with their parents.
POWHATTAN, KS The sign on the wall in Rozella Ramirez's
kindergarten/first-grade class reads: "Less talking more beading."
Five- and 6-year-old hands diligently go to work stringing colorful
beads onto necklaces that symbolize their heritage.
Some students sew moccasins. Pieces of buckskin, needle and
thread lie out on tables, ready for small hands to work into one
of the icons of their history. Colorful regalia symbolizing tribal
loyalty hangs in the classroom closet. Soon the students will wear
the handmade clothing in a ceremony that celebrates their Kickapoo
Native American culture.
"We're learning how to do arts and crafts, native bead work.
All Native Americans do," Ramirez said.
Kickapoo Nation School in Powhattan is one of the few Native
American schools in the region and one of more than a few across
the nation. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there
were 49,152 students in Bureau of Indian Education schools across
the country. They could be found in 183 elementary and secondary
schools, including residential settings, in 23 states. In 2012,
there were 566 federal recognized American Indian reservations.
The Kickapoo Tribe has been in the Powhattan area since 1832.
The Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas is one of three recognized Kickapoo
tribes in the United States, including the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma
and the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas. The Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas is
one of three other Indian tribes in Northeast Kansas to contract
with the state for gaming operations.
The Kickapoo Nation School moved into the former Powhattan school
in 1981. The school has eight teachers and 58 students in kindergarten
through 12th grade. Many of the students come from the reservation
6 miles south of the school. A substantial number of students come
to school from Topeka, which is about a two-hour ride each way,
said Debra Turner, Kickapoo Nation School superintendent.
"The bus picks them up at 6 in the morning and then they get
here by quarter to 8, and they don't go home, we don't dismiss school
until 3:25. They get home when it's dark and when they come it's
dark," Turner said.
Powhattan is a rural town in Brown County, smack dab in the
middle of seemingly endless crop fields and ribbons of county-maintained
roads that go for miles before you see another vehicle. According
to the 2010 census, only 78 residents live here and that's not counting
the chickens, goats and other livestock grazing in some of the front
yards. But that number may be stretching it.
"There's not one person besides myself, and I have three teachers
that live here; we provide teacher housing but other than (that)
no one actually lives in the city of Powhattan," Turner said.
Modern building, ancient language
The Kickapoo Nation School, a modern brick structure, sits next
to a chicken farm. The children arrive every morning to a rooster
There are updated areas as well as some older parts inside the
school. Walls are decorated with inspirational Native American posters
with saying like "Be Proud of Who You Are." In the library, books
are categorized by grade and by tribe. Shelves full of books marked
with names like Nihara (Commanche) and Wintanto (Miami).
Diabetes is prevalent in the Native American community; that's
why the school cafeteria menu is full of fruits and vegetables.
Nothing is processed. The bread is whole grain. The sugar is raw.
Kids go back for seconds at the salad bar.
The mission and the goal of Kickapoo Nation School is to not
only educate the children but also help preserve the culture and
language, Turner said.
"It's not even actually an elective here. All the kids take
language and all the kids take culture classes," she said.
George Baldwin, a 14-year-old student, said he enjoys learning
the language. He's afraid it will disappear.
"I use it at home and at school and I come here to learn it,"
Sophia Suke, another Kickapoo student, is the school's current
Leadership Princess. It's an honor bestowed upon her for being a
good leader in the school. The language came natural to her, she
"I kind of learned it at 4 years old, I keep learning over and
over because it's really exciting to me. When I first came here
I thought it was going to be boring. Well, it was really cool,"
Preserving the language is important for many Native American
tribes. According to the United Nations Organization for Education
Science and Culture, half of the world's more than 6,000 languages
could disappear in the next 80-plus years as a result of globalization.
Kickapoo students are required to take culture and language
classes as some of them know the history and culture and some don't,
"I think with a lot of our new students this year it was very
important to them to take culture classes and they could take language.
It was very important to them to have that for their tribe," Turner
Word of mouth
The school has a huge gym but doesn't have enough students to
field any athletics teams. Turner said they hope to soon have a
Last year some representatives from the Washington Redskins
NFL football team donated iPads to the Kickapoo students.
"We have enough to have one on one but we don't send things
home so they can use all the iPads and things here," Turner said.
There's a myth that Native Americans are vanishing from the
American landscape. Many people still think of Native Americans
dressing in buckskin, hunting buffalo and deer and not speaking
a lick of English, said Diane Gillo-Whitaker in her book, "There
Are No Real Indians Anymore and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans."
She said that identity murder is the most common form of Native
disappearance. It's based on the definition of what constitutes
a "real" Indian.
"Real Indians dress like Indian. Real Indians live on reservations.
Real Indians are at least half blood. Real Indians know their language
...," she said.
Whitaker said non-natives are conditioned to determine the authenticity
of Native American people.
"Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree
because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical
equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions,"
Fred Thomas, vice chairman of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas,
said the community is still trying to hold onto a few things from
their ancestors. Much of the language heritage was lost because
Native American students often were punished for using their language
in public school, he said.
"It was always the non-Indian version we were taught with a
lack of respect for the Indian. There's the other side of the story
and a lot of what we're trying to retain is because we don't write
it," he said.
Thomas said they mainly prohibit recording the language. It's
passed on by word of mouth, much like the ancestors did it.
"If you're going to learn it, you're going to depend on your
ears and sight," he said.