By KIRK JOHNSON
Published: May 25, 2008
HARDIN, Mont. — One of the last traditional chiefs of the Crow Indian tribe, named Plenty Coups, had a vision as the Old West was fading. Education would be the way of the future, he said — a choice to be either the “the white man’s victim” or “the white man’s equal.”
Roberta Walks Over Ice was among those who heard that message, from her grandfather. She then continued the tradition, preaching the value of education to her daughter, Jasmine, 15.
But the zeal for learning that took root in such families is now coming with a cost. Many families like the Walks Over Ices are deciding that off-reservation public schools in this small, mostly white ranching town are a better choice than schools on the reservation.
Hardin High School, 55 percent white in 2000, is now 70 percent American Indian. On the reservation, at Lodge Grass High School, more than a third of the student enrollment in 2000 has melted away.
The stigma that was once attached to sending a child off the reservation — the legacy of forced boarding-school programs in the early 1900s that tried to strip Indians of their culture and language in the name of assimilation — has faded as elders who remember the old days die off.
“If they had all the same resources, programs, assistance, whatever, I would have said, ‘O.K., yeah,’ but I didn’t want her to struggle,” Ms. Walks Over Ice said about her daughter. “Jasmine was falling through the cracks. I asked them to help her at Lodge Grass, and she didn’t improve.”
Home games for the Hardin Bulldogs football team — majority Indian this season for the first time — now begin with traditional Indian drumming, and the Crow language is studied alongside French and Spanish. There is an unofficial line in the school parking lot, one side for whites, the other for Crow. Indian pottery-making is so well established in the art department that schools from other parts of the state now come to learn.
Even the principal at Lodge Grass, John Small — whose Crow pedigree extends back to an Indian scout for George Armstrong Custer named White Man Runs Him (who survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, fought about 15 miles from Hardin) — feels the winds of change blowing in his own family.
All five of Mr. Small’s children graduated from Lodge Grass, as did he. But five of his nine grandchildren attend Hardin schools, and his daughter, Roxanne Not Afraid, is a teacher there. This spring, the Hardin district nominated Ms. Not Afraid to be Montana Indian Teacher of the year.
The turning tide of students has rippled far beyond education, to culture and the delicate economic balance of an area where resources like student head counts and the government dollars that come with them are highly coveted assets.
Since the early 1990s, Montana has lost about 1.5 percent of its public student population every year, according to state figures, with even deeper hits here in the eastern half of the state, an area largely untouched by the second-home culture that is transforming places like Bozeman and Missoula.
At the same time, the national demographic groove of people moving from rural to less rural places — for jobs, choices and lifestyle — has accelerated, with Indians participating like everyone else.
While schools on many reservations continue to thrive, those in places like Hardin — a small community struggling in its own way as the economics in this dry, rural corner of the West erode — or in Parker, Ariz., adjoining the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation south of the Grand Canyon, have caught some of the surge. A housing shortage and lack of jobs on reservations account for some of the shift too, as does the simple fact that many Indians have come to see the public schools as better than reservation schools.
For the Crow or Apsáalooke Nation — about 11,000 people, three-fourths of whom live on a reservation the size of Connecticut in Montana’s southeast corner — the intertwined arcs of Hardin and Lodge Grass have made for a bittersweet experience. Positive things, like ambition, hope and expression of free choice, are countered against the harm to an institution that many people look back on with fondness and nostalgia.
At Lodge Grass, teachers have been let go and the number of paraprofessionals who once could help students has been slashed. There are only 357 students in all grades of the Lodge Grass schools, down from 559 in 2000, and the small community of Lodge Grass itself has stumbled, too, residents say, with burned-out and abandoned homes lining the road to the hilltop school.
“We’ve had to tighten our belts, and that hurts enrollment and money — it’s a vicious circle,” said Dennis Maasjo, the superintendent of Lodge Grass schools.