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Lessons from reservation may offer insight into the problems plaguing Buffalo schools

The controversy over the Buffalo Public Schools and the seemingly intractable problems plaguing them has led me to reflect on my experiences on Indian reservations across the country. In particular, I was taken back to an encounter with a little Indian girl, no more than 4 or 5, on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana a few summers ago. Although geographically and culturally so far removed from life in Buffalo, her story may not be so different from those of children growing up in our own inner-city neighborhoods.

Each August, the tribe is host to Crow Fair, the largest summer gathering of Indians in America. It attracts visitors from around the world who come to enjoy the drumming, singing, dancing and thousands of teepees at what is billed the “Teepee Capital of the World.” Part of the festivities is a charity race where I first saw this little Indian girl proudly sporting her race T-shirt and number, but apparently all alone. As the race began, she took off in earnest; fists clenched, legs pumping and determined to win the race.

I lost sight of her in the crush until, bringing up the rear, I caught up with her; she was indeed all alone and no longer able to keep up with the other runners. Her little legs had stopped pumping, and she was falling far behind and on the verge of tears. Tired, alone and lost amidst the maze of teepees, she was overwhelmed. I offered her my hand, but she refused until she was completely exhausted. I finally turned her over to a race official who promised to find her family, and I went on my way, finishing last, as usual.

I never saw her again, but I never forgot her. My first reaction was to berate her parents for leaving her to fend for herself among complete strangers. But then I realized that her experience, however frightening and painful, was merely a rehearsal for growing up on the reservation. Like children everywhere, she began her life as she began the race – full of hope and determination. However, by the time she reaches her teens, she will more than likely hit what marathon runners refer to as the “wall” at which point they are too exhausted to carry on. Indian children, especially on the large reservations out West, also seem to hit a “wall” at which point they simply give up and succumb to the worst side of reservation life.

The average age to begin drinking on reservations is 13, followed by teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, meth, jail and, all too often, an early death. Why do they hit a “wall”? Perhaps it’s because of the burdens they bear that finally weigh them down. They certainly bear the burden of history – removed from their homelands, corralled onto reservations and deprived of their language, culture and religion.

They also bear the burden of poverty. They are the poorest people in America, with the highest poverty and unemployment rates, the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease, and the lowest life expectancy rates in the country.

And then there is the burden of race. Although racist language is no longer heard as frequently in the areas around the Western reservations, the racial tensions are palpable and force Indians to travel long distances to shop for food, clothes or services. These burdens, compounded generation after generation, work to convince Indian children like that little girl to give up and that failure is not only their fate but their fault. All of which brings us back to Buffalo.

The analogy between life on the reservation and life in cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago or Detroit may seem a bit far-fetched, but there are similarities. Inner-city neighborhoods like those in Buffalo are just as isolated and insular as reservations. And, like the little girl at Crow Fair, children in the cities begin life full of hope and determination, and like that little girl somewhere along the line they hit a wall. The pathologies follow the same pattern: alcohol, drugs, pregnancy, dropping out, jail and, even worse, an early death on the streets. The children also bear the same burdens. African-American children are weighted down with the cumulative effects of slavery, segregation and discrimination, along with poverty and its attendant afflictions. And, like Indian children on the reservations, they come to believe that escape is futile and, instead, accept a way of life that is all too often self-destructive.

This is not to make excuses, nor to offer solutions, which are far beyond my ken. Rather, it is to offer another perspective on the problems plaguing the schools in Buffalo and other post-industrial cities.

Life on the reservation may seem far removed from life in Buffalo, but the similarities suggest that the problems in Buffalo and its schools may run too deep to be solved by firing a superintendent, rearranging the School Board, testing the students into a dither or instituting a Common Core. Instead, it may require us to look at the world through the eyes of children like that little girl on the Crow Reservation.

Keith R. Burich, Ph.D., is a professor of Native American History and director of the American Indian Center at Canisius College.