It’s prom night at Browning High School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, and the first cars are just starting to pull up in front of an angular entrance that was built to resemble a teepee. The students, clad in sequins and lace, black tuxes and white suits, emerge from their cars into the glare of spotlights and flashing cameras.
Smiling and waving, they walk the red carpet past parents and siblings who crowd behind the velvet ropes, calling out their names, while teachers valet-park their cars. Librarian-turned-paparazzo Amy Andreas snaps their pictures, and the students head into the school, passing Cyrus, the drug-sniffing golden retriever, and several cops wearing bulletproof vests and holstered guns.
When they reach the cafeteria, the students sign a "safe and sober" pledge. Prom is one of a dozen nights a year when the reservation is dry — graduation is another — and signs warn that "drinking and driving leads to empty lodges." After another photo shoot, the couples cross the cafeteria stage, the crowd cheering as they’re introduced.
Prom is a big deal in this windswept community on the eastern edge of Glacier National Park, and the whole town has turned out.
Charnelle Bear Medicine, a slim runner in a turquoise and black sequined dress and stilettos, is on hand, with her boyfriend, Sean. So is Treyace Yellow Owl, this year’s Miss Blackfeet, looking glamorous in a floor-length strapless silver gown. In a few months, they’ll both head to the University of Montana, four hours and a million miles from the reservation where they’ve grown up.
But other students are less certain what the future holds. ShawnTyana Bullshoe, who is deciding between two tribal colleges, hasn’t come to prom. ("I’d rather be at a powwow than prom," she explains later.) Neither has William Righthand, a homeless student who attends one of the town’s two alternative high schools, and isn’t sure what he’ll do after graduation.
Tomorrow morning, after the all-night parties and bonfires, many of the students at prom will return to crowded homes and chaotic lives — to moms who use meth, dads who drink, and grandparents who gamble too much. To cousins who can’t find jobs and siblings struggling with suicidal thoughts. But on prom night, they’re celebrities, and everyone — from parents to principals — wants to make sure they feel special.
Welcome to Browning, Montana, where the prairie meets the mountains, and a close-knit community confronts crippling poverty and the social problems that often come with it. Getting through high school here isn’t easy: Only about 60 percent of the almost 550 students here graduate on time. Making it through college is even tougher.
The Blackfeet have lived in the Rocky Mountain region for more than 10,000 years. For most of that time, the tribe was nomadic, hunting buffalo across the northern plains. Their name is thought to have come from the color of the tribe’s moccasins, which were darkened or painted with ashes.
Today the Blackfeet reservation covers roughly one and a half million acres, stretching from northwestern Montana to the Canadian border. Roughly 10,500 people live on the reservation, including almost 7,500 members of the Blackfeet tribe, according to the Census Bureau. The population is young — the median age is just 29 — and poor: The median household income is around $30,000. More than a third of families with children under the age of 18 live below the poverty line.
In many ways, Browning is a microcosm of Indian country, its struggles repeated on reservations nationwide. Those challenges — poverty, joblessness, addiction, and abuse — are at the heart of the worst educational outcomes in the country.
As a group, American Indian and Alaska Native students have the highest high-school dropout rate — 6.7 percent, double the national average — and the lowest graduation rate, at 70 percent. They are the least likely to enroll in college, and the second least likely to graduate on time, just behind black students.
From the Reservation to College
This is an occasional series of pieces on the transition to college for students at Browning High School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana.
Yet because Native American students make up just 1 percent of the high-school and college population, they’re often overlooked in discussions about the nation’s achievement gap, which tend to focus on the divide between white students and their black and Hispanic peers.
Raising the graduation rate for American Indians has become a priority of the Obama administration, which has created a national network of Native youth and moved to expand Indian control over schools run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education. The White House has pushed states and schools to teach more Native language and culture, and has visited reservations across the country on a "listening tour" with tribal youth and leaders.
But look at the state of Native education today, and it’s clear that closing that achievement gap won’t be easy. Bringing American Indians to college will take more than outreach and entreaties to states and schools. It will mean changing attitudes about the value of education — attitudes that, in towns like Browning, have been shaped by decades of destructive federal policy. And it will mean dealing with the poverty and disenfranchisement those policies have left behind.
Spring arrived early in Browning this year, and with it came senioritis. Outside the main high school, in April, the pale fields are streaked with melting snow; inside Katherine Bell’s morning AP English class, many seats are empty, the students tardy.
Charnelle Bear Medicine — teal nails, braces, hair in a bun — sits in the front row, listening to Aerosmith’s "Dream On" through an earbud and copying definitions of "strong verbs for essay writing" — juxtapose, imply, evoke.
On the white board at the front of the classroom, there’s a quote: "Everyone is Fighting a Battle You Know Nothing About; Be Kind Always. Always."
Ms. Bear Medicine, who excels at poetry, volleyball, and hurdles, has fought her share of battles. Raped at age 4 by a family friend, later molested by a female cousin, she struggled for years with insecurity and social anxiety. Most of the counselors she saw weren’t helpful, she said; one vanished entirely.
It wasn’t until middle school that she met a counselor who made her comfortable. "She told me to talk when I was ready, and didn’t force me or get mad if I stayed silent," she says.
These days she’s feeling optimistic about her future. She’s got a kind boyfriend who runs, too, and she has finally opened up at school after a lifetime of being shy. She’s researching post-traumatic stress disorder — a condition she was diagnosed with in preschool — and will present the findings to college students in Bozeman this summer.
And she’s excited to trade the tedium of rural life for the excitement of Missoula. "There’s nothing to do around here except cruise around, play pool, or go bowling," she says, lounging on the risers during chorus class while the teacher grades papers. Because there are so few options for entertainment, "people find stuff to do, and it’s usually alcohol and drugs — weed and meth."
Ms. Bear Medicine already knows a bit about Missoula: She spent six weeks there last summer through an Upward Bound program, and she fell in love with the "chill" vibe. "Its nickname is ‘the hippie town,’" she says with a smile.
But the University of Montana has also been the site of a string of sexual assaults. That worries Charnelle’s mom, Charlene Cadotte, 55, who raised her youngest daughter and a grandson one month younger "like twins," with a strict Catholic upbringing.
"I’m really proud of her, but it’s scary," she says. "I don’t know if I watch too much TV, but you know what they say about college campuses." Her biggest fear, she confides after some hesitation, is that Charnelle might get raped again.
Still, she’s glad to see her daughter leave the reservation, which she sees as irredeemably corrupt. Last fall a teenager who had been a classmate of Charnelle’s broke into Ms. Cadotte’s house to steal her TV. At first she thought the prowler was a ghost, so she had her grandson say a prayer for her; then she saw the young man, cowering under the table, a butcher knife in his hand. She grabbed a bat from Charnelle’s room and kept him there until the cops finally arrived.
"It never changes," says Ms. Cadotte, sitting at her kitchen table in the small gray house where she is now raising another granddaughter, 5-year-old Angel. "Nothing has ever been done about nothing."
Many of the problems that plague Native education — and Native families — can be traced back to shortly after the Civil War, when the U.S. government rounded up Native American children and sent them to boarding schools to become "civilized."
The government’s goal, as Col. Richard Pratt, founder of the first school, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, explained it, was to "kill the Indian, save the man." At Carlisle and at schools modeled after it, managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Native students were forced to cut their hair, given European names, and forbidden from speaking their native language.
Public opinion started to shift in the 1920s, when Lewis Meriam, a University of Chicago researcher, documented forced child labor, malnutrition, and "deplorable health conditions" at the federally managed boarding schools. The "Meriam report" prompted the government to close several boarding schools and open dozens of reservation-based day schools.
But the transformation was not complete. In 1969 a Senate panel led by Edward M. Kennedy issued a report that condemned the nation’s "coercive" policies toward educating American Indians and called for "increased Indian participation and control of their own educational programs." It proposed sweeping reforms and a federal investment on par with the Marshall Plan.
Falling Behind on College Attainment
Over the past decade, the share of 25- to 29-year olds with bachelor’s degrees or higher increased for all racial and ethnic groups except for American Indians and Alaska Natives. At the same time, the divide between white students and their minority peers deepened — nowhere so sharply as between white students and Native students, where the gap in bachelor’s attainment grew almost 10 percentage points. See more data on the growing achievement gap.
Almost five decades later, there are signs of progress. When the Kennedy report came out, one-third of Native students were still enrolled in schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education. Today, while the bureau educates a little more than 40,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students at 183 schools, 92 percent of Native students attend public school. Tribes run two-thirds of the federally financed schools, thanks to a shift toward self-determination that began in the 1970s.
Yet even today, so-called bureau schools have some of the nation’s worst graduation rates. One-third of the buildings are listed by the government as being in poor condition, with leaking foundations and roofs, rotten floors, fallen ceilings, and broken water heaters.
Two years ago, the White House called for transforming the bureau and transferring more control over the schools to tribes. But the plan has met with skepticism from some Native Americans, with at least one tribe suing to stop it.
"We have zero credibility with them. They see us as the devil," said Don Yu, a former adviser to the Education and Interior Departments who led the federal redesign. "When you step into their shoes, I wouldn’t trust us, either."
The only physical remnant of the boarding-school era left in Browning is a dormitory on the outskirts of town where some students sleep during the week.
But the era has left its scars on the Blackfeet and other tribes. Social workers call it "historical trauma," a collective wounding that spans generations. In Browning, educators and tribal leaders talk about families who "don’t value education" or "don’t believe in it."
Browning’s main street, Central Avenue, is a mix of souvenir shops and small businesses like Native Life Fabric, Gifts, and Espresso, where a sign on the door advises patrons to call "in case of a knitting emergency." Stray dogs roam the streets, drinking out of mud puddles and dodging cars. At both ends of the road, there’s a casino. Most of the patrons are locals, not tourists, and none of the proceeds go to the schools.
Small houses and trailers, many of them rundown, many housing multiple generations, line blocks that branch off both sides of the avenue. Tires on some of the roofs provide protection against the near-constant wind.
The middle-school track where Charnelle practices is peeling and littered with trash. But the high school, built seven years ago with federal aid that the school board saved up and borrowed against, is gleaming. There wasn’t enough money for an auditorium, so the school uses the cafeteria for events. Still, the board came up with $2 million for a gym. Basketball is huge here, as in much of Indian country, and "they would have crucified us if we didn’t build a gym," says Brian Gallup, a member of the school board.
Most public schools on reservations get federal grants for serving large numbers of low-income and Native youth. But their lifeblood is the Impact Aid program, which provides grants to districts with large blocks of tax-exempt land, such as military installations and Indian reservations.
In theory, impact aid is supposed to reimburse districts for all the lost revenue caused by the lack of a tax base. But in recent years, Congress has covered just half of that estimated loss, prompting complaints by advocates that the government has abandoned its obligation to provide an education to all Native youth — a responsibility established under a series of treaties it signed with tribes decades ago.
In 2007 Montana policy makers passed a law that gave school districts an additional $200 per American Indian student — part of an effort to help them close the state’s achievement gap. In the years since, the state has given grants to districts that are working to raise their graduation rates, and has provided millions of dollars to some of the worst-performing schools through a federally funded turnaround program.
Since 2009 the state has cut its dropout rate by one third. But disproportionate shares of Native students still aren’t graduating. While American Indians make up 11 percent of Montana’s public-school population, they account for almost 30 percent of the dropouts.
Those statistics mirror national trends. For years policy makers have struggled to close the achievement gap between black and brown students and their white peers.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act required schools to bring all students up to grade level on math and reading by 2014. The law also required states to have "highly qualified teachers" in every classroom. During the more than a decade the law was in effect, high-school graduation rates and test scores rose, and longstanding gaps separating most minority students from their white peers started to narrow.
But Native students stagnated. In 2015, American Indian students’ scores on the ACT reached a five-year low. While nearly three-quarters of Native test-takers that year aspired to attend college or grad school, only 18 percent of them were academically prepared for college coursework, according to the test company.
Under No Child, the Browning school district standardized its curriculum, expanded its counseling services, and lowered its high-school dropout rate, says Jason Andreas, the assistant superintendent. But the law also put new pressures on teachers and administrators, who were expected to "do better with no more money," he says.
Over the past 10 years, Browning’s high school has gone through five principals. Next year, 22 percent of the district’s 170 certified teachers will be new.
Persuading teachers and administrators to move to Browning — and stay there — has never been easy. Housing is scarce, rents are high, and salaries are relatively low. The closest Walmart is an hour and a half away. Outsiders often don’t last.
"Most people come for an interesting experience, and then leave after a year or two," said Ms. Andreas, the librarian, who moved to Browning from Cincinnati with her husband 15 years ago. "The kids are so used to the revolving door."
The Blackfeet reservation isn’t just a tough place to teach; it’s a tough place to grow up, too.
In 2012 researchers from the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at the University of Montana screened middle schoolers in Browning for a behavioral intervention for trauma. Two-thirds of seventh graders reported that they had seen someone get beaten up in the past year; 15 percent had been beaten up themselves. Fifteen percent also said they didn’t feel safe in their schools.
The stresses that many Native students experience at home and at school show up in their high rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression, and suicide. The suicide rate among American Indians aged 15 to 24 is four times the national rate, according to a 2014 report by the Indian Health Service. At Browning High School, counselors sent eight students to treatment for suicidal thoughts during the 2015 academic year.
Kathy Broere, one of six counselors working in the main high school, estimates that 99 percent of its 428 students have family members who struggle with addictions of one form or another. "I have a student who came in this week tired because he stayed up the night before with his mom who was coming off meth, and he thought she might die," she says.
In April, Ms. Broere and another counselor visited classrooms to show students a TED talk by a depressed young comic and to try to dispel some of the stigma around mental illness. "This is real," she tells students in an AP history class. "Survival looks different for our students."
But Treyace Yellow Owl, a popular basketball player, isn’t buying it. Halfway through the presentation she walks out. "Blackfeet don’t believe in depression," she explains later. "Grandpa said it’s the white man’s way of thinking. It’s weak."
Ms. Yellow Owl, who will join Ms. Bear Medicine at the University of Montana in the fall, lives now with her mother and her stepdad, a tribal cop. But she was brought up by her mother’s grandparents — a "grandparent baby," in Blackfeet lingo — and she was her great grandfather’s favorite. It was he, a fluent speaker of Blackfeet, who instilled in her a love of the language.
Until ninth grade, she attended the Cuts Wood School, a language-immersion school in Browning. When she was 8, she was inducted into the Piikani Society, which aims to sustain the Blackfeet culture.
Now, at 18, Ms. Yellow Owl is finishing up her term as Miss Blackfeet, a role in which she serves as an ambassador for the tribe, saying prayers at community events. Though she’s still a teenager, she’s considered an elder by the tribe because she knows her language and culture. She’s taking classes at Blackfeet Community College to become a certified teacher of Blackfeet. Her goal is to become a bilingual speech pathologist, working in her community "to break our chains of historical trauma."
Ms. Yellow Owl had planned to enroll in the community college, where her mother works as a program coordinator. But she recently decided to head to Missoula instead. When she broke the news to her mother, a "huge fight" ensued, she says.
Alicia Yellow Owl, 39, Treyace’s mother and a former academic counselor, says she’s seen too many Blackfeet students head off to a four-year college only to return a few months later, in debt and bad academic standing, "with their tails between their legs."
"It’s a culture shock for them," she says, over lunch at the casino. "Here everybody is related to everybody. It’s hard not having that security."
"I always preach it to any student, not just my own," she says: "Go to BCC first."
But Treyace, whose Blackfeet name, Aakaikakatosaakii, means "Many Stars Woman," is done with the petty dramas of high school and eager to escape the watchful eyes of her many relatives. She says she’s "more than ready to be out on my own."
Still, she says she won’t feel like a failure if she decides to quit.
"I know who I am, and I know I can always come back here," she says. "If all else fails, I can always come home."
When students struggle at Browning High School — academically, socially, or emotionally — counselors refer them to one of the district’s two alternative schools: Project Choices and Blackfeet Learning Academy.
The schools, which were created more than a decade ago, have different structures, but both take a "trauma-informed" approach to educating.
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Trauma-informed instruction, an approach that’s catching on nationally, is a philosophy of how teachers should interact with students. It emphasizes compassion over control, prioritizes emotional growth over academic success, and aims to understand students’ misbehavior, not just correct it. Matthew Johnson, the director of the schools, calls it "unconditional positive regard."
Teachers at the schools don’t get in power struggles with students. When students explode, teachers wait until they calm down, and then ask what’s wrong.
When students don’t show up — which happens often — school leaders don’t threaten to turn them in to the tribal court for truancy, like they used to. Instead, Mr. Johnson or one of the district’s two full-time "attendance officers" will find them and ask them to return. "We operate on mutual respect," he said. "We can’t yell at kids and expect them to talk to us with respect."
That’s a sharp contrast with mainstream schools, where Native students are disproportionately suspended and expelled. Nationwide, public schools suspend American Indian boys at twice the rate of white boys, and American Indian girls at three times the rate of white girls, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. This often causes them to fall behind in school, increasing their odds of dropping out.
Project Choices is so called because it gives students control over whether they join the program, and whether they stay or return to the main high school. Roughly 60 percent of the students make it to graduation; just 25 or 30 percent go on to college.
This year there are 70 students in the program. One of them is William Righthand.
Mr. Righthand, 20, takes his courses online. He says he prefers the "freedom" of independent study over the structure of mainstream education.
In his old school, in Great Falls, "I was always showing up late, getting in trouble," he says as he sits at a red picnic table, a laptop in front of him. Here, "I get to work at my own pace, by myself."
Both Mr. Righthand’s parents are unemployed, and the family survives on food stamps. For now, they have a roof over their heads — a one-bedroom unit in a rundown motel that sits in a potholed parking lot behind the pizza joint. It’s far from a permanent home. There’s no shower, and some of the windows are missing.
The official unemployment rate on the reservation is 21 percent, according to the Census Bureau. But that doesn’t include the more than 40 percent of residents who are over the age of 16 that the government considers "not in the labor force," either because they couldn’t find work, or because they’re ill or disabled, retired, caring for children or other family members, or going to school. Locals say the actual jobless rate is much higher.
Mr. Righthand says the hardest part of growing up on the reservation has been "watching good people turn bad — people I looked up to."
"It’s watching everybody drink their lives away," he says "It’s losing people you love."
Mr. Righthand hopes to attend college one day, but he hasn’t applied anywhere yet. He thinks he might like to become a carpenter or welder, maybe a graphic artist. His ultimate dream is to become the CEO of a T-shirt design firm.
Back in Mr. Johnson’s office, he shows off some of his paintings and ink drawings. "People like my art," he says. In one picture, colorful abstract designs burst forth from a spray can suspended in space. Mr. Righthand says it represents exploding creativity.
Another painting takes on bullying, showing a gun pointing backwards over the text "words backfire." It’s about suicide, but he didn’t want to say so outright. "It’s too sensitive," he explains.
Mr. Righthand had a cousin who committed suicide, he says. His uncle’s girlfriend drowned in her own vomit in her sleep when she was drunk.
"Art is an outlet for me," he says. "When I draw, I feel unstoppable. Tupac said art can change the world. I think it can."
The walls of the counseling offices at Browning High School are lined with college pennants from across the country. This year there’s one student who is going as far away as Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire.
But the reality is that most students on the reservation stick much closer to home. Last year 64 students — two-thirds of the graduating class of 2015 — enrolled in college. Half of them went to Blackfeet Community College, and 11 percent went to Salish Kootenai College, another tribal college. Twenty percent headed off to the University of Montana or Missoula College, its two-year unit; another 13 percent went to Montana State University. Just three students left the state.
Melanie Magee, coordinator of the Gear Up college-prep program for the Browning schools, said she and other counselors encourage many students to try a tribal or community college before attempting a four-year institution. In her annual presentation to seniors, she does a Jeff Foxworthy-inspired routine: "If you can’t do your own laundry, you’re probably not ready for a four-year college. If your parents wake you up in the morning, you’re probably not ready for a four-year college."
"We’ve found that a lot of 18-year-olds want to get as far away from home as possible, but some of them just aren’t mature enough for it," she said.
Many lack the academic preparation as well. Last year 64 percent of Browning High School students who attended a state public college took a remedial class in math; 36 percent took a remedial class in English.
Tribal colleges offer students familiarity and the kind of personalized instruction that is rare at large universities. That’s part of the appeal for ShawnTyana Bullshoe, who has helped teach the school’s Blackfeet language and drumming classes since she was a freshman.
Tribal college "will be easier because I will be around people who will understand coming from a reservation," says Ms. Bullshoe, who has glasses, braces, and thick hair that she wears in a braid.
She sits in a circle with six other students, banging on a powwow drum made of buffalo hide and wood, while Stan Whiteman, the teacher, leads the class in chanting and song. The noise is deafening. Periodically, Mr. Whiteman stops singing and demands the name of the song and its composer.
Ms. Bullshoe knows them all, but stays silent, letting other students try to answer. She comes from a long line of religious leaders and "bundle holders" — people entrusted with some of the tribe’s most sacred ceremonial objects.
Last year she was crowned Miss Blackfoot Canada, a title that represents the four bands of the Blackfeet tribe in the United States and Canada. During her senior year, she’d often get pulled from class to attend an event in Calgary that night.
"I had to put the title before anything else," says Ms. Bullshoe, whose native name is Sun Woman.
Last month, at Browning’s annual Indian Days celebration, she won the contest to succeed Treyace as the next Miss Blackfeet. That means she’ll stay home this fall to fulfill her duties and go to Blackfeet Community College, rather than Salish Kootenai, a more diverse tribal college a couple hours away. She hopes to transfer to a teaching program at a four-year college eventually.
Ultimately, Ms. Bullshoe plans to return to the reservation to take over the language and drumming classes when Mr. Whiteman retires. "A lot of people think it’s bad coming back, but there’s a lot to Browning," she says. "We are a close-knit community. This is where I like to be."
Charnelle Bear Medicine, who has taken four AP courses, is confident she’ll be able to handle the academic rigor of the University of Montana. But she knows she’ll worry about her mom, who suffers from a painful joint condition that makes it hard for her to work.
Like ShawnTyana, Charnelle plans to return to the reservation. Once she earns a master’s degree, she wants to be the counselor she wishes she’d had when she was young. "I want to be a safe haven for kids," she says.
But her mother, Ms. Cadotte, who has lived on the reservation her whole life, isn’t so sure that’s the best plan. Before Charnelle, Ms. Cadotte raised two older sons who have been in and out of jail. She thinks her daughter should "go explore the world."
"It’s awesome that she wants to come back" to help the community, Ms. Cadotte says. "But in my own opinion, I wouldn’t come back."
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.