“Are you here to make a documentary, too? Are you here to tell everybody about how awful it is here?”
Those were the first two questions that members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe asked when they encountered Lesli Maxwell and her camera crew as they walked around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Some even referred to the media as being into “poverty porn.”
The South Dakota reservation, which spans 2.8 million acres, is home to approximately 40,000 tribe members.
Maxwell, who writes for Education Week, spent a week on the reservation to interview people for her December 2013 series “Education in Indian Country: Running in Place.” She said it wasn’t easy getting tribal members to speak openly about their experiences, but her focus on education eased opened some doors.
“Education is inherently a hopeful topic,” said Maxwell. “It’s the kind of thing that people there weren’t used to having people write about.”
Statistics and Stories
Native Americans growing up on this reservation know too well how hard it is to break the poverty cycle. As Maxwell reported, tribal members are likely to fall into at least one of three bleak categories: a high school dropout, unemployed or dead before 50.
The odds of success are even more stacked against the Pine Ridge youth, as high school completion rates have accelerated for every historically underprivileged minority in the U.S. except for Native Americans. What’s more, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, American Indian graduation rates are actually declining.
Maxwell revealed this crisis through a narrative about a fourth grade boy named Legend and his pursuit to get accepted into a private Jesuit school. His aunt, Mary Tobacco, desperately wanted him to escape a public school system where the largest high school only graduated 45% of its seniors in 2010.
"The two most important things I want for Legend," Tobacco told Maxwell, "are for him to get his education and for him not to drink. But I don't know if I can completely protect him from ending up on a path that so many other youth on this reservation take."
“I think that putting it out there in such a large way that this aunt is clearly doing everything she can to protect her nephew from the difficulties of growing up on the reservation…I think any educator who worked at that school and read that would be moved by it,” said Maxwell.
Legend, whose father is an alcoholic and whose mother died, must pass a reading proficiency exam to be accepted in the private school. This may not to be an easy feat; at Loneman School, where Legend attends, a mere 12.5 percent of students were reading proficiently.
A Complex History
To prepare for her ground reporting, Maxwell researched the history and current state of schooling for American Indians. She spoke with experts in the field about where the shortcomings existed at the federal and local policy levels. Then she reached out to local tribes to identify a place where she could get into the heart of the schooling issue and the kids, families and communities affected.
Talking to older members of the tribe helped Maxwell understand why younger parents had a complicated view of education and why it may not be a top priority for some members of the tribe.
“When we would talk to tribal elders, they have a very different relationship with school than other people. It’s a very negative one,” Maxwell said. “They grew up in the years of the boarding schools [that] cut their hair and made them dress a certain way to totally suppress their native identities.”
“This is a subject worthy of books,“ said Maxwell. “One of the biggest challenges was keeping the stories tightly focused.”
Study in Contrast
Maxwell juxtaposed the educational system on Pine Ridge and the successful schools of the Morongo tribe in California. The Morongo community became affluent after opening a $250 million casino, which brings in $3 billion annually.
During the first year of the Morongo School, 30 percent of students were proficient in math and reading. Two years later, 61 percent of students were doing math at grade level and 51 percent were proficient in reading.
Before the Morongo School opened, students’ disconnect from their heritage contributed toward isolation and low self-esteem, according to Robert Martin, the Morongo tribal-council chairman who Maxwell interviewed. Tribal officials felt the emotional pain of cultural detachment was negatively affecting educational success among the youth.
The Morongo School, which is private, follows a curriculum that balances the California core curriculum with traditional American Indian beliefs and language.
“Curriculum in public schools…you kind of hear one story about Indians,” said Maxwell. “That they were the original inhabitants, the white Europeans came and there was Thanksgiving.”
“What they’re trying to do here is much, much deeper than that.”
In addition to a six-section written piece, two short video clips and an interactive timeline, Education Week also produced an eight minute documentary, which features interviews from tribe leaders, students, Tobacco and Legend. Maxwell also embedded audio of her major interview subjects into their direct quotes in the text, which enables readers hear the voices of her sources.
The multimedia elements in “Running in Place” helped Education Week win a Education Writers Association first place award for audio/video in a non-broadcast outlet. The association also awarded the package third prize for a single topic news feature. In addition, the piece was a finalist in the Online News Association’s 2014 awards in the feature category for medium-sized news outlets.
Ripples in the Lake
Efforts by Maxwell and Education Week to bring the American Indian education system to light are having some impact. Months after the “Running in Place” package was published, the Obama administration pledged to dramatically improve the quality of American Indian education. Thus far, the administration gave grants to six tribes for education reform, one of which was the Oglala Sioux tribe of Pine Ridge.
“U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted about our package saying it was an ‘important read,’” said Maxwell. “We know that the National Indian Education Association has widely used the report in its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.”