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Poor American Indian graduation rates may have deep roots
Friday, August 05 2016
Written by Brandt Williams/MPRNews,
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alyssagraves.jpgIf you’re an American Indian student in Minnesota, your chances of graduating from high school in four years are lower than any other racial and ethnic group.

You’re also less likely to graduate on time than Indian students in nearly every other state in the country. Minnesota ranks 45th in the nation in on time graduation rates for American Indian students.

While there’s been gradual improvement over the last four years, the numbers remain hard to comprehend. Only slightly more than half of American Indian high school seniors in Minnesota graduated on time in 2015. The grad rate for Indian students in Minneapolis is even lower at 36 percent.

Some education leaders say it’s because American Indian students have to cope with a unique set of social pressures as they try to navigate the public school system.

“I think in a nutshell, the umbrella term would be historical trauma,” said Joe Hobot, CEO of the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center or OIC, which runs a high school and a GED center in Minneapolis.

The current generation of students still feels the effects of federal government policies, Hobot said. Some students have grandparents who attended Indian boarding schools, places where scholars say Indians were forced to reject their culture. Younger generations went to public schools where the history books portrayed Indians as savages who needed to be saved, Hobot added.

“The denigration of our culture within the formalized education system for so many years has created a sense of antipathy to the point where many of our elders withdrew from school, dropped out, didn’t complete and so our students that are currently enrolled now may not have had those role models,” he said.

Many American Indian families were also hurt by federal relocation policies in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the government’s goal was to relieve poverty on the reservations by moving Indians to cities to find work, Hobot said. But jobs were hard to come by, forcing families to split their homes between reservations and cities, and many families still live that way, he added.

That can make it especially difficult for students to adhere to the traditional public school model of the four-year track to a diploma. Too many Indian students fall behind in school because they don’t have a stable home base, and they can get discouraged, Hobot said.

“They feel their future slipping away. They feel this race to beat the clock, that I’m not going to graduate on time. So the pressure mounts and eventually they make decisions that are not in their best interest, like, ‘I’m going to just quit. I can’t get there anyway.’”

Last year, American Indian education advocates urged state lawmakers to increase funding for districts that serve large numbers of Native students. Legislators responded by passing a nearly $18 million funding increase for Indian education.

At Hobot’s GED center, Alyssa Graves said she likes it here because the teachers can take more time with each student.

“They make sure you’re focused and no, they don’t just hurry up and teach right away,” said Graves, 23. “They make sure you get it before they start going on.”

Like many students who didn’t finish high school in four years, Graves fell behind in her freshman year. She felt like the classes were too big and the lessons moved too fast. Plus, Graves’ family moved several times, so she jumped from school to school.

Even more detrimental to Graves was a bout with heroin addiction and homelessness, all which began in her teenage years. Graves decided to quit drugs after she became pregnant at age 21. The birth of her son also inspired her to go back to school. Graves said she wants to be a role model for her son, her younger siblings and her community.

“I just want to be able to go talk to the younger kids in the community and just hopefully prevent them from using and to finish school because you need school to get a good job if you want to support your family,” she said. “I know it’s hard, but anybody can do it.”

Minnesota  Public Radio News can be heard on MPR’s statewide radio network or online at

How one Native student is earning free college credits
Thursday, May 05 2016
Written by John Miller,
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michaela_maldonado_naitve_american_student.jpgThe first thing Michaela Maldonado had to do was claim her heritage. That wasn’t so easy. When she was little, she knew that her grandpa on her mom’s side was half Native American – a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Her dad’s side cherished its Latino roots, and Michaela didn’t find out that she had a Cherokee great-grandma on that side until 4th grade. “My dad’s family, they were old fashioned,” she says. “Back in their day Native people were looked down on and they kept that belief.”

When her school closed and she moved to an American Indian magnet school, Michaela began to explore Ojibwe traditions and language. She loved it. But she was also confused. It seemed like kids identified as one thing or another – white, black, Latino, Asian, or Indian. But she looked white and had a Latino name, so how could she be Native American?

In 7th grade Michaela took a school trip to Fon du Lac, as part of her program’s Native American Quiz Bowl team. It distressed her that some of the kids didn’t think she’d embraced her culture – she was too new. That’s when she went to talk to her grandpa.

He told her it didn’t mater what they thought. What mattered was what she did. It was up to her to own Native American identity, and that happened by following the traditions. “Don’t let other people’s stereotypes get in the way,” he said, “just prove them wrong.” She’s been doing that ever since.

One stereotype that bothered Michaela was that Native kids don’t do well in school. That just made her determined to try harder, to prove people who thought that way wrong. Now she’s at the top of her class. And she knows who she is, because following the traditions is a big part of her life.

Michaela doesn’t buy the stereotype that Native culture is primitive or savage – even though that’s the impression she got from some of her history books. “American Indian cultures are just as complicated as any other cultures – including western cultures,” she says. And the Native way of looking at the world can give a lot to mainstream culture.

For example, Michaela’s textbooks said that Native peoples under-utilized the land. She knows that’s wrong. They’ve always managed the earth’s resources, but in a respectful way, giving thanks and never taking too much. If western culture were like that, we wouldn’t be facing pollution, environmental destruction, and climate change.

In high school, one of Michaela’s friends told her about Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO). She was astonished to learn that she could get college credits for free, while also earning high school credits in the same course. Some of the classes she took through PSEO also opened her eyes. College history courses were different. They told the American Indian story more fully, and from the Native point of view.

PSEO is just one kind of dual enrollment option provided by the State of Minnesota. AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate Program) are perhaps more well-known. But, in AP and IB, earning college credits comes down to scoring well on one test, on one day. In contrast, PSEO courses count all the assignments and tests throughout the course in the final grade. And most PSEO credits are highly transferable.

All Minnesota public colleges and universities (and many private ones) accept PSEO students – for free. And colleges can accept or decline AP and IB credits, it's not a done deal. That's also true of the two state-provided programs – PSEO, and Concurrent Enrollment or College in the Schools (CE/CIS) – but they’re more likely to be accepted by MN public colleges and universities (and even private colleges), as they’re earned through those institutions in the first place. Many PSEO credits will automatically transfer to all MnSCU colleges.

Students can also take PSEO courses online, without attending a college campus. Another type of (free) dual enrollment option is CE/CIS – which enables students to take college courses taught by high school teachers at the high school.
Students wishing to take CE/CIS courses need to go though their high schools. Students wishing to take PSEO should contact the college or university of their choice. In either case, a high school counselor can help with the process. Students may be eligible for CE/CIS as early as Grade 9; for PSEO as early as Grade 10.

For Michaela, the combination of American Indian Studies and PSEO helped her along her chosen career-path – while still in high school. After graduation, she plans to enter St. Paul College’s “Power of You” program, where she can earn more credits for free. Eventually she wants to earn her nursing degree from the University of Minnesota.

Michaela desire to be a nurse goes back to her Native values of respecting the elders, and to her experiences volunteering with Indian elders in nursing homes. As a nurse, she says she will be able to keep giving back, honoring the elders, and doing what her grandpa told her – owning her American Indian identity.

The Center for School Change website has a state map with PSEO opportunities near where you live. See the website at:

Or see: pseo/pseo_faq.html

At MAIC, new Gatherings Café lives up to its name
Tuesday, March 08 2016
Written by Lee Egerstrom,
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Howasta-Means-gatherings-cafe.jpgFor many South Minneapolis area residents, the urban setting has done little to numb their taste buds or their cravings for foods they remember from back home on the prairies or from the north woods of Minnesota.

Since mid-February, a steady stream of customers has come to Gatherings Café in the Minneapolis American Indian Center (MAIC), 1530 East Franklin Ave., to grab specialties such as the Bison Melt and the Red Lake Walleye Melt.

“Those are the two favorites so far,” said Howasta Means, the café manager. “Our menu will change from time to time, and with the seasons. But those two items are here to stay.”
MAIC owns Gatherings Café but it is also a culinary arts training program. Among partners in the training program are the American Indian OIC, the Waite House programs in the surrounding Phillips Community, and the Little Earth of United Tribes.

At its opening on Feb.16, the café started serving breakfasts and lunches with two employees and two culinary students, said Mary LaGarde, executive director of the center. Word spread by social media and word of mouth.

“We’ve been surprised at the turnout,” she said. Only one week into operation, the Gatherings Café staff started seeing regular customers stopping in for breakfast on their way to work on Franklin Avenue.

The center hasn’t had a restaurant on the premises for the past two years. But with the new regulars starting to make nearly daily visits, and the senior citizens now starting to gather regularly for breakfast and lunch, the café is taking on a gatherings role commonly found at restaurants in small towns all over America.

For Means that is as it should be. “I’ve been coming here (the center) all my life,” he said.

The center was founded in 1975 and has served the Native American community of Minneapolis with educational, cultural and social services in the years since. Means was among neighborhood young people who would gather at the center.

Means has worked for seven years in the restaurant industry and is a 2011 graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. While that casts images of upscale cuisine, the early offerings on the Gatherings Café menu suggest a fusion of tastes and recipes that will have special appeal to Native Americans.

The Bison Melt, for instance, includes pulled bison meat, blueberry-horseradish sauce, and provolone cheese. The Red Lake Walleye Melt contains roasted walleye from the Red Lake Nation, cream cheese, lemon, capers, tartar sauce and provolone. Both sandwiches come on whole wheat, wild rice bread and are moderately priced at $8 each – the high end of the menu.

Wild rice is a staple with other luncheon offerings, and locally raised greens and vegetables will be used in season, Means said.

Breakfasts (7:00 to 11:00 a.m.) vary from standard offerings found at most restaurants and coffee shops, to another fusion of upscale with Up North. The Ave Omelet, for instance, contains wild rice, bacon, carrots and craisins with béchamel sauce; there’s a Blue Corn Wild Rice Waffle, and there is a Roasted Sweet Potato Hash, with bacon, bell peppers, onion, cheese and two eggs.  
There are no plans to extend the café hours beyond the 3 p.m. lunch closing, Means said. But Gatherings Café will do special events at the center, or off premises, and offers a catering service.

One early customer who is especially pleased the café opened is Charlie Stately, proprietor of Woodland Crafts, a retail gift and crafts store also in the Minneapolis American Indian Center. The café brings people to the center, and that is good for both commercial enterprises.

“It makes us a destination point,” Stately said. “It’s been busy here since the café opened.”

The restaurant’s “good reviews” from early visitors is strengthening traffic in and out of the center, he said.  

Native American economic condition still nearly invisible in Minnesota
Tuesday, March 08 2016
Written by Lee Egerstrom,
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Nonprofit organizations that deliver social services to Native Americans in Minnesota still struggle to quantify economic conditions for the Native population. They grapple for ways to measure social successes in economic terms and, at the same time, appeal for resources that haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

It’s not that money from foundations and government programs are just now catching up, said Joe Hobot, president and chief executive officer at American Indian OIC (AIOIC)  in Minneapolis. Information on current conditions for the Native population is lacking when compared to other racial and ethnic groups, he said.

Grant programs from government agencies and the philanthropic foundations were changed over the past eight years, often from mission-driven to program-driven goals that need measurement, he said. While measured outcomes can justify support for the programs, it can also make finding support to cover overhead expenses more difficult.

“We can’t show jobs gained from training programs in one year when you are helping unemployed people with third grade math and fourth grade reading skills,” he said. We don’t have a way to show progress from our ‘wrap-around’ services that get people into the workforce.”      

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau and state monitoring agencies come up short in actually tracking data on Native American unemployment, joblessness, household incomes, and even identifying who is a Native American.

By extrapolating data that is available, however, Hobot said it appears one in two American Indians living in Minnesota are “jobless.” That combines people who are officially listed as unemployed with those who aren’t considered to be part of the workforce. 

Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis, said funding support for her social service programs are now just getting back to pre-Great Recession levels. That recovery is fueled by federal funds, she said, and not by more local sources of financial support.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis reported in April 2015 that foundational assets in general had recovered to pre-2008 levels. In its Fedgazette magazine, the Fed noted the recovery was uneven for groups and geographies. The lingering economic disparity from the recession had created more need for services even as funding support dwindled.

The Fedgazette article, All In The (nNonprofit) Family, quoted Katie Barr of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund in Minneapolis in saying service delivery models in the social services sector are labor intensive so program and productivity efficiency gains over time are small.

This is the reality facing Hobot, Park, and at least 20 other social services providers for the Native American communities in the Twin Cities and statewide.

“We’ve been helped by some federal grants,” Park said. “That brings us back to about where we were before the recession.” At the same time, she added, foundations that support social service programs are slowly recovering their own budgets. Local government support, especially from counties, still lags where government budgets reflect problems from the housing market’s collapse and its spillover on property taxes, she added.

While economists and political scientists would predict a lag time for recovery from something as severe as the Great Recession, the impact on communities in need is predictably greater than for a state’s general population. It also contributes to the income inequality that continues to divide the state and nation.
Park joined Hobot in presenting brief testimony in January at a Legislative Working Group on Disparities and Opportunities hearing in St. Paul. The Working Group and other governmental responses are largely the result of the Census Bureau and its ongoing American Community Survey tabulations that follow demographic and economic data for various American ethnic communities.

“More vocal groups brought greater awareness to their communities’ disparities,” Hobot said. For instance, cities, counties and state institutions such as the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) all became alarmed when last September’s ACS report showed household incomes for African Americans in Minnesota declined by 3 percent from 2013 to 2014.

Native American service organizations, however, are still searching for ways to read, analyze and advocate based on available data and on what statistical information is still missing.
As February came to an end, executive directors of 20 American Indian nonprofit service providers (501c3 organizations) were drafting a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton and to state DEED officials calling for more data gathering and for more collaboration on programs. That joint letter from directors of the Metropolitan Urban Indian Directors (MUID) was to be sent to state officials in early March.

From available data, MUID affiliated organizations and AIOIC have concluded that Native American households in Minnesota have an annual median income of $32,000, or 48 percent less than the state’s median household income of $61,500. The unemployment rate for American Indians was 10.8 percent at year’s end, while it was 3.7 percent statewide. Government measurements also considered 40.8 percent of working age American Indians in the state as “not in the labor force.”

Hobot said this latter category is especially troubling in that there are no good definitions or data on why this is so. In some cases, he said, there are wealthy people who aren’t looking for employment. For far too many, however, it means long-time unemployed have given up looking and therefore aren’t counted as being part of the potential workforce.
Combine the data, “and we can say that one in two, or 52 percent of working age American Indians, are jobless in Minnesota,” he said.

While they work with DEED and government agencies to make American Indian data more visible and understandable, service provider groups are taking steps to make their own programs more efficient, less duplicative, and better at information and service sharing.

AIOIC, Park’s women’s group, United Tribes of Little Earth and the Minneapolis American Indian Center, all of Minneapolis; and the Northwest Indian Community Development Center at Bemidji are currently forming a new referral and collaborative entity labeled the Indigenous Organizational Network, or ION.

All participating organizations have training programs that help the jobless return to the workforce. All have so-called wrap-around programs that are culturally sensitive to help American Indians prepare for meaningful jobs and careers.

On top of that, more collaboration among groups will lead to more information sharing so “the indigenous population won’t be such an invisible group,” Hobot said.    

How do we grieve the death of a river?
Friday, February 05 2016
Written by Winona LaDuke,
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“Our people blocked the road. When the troops arrive, we will face them.” 
– Ailton Krenak, Krenaki People, Brazil

This eighteen months saw three of the largest mine tailings pond disasters in history.  Although they have occurred far from northern Minnesota’s pristine waters, we may want to take heed as we look at a dozen or more mining projects, on top of what is already there, abandoned or otherwise. These stories, like many, do not make headlines. They are in remote communities, far from the media and the din of our cars, cans and lifestyle.   Aside from public policy questions, mining safety and economic liability concerns, there is an underlying moral issue we face here:  the death of a river. As I interviewed Ailton Krenak, this became apparent.

he people in southestern Brazilian call the river Waatuh or Grandfather. “We sing to the river, we baptize the children in this river, we eat from this river, the river is our life,”  That’s what Ailton Krenak, winner of the  Onassis International Prize, and a leader of the Indigenous and forest movement in Brazil, told me as I sat with him and he told me of the mine waste disaster. I wanted to cry. How do you express condolences for a river, for a life, to a man to whom the river is the center of the life of his people? That is a question we must ask ourselves.

November 2015’s Brazilian collapse of two dams at a mine on the Rio Doco River sent a toxic sludge over villages, and changed the geography of a world.  The dam collapse cut off drinking water for a quarter of a million people and saturated waterways downstream with dense orange sediment. As the LA Times would report, “Nine people were killed, 19 … listed as missing and 500 people were displaced from their homes when the dams burst.”

The sheer volume of water and mining sludge disgorged by the dams across nearly three hundred miles is staggering: the equivalent of 25,000 Olympic swimming pools or the volume carried by about 187 oil tankers. The Brazilians compare the damage to the BP oil disaster, and the water has moved into the ocean – right into the nesting area for endangered sea turtles, and a delicate ecosystem. The mine, owned by Australian based BHP Billiton, the largest mining company in the world, (and the one which just sold a 60-year-old coal strip mine to the Navajo Nation in 2013) is projecting some clean up. 

Renowned Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado, whose foundation has been active in efforts to protect the Doce River, toured the area and submitted a $27 billion clean-up proposal to the government.  “Everything died. Now the river is a sterile canal filled with mud,” Salgado told reporters. When the mining company wanted to come back, Ailton Krenak told me,  “we blocked the road.”

They didn’t get the memo.

Last August saw a similarly disastrous failure in a tailings pond feeding into the Animas River in Southern Colorado. The amazing thing about this dam failure was that it was caused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In this case, the EPA was looking into an aging mine tailing pond at the Gold King Mine near Silverton Colorado. The mine has been abandoned and is one of an astonishing 22,000 abandoned mines in the state meaning, unfortunately, there could be more to come. It seems that on August 5, EPA personnel along with workers for Environmental Restoration LLC (a  Missouri based  contractor ) caused the release of toxic wastewater when attempting to add a tap to the tailing pond for the mine. The workers accidentally destroyed the dam which held the pond back, and three million gallons of cadmium, arsenic and lead laced mine waste water and tailings gushed into (oddly named ) Cement Creek, a tributary to the Animas River. The EPA was criticized for not warning Colorado and New Mexico until the day after the waste water spilled. The Navajo Nation, directly downstream, also did not receive the memo.

The Navajo Nation had a bit of time to prepare for the onslaught, in that terrifying way that you know your life is about to change dramatically. By August 7, the waste reached Aztec, New Mexico. The next day it reached Farmington, a major Navajo city, before the orange flood moved  into the San Juan River.
Reporters noted, “The heavy metals appeared to be settling to the bottom of the river because largely, they are insoluble unless the entire river becomes very acidic.”

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