Many Native students go to schools that are old – and falling apart.
One tribe in the Mountain West region has fought hard for better conditions, as KUNR’s Maria Palma reports.
The Owyhee Combined School sits in a remote area straddling the Nevada and Idaho state line.
It serves more than 300 students living on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.
It was built by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1954. It’s still the only school on the reservation – and it’s showing its age.
“As a school, there are so many safety hazards, so many health hazards.”
That’s vice principal Lynn Manning-John.
She says the building holds great significance for tribal members, but has not been properly maintained.
Two years after the school was built, it was consolidated with Elko County schools. But school officials say Owyhee’s remote location and lack of attention from the school district caused the building to deteriorate.
One problem: a bat colony on the roof.
“And so when they roost and leave their droppings, the droppings drip out of what is now a replaced tile into the bucket. During the times when there’s liquids dripping, we shut down the classroom.”
Manning-John is also concerned about two industrial boilers that are the main heating system.
Classrooms that sit directly above the boiler room get radiant heat.
“So whenever the boiler is on, this room has some chemical smells.”
Manning-John continues down a hallway with a long crack running along the two walls.
Some windows are cracked and the school’s main doors do not close completely.
Diana Cournoyer heads the National Indian Education Association. And she says the problems at Owyhee are not uncommon for schools serving tribal communities.
“It’s actually in rural communities across the nation, it’s on all of our reservations.”
Cournoyer is a citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Many school buildings in the Pine Ridge Reservation – covering parts of South Dakota and Nebraska – have similar challenges.
“One school has a lot of out buildings, or mobile home type structures that classrooms exist in. We have tribal schools that are in the state of New Mexico and Arizona, on the Navajo reservation that have leaking roofs.”
Cournoyer says there are several ways to address the issue. But tribes need to empower themselves and state legislators need to understand they’re also responsible for tribal citizens.
In 2019, the western Alaskan village of Napaskiak hired a muralist to paint its new school.
The relationship has bloomed.
Clayton Connor has been back a half dozen times and stops by whenever he’s in the bush.
And as KYUK’s Sunni Bean reports, Z. John Williams Memorial School is running out of blank walls to paint.
Clayton Conner grew up in L.A., but now says he considers Napaskiak a second home.
He usually comes for weeks at a time, spending hours hanging around the school in paint splattered pants.
Conner- “l’ve almost kind of been adopted by Joe and his family.”
Bavilla-“He’s been at my house a lot, to feed, get some native food in him, then he goes, Oh I better go back to work.”
That’s Joe Bavilla, an administrative assistant at the school. He gave Conner his Yup’ik name: Minguugista (painter).
Today, Conner is back.
This time, he’s finally giving Bavilla a mural in his front office.
Bavilla: “I thought I want a hawk up there. I really do. I want to see a very nice good looking hawk.”
Conner was hired by Napaskiak, after people saw his murals in the nearby village of Quinhagak. But he and Bavilla say Napaskiak wanted something different.
Conner: “Everything is in sepia tone. And they saw it, they liked the artwork, but like…”
Bavilla: “You know, we don’t want to see black and white.”
Conner: “No. We want color, color color.”
Bavilla: “We want to see a lot of color.”
Conner: “Lots of color. So pcheww- tons and tons and tons.”
Bavilla says the community thought deeply about the designs.
“What do we want in our school? What? What do you want to see in our school?”
They decided to go through the seasons: fishing subsistence smelts, then berry picking, moose hunting, dog mushing, and snow machines.
But, most of all, villagers wanted to honor their elders.
Conner figured he would put a handful on each side of the entry hallway to the school but… “and then I show up, I’m like, Okay, well, how many pictures, how many Elders do you have, do you have pictures of. And we got 54, I’m like, 54!”
Conner says he didn’t mind. He just had to change the composition and got to work.
Now, over the cafeteria the lunch ladies are at fish camp – Clayton worked 3D wooden salmon and nets and driftwood into pieces.
There are replicas of ancient Napaskiak masks over the water fountains that are now in a museum.
Anyone who walks into the school is surrounded by village elders and ancestors.
And they’re painted in all of the colors of a psychedelic rainbow.
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