When their sons were told they’d have to cut their hair to continue attending the local public school, Jerry and Pat Roy began homeschooling their children. It was 1971, and the Roys, citizens of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, lived in Minneapolis.
Within months, Jerry and Pat were ordered by a court to send their children back to public school or be sentenced to the city’s jail and have their children sent to foster care. Public agencies frequently threatened Native American families in this way and often followed through on those threats. In 1969, 1 in 8 Native children in Minnesota lived in an adoptive home; by 1971, that number approached 1 in 4.
American Indian Movement and Survival Schools
The Roys reached out to leaders of the American Indian Movement (AIM), a grassroots civil rights organization founded in Minneapolis in 1969. AIM’s leaders told the judge that they “were sick and tired” of the legal system “stealing” Native children from their homes. The judge refused to relent, telling the activists that the boys had to attend a school outside their home.
Within days, the activists opened AIM Survival School next to a shoe store in the Phillips neighborhood of south Minneapolis. Its express purpose was to protect Native children from the “daily trauma of attending public school.” The Roy children were among the school’s first students.
By the mid-1970s, AIM was characterized as an extremist organization, a label rooted in the violent actions of some people in the movement. But that label also willfully ignores the long history of terrorism experienced by Native people at the hands of the federal government.
In fact, the AIM survival school was so named because of its mission: to ensure that Native children and families could survive the harsh aftermath of federally-endorsed oppression without compromising their culture and language. Some of the activists who helped found the AIM Survival School in Minneapolis (eventually renamed Heart of the Earth) and, later, its sister school, Red School House in St. Paul, had attended schools where they were bullied by their peers and beaten by their teachers. One of the founders had even attempted suicide as a young boy. They all remembered the pain of racism, assimilation and abuse they had experienced in school.
Those experiences led Native activists to establish a different kind of school, one invested in nurturing Native youth and honoring indigenous identities. The survival schools were run by parents and community members who expected educators to adapt their teaching strategies and curricula to the needs of their students. Students were taught Native languages, including Ojibwe and Lakota, and learned about their cultures through construction, craftwork, drumming, singing and dancing.
In this way, the history of survival schools is connected with the broader history of school choice. Just seven years before, in 1964, civil rights activists opened forty-one freedom schools in Mississippi, to offer “young black Mississippians an education that public schools would not supply.”
In 1974, Ray Budde, a public school teacher and college faculty member, first proposed the idea of charter schools as a way to give teachers the opportunity to try innovative approaches in their classrooms and have more control over the way schools operated. Two decades before the first charter school opened, Native parents and activists saw school choice as a way to pursue justice and cultural revitalization.
Education has long been used as a tactic to destroy Native culture: to erase Native languages, to dismantle religion and ritual, and to separate children from their families. Even in the face of their own educational trauma and the devastating effects of the racism that surrounded them, the founders of AIM’s survival schools believed education could undermine that destruction. They understood that school choice had the potential to revive and protect Native cultural identity.
The Need For School Choice for Native Families is Urgent
Today, nearly 50 years after the Minneapolis survival schools opened, the need for school choice for Native families is as urgent as it was for the Roy family in 1971.
As Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association explained recently: “For Native students, embracing their cultural identities is key to their healing and their academic and social success.” Unfortunately, traditional public schools can feel like a losing battle for many Native students. Nationally, the rates of high school and postsecondary graduation for Native students trend far below the rates of their peers. Native children often feel invisible in the midst of a system that fails to acknowledge their assets and meet their needs.
Nevertheless, traditional public schools are the only option for most Native students. Though Native students make up about 1% of the population, only 0.5% of private school students and 0.7% of charter school students are Native. Attempts by Native Americans to access school choice or culture-based education are met with resistance. For instance, the North Carolina Charter Schools Advisory Board recently reversed its recommendation to approve Old Main STREAM Academy because the school’s mission “to support indigenous students” is too “divisive.”
Charlotte Day, a citizen of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe, felt the weight of systemic failure in 1972, when she sent her children to the Red School House. Public school was a battleground for the Day children, who had been physically attacked and called names like “dirty Indians.” As Charlotte’s daughter Dorene explained, her mother realized, “I don’t have to keep fighting this losing battle; I can do something different.” The founding of the survival schools helped her understand her fundamental right to pursue the best education for her children. School choice gave her a unique option to save them.
The survivor schools, the last of which closed in 2008, existed to help Native students survive the challenges of American society. Today, school choice offers a similar liberating potential, perhaps, with greater promise: that instead of surviving, Native children can thrive.