Lakota Youth and the Challenges They Face
Carol Mann looks back on her years as a youth educator on the reservation.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Carol Mann in 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you discuss the unique challenges that youth face on the Cheyenne River Reservation, and why these challenges exist?
Carol Mann (CM): I think what kids face on Cheyenne River is pretty much what most native kids on reservations in South Dakota face: lack of opportunities. Other than the school, what is there for them to do? There isn’t much. There’s starting to be more, but there isn’t much for kids to do if they’re not involved in school activities. I’d say a big challenge is the lack of opportunities for them to learn to experience the world. A lot of the time it’s hard for kids because sometimes families are struggling so much just to exist, the kids don’t always have that positive role model they need.
Their challenges are just having to get along with a dominant society, too. It can be very challenging for the kids, and scary for them, going off the reservation or going places that are not in their comfort zone. They’re not used to going away to college especially. How do you get kids to do that and succeed? It’s extremely difficult. Part of it is cultural. Life is so different for them, the way they interact with people, what they’ve grown up with in terms of how you respond to your environment and to the people within that environment—it’s totally different when you get to a college. They may as well be going to the moon, I used to say.
Most of the time, there’s nobody in their family to really prepare them for what it’s like to live off the reservation away from home, what it’s like to have to deal with a dominant society and the dumb questions that they would get. Like, do you live in a teepee? I think about the things that kids I’ve known were asked. It was difficult for them to be faced constantly with people asking these dumb questions, not understanding the impact it has on a person.
Especially with kids that are so close to their families—even if the families are dysfunctional, they’re close. I mean, that’s a Lakota thing too. They really miss their families, it just hurts them so bad to be gone because they miss everybody so terribly. So going away to college by themselves is probably so traumatic for them.
A lot of times kids really aren’t prepared academically. They think they are, and people think they are because their grades look good or their test scores look good, but they’re really not. I don’t think the schools prepare them for what they’re going to face, if they go to college off the reservation. I’ve known a handful of kids that have succeeded going to college off the reservation, but those are kids whose parents did the same thing, and then came back to work. They were really able to support their kids in a way that the kids needed. They were also families that are more acculturated to the dominant society. It’s the families that are more traditional where I really see the kids struggling and having a hard time, because life is so different.
When I was the director of the Sioux Y, seeing kids go and then come back, I began to realize that many really needed to go to the local community college. It gives them a little bit of confidence in figuring out how to do the college thing before they go off the reservation, far away from home. If they can come home every weekend, that helps, but when they’re somewhere where they can’t do that, they get so homesick that they can’t, they really can’t function and they end up coming home. Bridging that cultural divide, knowing how to get over the lonesomeness, is really the biggest challenge.
AC and ZM: Why are there so few positive role models on the reservation when it comes to youth going to college?
CM: When you have a situation where families have been living in trauma for a hundred, two hundred years, and it just gets passed down, it’s really hard to get out of that cycle, and I think kids are raised in that cycle. It’s the historical trauma, people not believing in themselves because nobody believes in them—or they’ve been put down for so long that even though they say they’re proud of who they are, sometimes they’re just trying to convince themselves. There is a lack of jobs, and it’s really hard to be a positive role model if you can’t find work, or if you don’t have the education to get a good job. Or if you’re constantly struggling to put food on the table and you feel like you’re a failure. If your house is small, your kids are seeing every move you’re making and there are no secrets within the house. I think it’s really hard for parents to be positive role models when they’re struggling with their own identity. They’re struggling with trying to put food on the table, they’re struggling trying to make sure their kids have what they need, trying to find a job. Trying to make sure that their kids are learning what’s important culturally or family-wise.
When I was working with Head Start, staff would tell me about the historical trauma of the boarding schools, children taken away when they were five years old and separated from their families. They’d say, “We don’t know how to be parents because we were in boarding school from the age of five. We didn’t get to see how to be a parent.” I had parents say to me, “I don’t know what to do, they don’t listen to me.” Traditionally, if your parents or elders, your grandparents, your aunts, uncles, if somebody told you to do something, you had to do it. That cycle of raising children was really disrupted. And I think I still see that to this day, that people are trying to figure it out.
People are really struggling, trying to deal with all of the historical trauma. They know the consequences; they live them every day. They have been told how to run their lives by non-Natives for so many generations now, and it is difficult to look at one’s life so impersonally. It is the surrounding non-Native community that has little understanding of historical trauma and the part it plays in everyday life on the reservation.
AC and ZM: What kind of schools were available to children once the boarding schools were no longer mandatory?
CM: It wasn’t really until Takini1The Takini School, located on the southwest corner of the reservation, was opened in 1989. was built, because there was no high school on that end of the reservation and there’s no high school in La Plant. So until those schools were built, if the kids wanted to go to high school, they had to stay in the dorms. And that was the dumbest thing: Takini was built, but it was done wrong. It wasn’t the community’s fault. It was the federal government’s fault that it was built the way it was, because the community wanted a high school. Tri-county, Bridger, Red Scaffold, and Cherry Creek [the communities around Takini] wanted a high school. So that’s what they wrote the grant for. But they got funded to build a K–8 school, but no high school. The community said, “No, if we have to build K–8, fine, but we’re also building a high school.” So they built Takini K–12.
Bridger, Cherry Creek, and Red Scaffold all had day schools, and those were the hearts of those communities.2Carol explained, “The day schools were BIA. It was a typical white curriculum and white teachers. I had friends who taught in some of those schools and they were really good and they blended in well with the communities and in fact, they’re still in touch even though they don’t live there anymore. But there were teachers at times who really shouldn’t have been there and didn’t fit in the community. It was a mixed bag.” As soon as Takini was built and used, those day schools disappeared. That meant those communities had no heart anymore. They know that those day schools were something that really pulled them together. I’ve seen the communities really fall apart in some ways since those day schools are gone. The kids were there every day and families would come. The school was really a meeting place.
The Takini School was created through the PL 93-638 Indian Self Determination Act3Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (Public Law 93-638) authorized the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and some other government agencies to enter into contracts with, and make grants directly to, federally recognized Indian tribes rather than through the BIA. The tribes would have authority for how they administered the funds, which gave them greater control over their welfare.. The federal funding is managed differently and comes through the tribe. When you take things out of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and put them through contract, the government cuts the funding. They did that to the BIA roads department. When the tribe took it over and contracted it, they had six guys working for BIA roads, and when the tribe took it over, the funding was cut and they could only hire two guys for the whole reservation.
AC and ZM: What do you see as the successes and failures of the BIA school system?
CM: You hear so many different things. I consistently hear that the Dupree school doesn’t like Indians. You’ve probably heard that too a lot. You might have a school system that people don’t trust, but there are people within that system that they will go to. It really depends each year, but some people send their kids to Dupree because they think it’s a better education.
Dupree is a South Dakota public school4Part of the town of Dupree is fee-patent land—privately owned. The Dupree school is on privately owned land and can therefore function and be funded as a dominant society South Dakota Public School.. Eagle Butte has two school systems, the BIA that is now contract/638 and the Eagle Butte public school system. And [the funding is] 80/20: 80 percent on the tribe side, 20 percent on the school district side. They’re getting funding from two sources. I don’t think there’s been another situation in the country like this one. It’s worked fairly well most of the time, but you’ve got two school districts in the same town. You’ve got your BIA school, which is now a contract school, and you’ve got your public school. So they each have their own separate school boards, but then they have a combined board. So, as far as I know, they still have three school boards in Eagle Butte, and each has their own budget. The way it’s been set up for quite a while now is that the Eagle Butte public school district is responsible for the middle school in the building that’s at the end of town. They’re responsible for the supervision of the building and the teachers in there. And then all the rest of the school is in the middle of town, and that’s paid for through the 638, that’s the tribe’s responsibility5Eagle Butte Primary School, grades K–2 and the Eagle Butte Junior High and High School, grades 7–12 are managed by the Tribe/638, known as the Cheyenne-Eagle Butte School District. The Eagle Butte Upper Elementary School, grades 3–6, is a public school managed by the Eagle Butte School District 20-1.. So they work together, and there have been years where they haven’t seen eye to eye and the agreement has almost fallen apart, but then they manage to pull it together and work it out.
And until they get older, the kids don’t really know that it’s two different schools. They know it’s two different buildings, but they don’t really tune into the fact that it’s two different school districts with two different principals, two different superintendents, and two different school boards. And then there’s a combined board.
AC and ZM: What has been the place of extracurricular youth programming within the community? What are the gaps in programming and support for kids?
CM: The gap is like the Grand Canyon. “There’s nothing out there—that’s what people in the communities6“The communities” refers to the 22 rural communities on the reservation, where populations vary from 100 to 500 people. For the most part, there is no commercial zoning in these areas. People in these communities often drive up to 90 miles just to get gas, groceries, and other basic services. While Eagle Butte and Dupree, the two largest towns on the reservation with commercial activity, have a sizable non-native population, the outlying communities are predominantly native. would tell me all the time. “There’s nothing for our kids. Eagle Butte gets everything, our kids get nothing.” So the challenge was, how do you provide programming in the communities when there’s no place to do it?
That’s why we had to get creative about programming at the Y, and the Initiative was one way of doing it in the summer, because they program right out of their vehicles, right in the streets in their community. For camps, there’s Thunderhead Episcopal Camp. That’s about one week out of the summer, and you’ll see them come in and haul kids off to camp. Then sometimes there are… I want to call them revival camps, and they haul kids off and for a week at camp if they want to go. The Sioux YMCA’s resident camp had been closed for 7 years due to lack of water literally; there was no water in the part of the river where camp is located. So it was very important to get camp operating again and in a way that would be sustainable.
There’s no ongoing stuff, it’s just kind of random things. Now that’s the real challenge. How do you provide ongoing activities in communities that are isolated that don’t have a place to do it? That don’t have people who can necessarily do the programming? That’s how we ended up sending Y staff out to the schools to do activities. If the kids got to know the staff, they’d be much more likely to go to camp7The Sioux Y operates a sleepaway camp, Camp Marrowbone, sited along the Cheyenne River. Each summer every community gets to send kids for one week of camp. because they have that personal relationship. If they know that face, then they’re going to go. It had to be during school time, because otherwise the kids are on the buses going home. If the kid doesn’t get home till six o’clock in the evening and it’s cold out, you’re not going to go outside and do programming when you haven’t seen your family all day; you’re going to go home.
The distance that kids often travel for school makes things really challenging. And then you’ve got the sports teams that stay and practice. So you can’t even use the gyms after school, because they’re all being used. Even if you could provide transportation for the kids—30 miles or 60 miles home to their communities—where are you going to do the programming when the gyms are all being used, and teachers don’t always want to give up space in their classrooms?
So that’s why we went to doing it during school time. We would hire staff, because if you’re counting on volunteers who are paying a fee to come and stay at your place and do programming, sometimes you have them, sometimes you don’t. It’s nice to use volunteers as a support, but you don’t want to use them as your main source of contact with the kids all the time. And nowadays, to go into schools, all of our staff have to be fingerprinted and go through that process, too. So, it’s easier if they’re staff than if they’re volunteers.
AC and ZM: Are there other opportunities for youth?
CM: Cheyenne River Youth Project8CRYP is a grassroots Lakota nonprofit youth organization founded in 1988 in Eagle Butte. does after-school programming in Eagle Butte at their center. In terms of other things in the communities, there will be stuff that comes and goes. Simply Smiles9Simply Smiles is a Connecticut-based nonprofit that provides summer camp to the La Plant community. in La Plant is probably the longest that any organization’s been in a community for a very long time. Unless you want to count the Mormon elders who used to do activities in some of the communities. There really isn’t much, and that’s what people used to tell me all the time. “We don’t have anything for our kids. There’s nothing for our kids to do.”
It was really important to me that if we started something in a community that we kept it up, we didn’t just do it and then just abandon them. Because it was a trust issue. Part of the problem is a lot of these programs, they’re not systemic, they’re individually driven. If that person isn’t there, then it falls apart and it’s gone, unless they can find somebody really good to take over.