In all of the states with relatively high American Indian populations, incarceration rates average four times that of non-Indians. For example, in Montana, American Indians are 6% of the population, but represent more than 20% of the people in prison. American Indian women represent the same 6% but are 32% of incarcerated women in the state. Indians across the nation also receive relatively longer sentences and have significantly higher suicide rates (Wagner, 2004). With the highest school dropout rates of any minority group, the school to prison pipeline is of major concern. In South Dakota, the statistics are about the same as Montanna’s, and after living there and working as Dean of Education of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I saw a number of “pipeline” stories throughout the state. In this essay, I combine the facts surrounding a number of cases and write an otherwise fictional narrative that combines them into one story.
The phone was on its third ring. Too early for a Sunday morning call, Mary Red Plume considered not answering it. She had been awake and warm under the covers, working on the gumption to get up in the freezing trailer to start a fire in the stove. She could barely imagine how cold were her friends and relatives who lived in much older trailer homes on the reservation miles away. She remembered when she was younger and lived in one that used only cardboard for windows. With no stove, her father lit wood fires on a sheet of metal placed on the floor. The roof was so full of leaks; the heat would melt the snow, causing it to drip into well-placed pots. Fortunately, the breaks in the roof filtered out just enough smoke to prevent everyone from asphyxiating. Years later her father had been the recipient of a grant-funded project that “loaned” him a new trailer home equipped with a real stove. This was the home she still occupied.
Reluctantly, she answered the phone. The caller was Rick Two Bears. He said he had bad news for her and that he would be at her place in five minutes. She got dressed slowly, lit the newspapers she had placed carefully under the wood the night before, and put a pot of water on top of the stove. By the time Rick knocked on the door, the coffee was made. He apologized for being a little late, explaining he had slid his truck off the road and had to wait for some buddies to pull it back on. Mary sat quietly, sipping and nodding for him to say what he had come to say.
All she heard was “Tommy is no longer with us.” She blanked the rest of the details out. Rick watched as she went to the kitchen and took a small stake knife off of the table. She began cutting her graying hair and chanting a song he had heard too many times before. He knew too well how many young Indian youth killed themselves on and off reservations across the country. He had read that boys committed suicide ten times more often than the national average for children of all races in the U.S. and girls were double that, but it was not the statistics he considered. Rather he was counting the number of children whose funerals he had attended in the past few months. He thought how he himself had considered suicide often throughout his school days and later when he scavenged the garbage cans for remnants of alcohol lurking in the bottom of bottles. Saved by a commitment to his Sun Dance vows, he had tried several times to get Tommy to join him in this sacred ritual. But Tommy, like many others his age laughed at the traditional ways. After all, school had convinced him long ago to dismiss such traditions. What frightened Rick the most was how the idea of suicide somehow seemed a normal option for his people.
That Tommy had killed himself could not be a surprise to his mother. She sang louder as she sliced her long hair to avoid any chance that she would picture him choked to death by his own belt, rigged as high as he could reach on the cell bars. Rick had described it, with a comment that the jailors hardly ever took the belts away from the boys. Mary pushed out such thoughts and she smiled at the memory of Tommy when he was just two-years of age.
For the first two years after his birth, Mary, reared traditionally herself, young and unmarried, carried Tommy in a back cradle. As a result, he spent much time observing his natural environment. Surrounded by wilderness, he spent hours listening to the bird and animal sounds while his mom shucked corn outside their dilapidated trailer several miles from the dirt road that wound through the pine strewn hills for another six miles before hitting the paved road that was twenty more miles from the closest elementary school. Mary had never been to school herself. Her father, who had suffered through the horrors of boarding school, used all of his skills and influences to keep her away from the “white man’s education.” She earned money to help cover basic expenses on weekends in by selling her remarkable artistry and beadwork to tourists who passed by where the dirt road met the paved highway.
By the time Tommy was seven, he could mimic almost every bird and animal in the woods and on the plains. He spoke his Native language beautifully and possessed the patience, honesty and humility that his grandparents’ animal stories cultivated in him. He knew how to hunt and could run like the wind. His grandfather, wanting to follow the traditional ways he had encouraged Mary to do, convinced his daughter to keep Tommy away from the school and did his best to keep Tommy’s existence secret. Word got out about Tommy, however, and one warm spring morning, Mary and her family received a visit from a lady who introduced herself as a child protection specialist assigned “the case” under the auspices of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) She respectfully interviewed Mary and her parents and talked with Tommy as well. She told them Tommy was the subject of a neglect proceeding and a determination was to be made about whether the state court had jurisdiction over the tribal court or not. The fact that Mary had never gone to school had some significant bearing on outcomes, as did the remoteness of their home and the lack of community, not to mention the criminal record of her grandfather who had been arrested several times in his early days for disorderly conduct. To complicate matters, reservation borderlines had been changed during the past year and the land on which the family lived was no longer legally on the reservation, but now belonged to the state. As such, since Tommy was not technically “domiciled” on the reservation, the state court claimed jurisdiction.
Mary recalled the look of grief in her father’s eyes a week later when he received word from his cousin that the state was mandating involuntary foster care placement and termination of parental rights. Tommy was to be taken away from his family. The next Monday after Mary learned this tragic news, she and Tommy walked and hitchhiked the 26 miles to the school and enrolled him. Mary believed enrolling Tommy, even against her father’s wishes, would prevent him from being taken away. Apparently a school bus came right past where her dirt road met the freeway, so each day they would have only six miles to walk. Moreover, Mary was offered a part-time job helping teach art classes for the children. School began and curiously the state never appeared to take Tommy away. Several months went by and even the Grandfather was starting to admit he had been wrong about keeping Tommy away from school. Tommy seemed to be enjoying himself, at least at first. Because he had not learned to read, however, Tommy had been brought into the first grade with a “special education” label. In addition to not being able to keep up with children his own age in the academic requirements, he was constantly looking out the window and “talking to the birds” as one teacher reported. A psychologist was called and Ritalin was recommended for Tommy. Mary refused to allow it, however, and she was starting to admit her father had been right!
On the fourth month of school, an unhappy Tommy, made fun of by the students and humiliated and punished by the non-Indian teachers from a border town, was called to the director’s office along with Mary. An officer from the state’s child welfare services was waiting. This person was not as friendly as the one who had visited their home. She said that although the ICWA laws were intended to keep Indian families together, the State court was using a judicial exception to the law, quoting an “Existing Indian Family” doctrine, something from The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. She showed Mary some papers explaining all of this as well as documentation regarding her father’s Grandfather’s previous arrest record.
Tommy was taken away immediately after the meeting. Mary pleaded in vain. He was not even allowed to return to his home to gather his things or say goodbye to his grandfather and grandmother. Mary called her friend, Rick Two Bears. Rick worked for the reservation police department and had made a few visits to Mary’s weathered trailer home “in the middle of nowhere” with an eye on courtship. Rick drove to the school and found Mary distraught with grief. Her child had been taken away. Rick was not unfamiliar with stories such as this. Foster care had become an economic boon for private group home providers who brought in millions of dollars in state contracts. One in particular, the Evergreen Home for Children, had close connections with the state’s governor. The home had received much of its funding through no-bid contracts as a result. It was as if the schools were making a living off the Indian children. Less than 12 percent of the state’s population was Native but they represented more than 65 percent of the foster home population (Sullivan and Walters, 2011). Rick could not give solace to Mary but his own anger transformed her sense of helplessness into a battle cry.
Within a week of being taken away, Tommy was placed in one of the Evergreen homes located in a mostly white city about 250 miles from the reservation. Mary did everything she could to get Tommy back, but even an attorney Rick managed to have visit her could do nothing. Mary continued to work at the school but never regained her joyful way of being in the world. Two years later, when the new federal NCLB laws came down from the Bush administration requiring all classroom workers in state contract schools to have at least Associate Degrees, Mary was let go (NJTU, 2004). She returned to her efforts at selling her art but only once did she manage to take a bus into the city to visit Tommy before Rick told her he had been moved to a detention center even further away.
By the time Tommy was 11, he had been punished and suspended numerous times from the city schools he attended. Usually the only Indian student in his classes, he fought back against constant teasing. Each time he was singled out as being the instigator of fights and soon branded as “a violent child.” When he was 13, a Mormon couple adopted him. Responding negatively to their strict discipline, he ran away several times and the discipline intensified. One day the sister and brother-in-law of the husband visited Tommy’s new home along with there 11 –year old daughter. While playing cards in the evening, Tommy was discovered “playing doctor” with the little girl in his bedroom. Within an hour the police took Tommy to jail to wait for a court date. He was to be tried as a violent sexual offender. While awaiting his court appearance, he spent four days in an adult cell with three white men. The three men raped him the first night and told him if he said anything they would find him and kill him.
At the hearing when the judge asked Tommy if he had “explored the private parts” of the girl who was the “victim” of his sexual offences, Tommy, who had been taught early on never to tell a lie, nodded his head. It did not matter and was not brought up that the two children were mutually engaged in “playing doctor” and that such “exploration” was no more than the most innocent “peak” at the girl’s blossoming breasts offered when she herself lifted up her shirt. Nor were any culturally relevant understandings offered the judge, a common problem with Indian youth incarceration (AIDA, N.D.)
With his extensive referral history of behaviors which if he had not been Indian would have been ignored or dealt with informally, Tommy was sentenced and sent to a private out-of-state “treatment” facility for youth who were thought to be not suitable for juvenile correctional institutions. With costs over 250 dollars per day charged to the state, these transfers were an economic boon for the service provider. I took three years for Mary to receive letter from the state that was sent to her via the school asking for her to sign her permission for Tommy’s medical treatment if he should need it. She signed it and asked the principal if he could send it back but she never learned where her son had actually been placed.
It was 1999. Tommy was almost 16. This was the year a bill called the “Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act” was passed in the Senate by a vote of 73-25 (S-254, 1999). Senator Paul Wellstone was a member of the Senate minority who opposed the bill because it would eliminate the federal requirement that allows states to address disproportionate minority confinement in the juvenile justice systems. Wellstone argued that minority youth in every state are overrepresented at every stage of the process, from arrest to and especially at the level confinement. In a series of questions put to Republican supporters of the bill, Wellstone asked whether when the police are out there in the streets, and we get to which kids are searched on the streets and which kids are not, you don’t think that has anything to do with race? When we get to the question of which kids are arrested and which kids are not, you don’t think that has anything to do with race today in America? When we get to the question of the evaluation of youth by probation officers, you don’t think that has anything to do with race? When we get to the question of the decision whether to release or detain by a judge, based upon who has the money and who does not have the money to put up a bond, you don’t think that has anything to do with race? And when we get to the question of sentencing, you don’t think that has anything to do with race, Senators? You are sleepwalking through history (Farrell, 1999)
Three years later Senator Wellstone, after speaking against the Iraq war resolution, died in a mysterious plane crash (Four Arrows and Fetzer, 2003)
The staff at the correctional facility where Tommy now resided were young, underpaid and mostly white. Although the laws in the state required reporting physical “take downs,” Tommy had been wrestled to the ground by several hefty counselors a number of times for his fighting with other youth and for his belligerent attitude. Nevertheless, reports were seldom filed. The second week of his stay, he began schooling. When he walked into the classroom, the other children began making fun of his Indianness. When one boy asked him where his tomahawk was and another asked if his squaw mother was a prostitute, Tommy jumped both boys at the same time. Within minutes counselors again had him pinned to the floor. Later he was taken to a small, 3 by 5 concrete room with an iron door and a small window, forced to wear a pink colored jump suit. He spent the night in this solitary confinement with a “suicide watch” staff looking in to check on him. The next morning Tommy was back in the classroom but still in his jumpsuit. The social studies lesson this day was about “the first Americans” as was written on the top of a multiple choice quiz that identified the first Americans as Kit Carson, Davie Crocket and other non-Indian pioneers who made a living exterminating Indians (although this fact was phrased only by referring to them as “Indian fighters.”
The next morning Tommy was taken to the facility’s weekly sexual offender meeting. Staffed with local psychiatrists and psychologists, some from the state and others on the school’s payroll, the system used the traditional Alcoholics Anonymous model. Tommy followed older, seriously harmful sexual offenders in standing before the intimidating group and saying his coached and memorized statement, “My name is Tommy Red Plume and I am a sexual offender.” For the next year, Tommy suffered an education not all that dissimilar from the one his grandfather suffered in boarding schools. Like most Indian prisoners, he was denied release time or home visitations two times more often than his white counterparts. Where the other boys would be merely reprimanded for offenses against him, he received the harshest punishments for lesser offenses that he committed.
Placed in housing with the other boys undergoing sexual offender counseling and fearful he would get raped again, Tommy managed an escape. Run-a-ways were a common event at the facility and boys half frozen by morning were usually picked up several miles down the road or hiding amongst crops in the local fields. It was more than sixty miles to the nearest town. Tommy’s endurance and athletic ability, however, not to mention his early days of tolerating cold weather, allowed him to persevere. He made it to town and fell in with a gang of Indian teenagers.
Most of the children in the gang were between 15 to 17 years of age. Some were escaped foster children but others had run away from abusive homes on the reservation. Often they were arrested for “just being Indian.” When this happened to someone, he would appear in court without parents and without attorneys, but the judges would take their pleas and sentence them anyway. A number of them had been placed in holding cells at one time or another and a few had experienced the same insult that Tommy has suffered. Most of their parents had no idea where their children were. One of the gang members was a beautiful, but obviously not to be taken advantage of, Indian girl around 17 years of age. Remarkably, she had managed to get to high school graduation without experiencing the juvenile justice system. However, when she was not allowed to wear her traditional buckskin dress during the ceremony, she wore it underneath her black robes. Just before she went on stage to get her diploma, she took off the robe. Before she made it to the stage, the principle pulled her aside, reprimanded her, and prevented her from further participation in the ceremony. She knew her brother was in the city gang and decided to chuck it all and join him. In effect, she had become one of the gang’s leaders.
By the time Tommy was 17, he had lived more than a year in the streets. He had been locked up several times and then let go because of overcrowded conditions and political opposition to adult holding cells for youth. In one instance, he made his way back to the reservation to see his mother. His grandmother had passed on and his Grandfather was still mourning her loss. Tommy knew he could not stay and Rick Two Bears drove him back to his gang’s hideout in an abandoned factory. The next week Tommy got drunk in public, was arrested, and was sent to a new private detention facility located only two hours from his reservation. This one, however, was quite different from the others.
The Beaver Trail Youth Ranch was a staff-secured (no fences nor guards) detention facility for youth convicted of various infractions including drive-by shooters from New York and a number of American Indian youths arrested for significantly lessor offences. What was different from the others was that its new director implemented an educational/rehabilitation model based on American Indian values and learning paths. The new program was guided largely by a booklet written by Larry Brendtro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Bockern entitled Reclaiming Youth at Risk published in 1990 by the National Education Service. Based on the belief that American Indian philosophies to child management represent the most effective system of positive discipline ever developed–one based on the empowerment of children, it followed a balanced approach that recognized independence, belonging, mastery and generosity depicted in a “Circle of Courage” medicine wheel. The program director, part-Indian himself, fired more than half the original staff, replacing them with more like-minded and qualified people. He managed to take all the children off their drugs, such as Ritalin, replacing them with “obecalp” pills. (These were actually sugar bills named by spelling placebo backwards.) Soft drink machines were removed from the facility and all students were put on exercise walks daily. Peer culture meetings took control of behavioral issues, with staff sitting outside the youth circles, monitoring and offering help when needed. Horses, cows and pigs were assigned to different youth who took full responsibility for their care. Instead of being locked up or denied exercise opportunities for infractions, students were given chances to “make things right” with logically deduced natural consequences. Within fifteen months of taking over the facility, the director and his new team had managed to reduce physical restraints from 122 per quarter down to less than 20 per quarter. Escape attempts had decreased from a hundred per year to only one.
Tommy thrived in the new environment. Word got out that he was there and Rick Two Bears brought Mary to see Tommy as often as possible, averaging two or three times per month. Tommy’s early childhood skills made him a natural leader and the culturally relevant curriculum and traditional Indigenous approaches to classroom learning brought his reading skills rapidly to grade level by the end of the second year. He participated in traditional ceremonies led by a reservation elder and before his 18th birthday, he had begun preparing for junior college and had submitted two applications for a scholarship. His grandfather passed away and he was allowed to go off campus with Rick to attend the traditional services. He stayed two nights with his mother, who now lived alone in the trailer, and the two caught up on their relationship.
Rick Two Bears had heard about the facility’s radical changes even before he knew Tommy was there. All the Indians were talking about it, it seemed. He also knew its existence was at risk. A number of the conservative and religious right members of the community had written letters of complaint to the juvenile justice administrators. These were the same groups of people who had been responsible for replacing the word, “youth,” with the word, “juvenile,” in the original legislation because the latter word was more detached from possibilities for compassion. They worried that without the more stringent disciplines of the past decade, the community would be at risk. The detention facility was only “staff-secured,” they wrote, and they worried the “inmates” would run away and sneak into their homes and do “God knows what” while the homeowners were sleeping. There was also political pressure from a few owners of other facilities who felt the new model was a bad example. After all, if it worked, as it was obviously doing, this might reduce recidivism and thus reduce profitability, although this was not their argument of course.
True to the prediction, after 18 months of operation, the director of the youth facility was fired. His dismissal came about because he had been ordered to start receiving out of state youth even if medical releases from parents or guardians were not yet on hand. According to the state, too many youth were being sent to other states with more lenient policies. For these reasons, the Youth Ranch was losing money as a result. The director, after consulting with his physicians, learned that this would put the youth at risk if there was ever a need for a serious operation . Additionally , his staff did not have time to find parents or guardians and get signatures as he was being asked. If he could not attain signatures, he would have to continue to require medical release for all new admittances. The next day the head of the larger corporation arrived with apologies, a two-week severance check and a replacement for the director. Within a month, all the innovations were replaced with the standard educational and disciplinary approaches. The children, who were managing well without the drugs, were placed back on their medication regimen .
Two weeks into the “new” program, Tommy overheard one of the newly hired staffers refer to him as a “fucking Indian” in a private conversation with another staffer who laughed and ridiculed the previous director’s affinity for the “savages.” Tommy burst through their office door and jumped both of them. They wrestled him to the ground, called for reinforcements, and Tommy was placed in the concrete solitary room until state police officers arrived. He was taken to the city’s crowded holding facility, placed in an adult cell, again with several drunken Caucasians. At approximately 4:20 AM, according to the coroner, Tommy managed to choke himself to death with his belt. There was nothing spoken about whether or not he was abused by the men as had happened years before.
Epilogue: There are approximately 26,000 American Indians in US jails and prisons. This is a rate of almost 40% higher than in the general population. However, if African-Americans, who constitute about half of all prisoners, are excluded from the calculation, the disproportionality is far worse. The role of “education” and anti-Indianism in all of this is fundamental (Four Arrows, 2013). Too many Indian youth tormented by the hegemony of Western education, then caught in the undercurrents of the social welfare system experience, and further discouraged in youth detention centers, will continue to face what “Tommy” experienced. . In his review of my text, Teaching Truly: A Curriculum to Indigenize Mainstream Education, William Ayer’s speaks to the problem of anti-Indianism with which we must all come to terms when he says that a “spiritual and material collapse” is upon us as a result of a “techno/imperial/capitalist juggernaut” (IBID, backcover). In referring to the goal of incorporating Indigenous value systems and knowledge into our contemporary schooling, Noam Chomsky’s review of the book offers that we must do a better job of taking care of our Indian youth as well as all children, before it is too late: “We must nurture and preserve our common possession, the traditional commons, for future generations, and this must be one of our highest values, or we are all doomed (IBID).
American Indian Development (AIDA) (n.d.)
Farrell, J. 1999) Senate Passes Juvenile Crime Bill S. 254; Wellstone opposed measure over disproportionate minority confinement issue” in Common Dreams
Four Arrows and Fetzer, J. (2003) American assassination: The strange death of senator Paul Wellstone. New York: VOX Publishers
Four Arrows (2013) Teaching Truly: A Curriculum to indigenize mainstream education. New York: Peter Lang
New Jersey Teachers Union (2004) “Highly qualified teachers need not apply” The free republic
Sullivan, L. and Walters, A. (Oct. 25, 2011). “Native foster care: Lost children, shattered families” National public radio
S-254 Bill, 106th Congress.
Wagner, P. (Dec. 14, 2004) “Importing constituents” in Prisoners of the census. http://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/montana/importing.html
 Because statistics concerning incarceration for whites, blacks and Latinos far outweigh those for American Indians, it is difficult to locate current statistics, but it is likely that these 2004 numbers are even worse today.