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Flood of casino money brings challenges — and opportunities — for reservation schools

For some kids, the lure of “18 Money” makes it difficult to focus on school. But some tribes are making educational gains.

Just shy of 83 percent of Minnesota’s Indians age 25 and older had at least a high school diploma, according to Census surveys conducted from 2006 to 2010.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date

Third of five installments. You can read the whole series here.

A few years ago, one of my 5th grade students, who is Ojibwe, told me that he would get “a lot of money” when he grew up.  The money, he said, would come from the reservation where he was an enrolled tribal member.

The student was explaining a high-stakes tradeoff facing American Indians who grow up in the era of tribal-run casinos. Thousands of these Minnesota kids expect to receive large sums of money when they reach adulthood.

He told me his mom wanted him to go to college. But another option tempted him.  Sometimes people “buy lots of things” when they get the money, he said.  I remember wondering how many Ojibwe kids really did use this coming-of-age windfall for post-secondary education.  While the lump sum received as a young adult may be significant, Minnesota’s Ojibwe bands offer only modest monthly per capita payments through adulthood — or none at all.  But none of the Ojibwe bands pay enough in per capita money to be called a living wage, so a good education — beyond high school — seems of extreme importance.

The lure of cars and computers

The subject came up again last year when I was interviewing some American Indian young people for an earlier MinnPost project and I first heard the term “18 Money.”

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I asked Anthony Morse what life is like for teens and young adults in the Lower Sioux Indian Community. Morse, of Mdewakanton Dakota descent, is the manager and curator of the Lower Sioux Historic site near the town of Morton in south central Minnesota. He is not an enrolled tribal member, although his mother and sister are.

Morse explained how 18 Money works as well as what happens when young adults look forward to per capita payments that provide a living wage.  Some Dakota young people also can expect to collect a hefty monthly share of casino profits indefinitely. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but worry about the education of both the Dakota and Ojibwe young Minnesotans. Here’s a clip from my interview:

I will summarize here. Adult Lower Sioux members collect their shares of profits from the Jackpot Junction casino and hotel complex in the form of regular individual payments, sometimes called “per capitas.” For minors, the shares are accumulated in a trust account from which they can begin drawing at age 18.

“We often see [that] students will drop out of high school when they turn 18,” Morse said. “Basically, a lot of spending happens at that time. And then, when they’re 21, they’re able to remove the rest of the money from the trust.”

Like teens everywhere, these young people are powerfully attracted to new cars, computers and other things money can buy.

“The community members at this age they seem to be less likely to go to college, more likely to essentially live off what they get from the community,” Morse said.

Casinos on Minnesota ReservationsEven after the trust money is gone, they can look to per-capita payments for a steady income. (The tribe does not make public the amounts of its per-capita payments, but they certainly are far less than the million-dollar payouts the Shakopee Mdewakanton Community gives its members.)

“It’s definitely enough money to live off of,” Morse said of the Lower Sioux payments. “There’s nothing wrong with that. . . . we have seen kind of a decline in that motivation to finish high school.”

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I wonder about the motivation of teens to achieve in school in both the economically strapped Indian communities up north and the more prosperous reservations — but for different reasons. Children caught in a cycle of generational poverty, who have few educational role models and job opportunities, are at great risk. On other reservations, young people are looking forward to a life of receiving a living wage (or higher) per capita payment indefinitely. Both may have a difficult time seeing the value of and getting the support to finish high school and go to college or a trade school.

American Indian kids had been dropping out of school at alarming rates even before the promise of casino earnings came along. They also lagged behind their non-Indian peers on tests measuring academic performance. Have gaming revenues enabled tribes to improve education, boost graduation rates and close the achievement gap? Or has casino cash exacerbated these problems?

Good education = ‘good citizens’

The appeal of things money can buy is even more powerful for Shakopee Mdewakanton teens. Thanks to their Mystic Lake Casino and Resort near the Twin Cities, they can look forward to wealthy lives without ever opening a textbook.

Shakopee tribal officials won’t talk about the sums members collect in casino profits, but it’s been widely reported that $1 million a year for each adult member of the tribe is in the ballpark.

Given that no adult in the community needs a job, are any of the young people motivated to stay in high school? Go to college? Learn a trade? 

I asked Shakopee Mdewakanton Community Chairman Charlie Vig. He was vice chairman at the time, a few weeks before long-time Chairman Stanley Crooks died in August. You can hear Vig’s comments about motivating young people to do well in school in this video:

In summary, here’s what he had to say:

“One of our challenges in this community is, because of our success, I think we have to work a little harder at getting our children to understand the importance of being good citizens, doing what they need to do for our community. And part of that is graduating from high school and going on to further their education.

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“It may be a little harder for us because of our success, but I don’t know that it’s much different than anywhere else. They’re young adults, they make bad choices sometimes, and I think our community’s done a great job making them see that. . . . Our success rate is going up.”

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Community is relatively small – fewer than 500 members compared with thousands in many other Minnesota-based tribes. Vig told me that 14 tribal members graduated from high school this year and three received college degrees. But he said he wasn’t sure how many young people of graduation age there were in the community.

Percent high school graduate or higher (percentage of adults 25 and older)

This is educational attainment reported by the U.S. Census (From American Community Survey, 2006-2010). It gives data breakouts for Indians on reservations and off-reservation trust lands. The percent of graduates for all of Minnesota (including non-Indians and Indians alike) is 91.3 percent.

Fond du Lac86.5%
Leech Lake88.9%
Mille Lacs80.9%
Red Lake68.9%
White Earth83.8%
Note: Margins of error are large on the following
Lower Sioux66.9%
Prairie Island87.9%

Source: U.S. CensusNote: Margins of error are large Shakopee, Lower Sioux and Prairie Island because of the tribes are small.

Casinos + student achievement = ??

The worries Dakota leaders have for their young people reverberate acrosss Minnesota’s Indian communities — in reservations and urban areas alike.

But student achievement as it relates to casinos on specific reservations is hard to measure. If tribal leaders have solid statistics or rigorous studies, they’re not sharing much. I asked repeatedly, and I still welcome detailed responses that might shed light on the questions raised in this article.   

One complication is that graduation rates and standardized test scores are difficult to break out by the reservation community running a particular casino. Students living on reservations attend a variety of types of schools, some public, some charter, some tribal and some parochial. And some kids are schooled at home.

The data is muddied further by the fact that some members of one reservation might live on another reservation and attend school there. In some cases, such as the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, a large majority of the enrolled population lives off the reservation.

And so it is not surprising that U.S. Census reports do not clearly reflect the concerns expressed by so many leaders of tribes with successful casinos. The most lucrative casinos are operated by Dakota Sioux tribes with reservations near the Twin Cities. Their populations are so small that they drop off the Census counts or else appear with margins of error so high that the counts are useless for this report.

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For what it’s worth, the Census reports show this much: In Minnesota’s overall American Indian population, high-school and college graduation rates have risen during the 20 years since casinos came on the scene, just as they have risen for non-Indians in the state. One reason for the increase in both cases is the passing of an older generation for whom an 8th grade diploma might have been good enough.

Red Lake youth
MinnPost photo by Steve DateIn Minnesota’s overall American Indian population, high school and college graduation rates have risen during the 20 years since casinos came on the scene, just as they have risen for non-Indians in the state.

Just shy of 83 percent of Minnesota’s Indians age 25 and older had at least a high school diploma, according to Census surveys conducted from 2006 to 2010. That was up from 78 percent in 2000. (In 1990, just before the first large casinos opened, 68 percent of the state’s Indians had reached that level of schooling, but the counts are not directly comparable because of changes in the Census questionnaires after 1990.)

What is clear from the Census and from other indicators is that 20 years of casino profits have failed to close a worrisome education gap between Indians and Minnesota students as a whole. 

In the most recent comparable Census survey, 91.3 percent of Minnesotans had at least a high school diploma compared with 82.8 percent of Indians in the state.

The gap persists in Minnesota’s classrooms, too. Last year, 64 percent of American Indian 10th graders could read at graduation-requirement levels, compared with 79 percent of all students in the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. As for math, 32 percent of American Indian 11th graders met graduation requirements compared with 59 percent of all students. The American Indian students had made gains over the years, but still struggled against a daunting achievement gap.

Why do Indian students continue to underperform in so many key education measures a generation after tribes began earning casino profits?

I posed the question to tribal officials across the state. And I got a range of answers.

Up north, the story in reverse

One explanation is that these kids had a very long way to go, given the economic problems and social barriers their families and their entire communities battled for generations.

The battle isn’t over, especially on reservations up north, where most Minnesota Indians have their roots and where casino profits have been too slim to lift families out of poverty.

Indeed, those casino-poor reservations face the reverse of the student-motivation challenge described by tribes running casinos very near the Twin Cities. Their students’ underperformance is not explained by an excess of resources, but rather a lack of them.

White Earth tribal chair Erma Vizenor knows what it’s like to grow up in extreme poverty, and says that while graduation rates and test scores on her reservation are still too low, “we have come a long way” since she was a kid:

At the White Earth Nation in northwestern Minnesota, Terry Tibbetts is a tribal council member, and he also sits on the school board. While gaming revenue has enabled his community to make a lot of progress in building infrastructure and developing education programs, the casino has “maxed out — because of our remote location,” he said.

Meanwhile, the costs of improving the schools continue to grow.

So do social problems. On top of long-standing worries over alcoholism and its complications like fetal alcohol syndrome, the reservation now is seeing an epidemic of new addictions to prescription pain medication and other substances, Tibbetts said.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen here in five years, how kids’ education is going to be affected, their lifestyles are going to be affected,” he said. “But rest assured, [this is] going to be affecting these kids.”

You can see Tibbetts on this video:

From runaway to role model

With or without casino profits, Indian young people also must pull against historical barriers to education.

School had been a form of white-man’s torture for their grandparents and great-grandparents. Many were forced off their reservations to live in boarding schools.  Jim Northrup, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, described the experience in a report published by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Nighttime was the worst, said Northrup, who was sent at age six to the government-operated Pipestone Indian School in southwestern Minnesota, hundreds of miles from his home.

“On one end of the room, a young kid would start to cry in his bed,” Northrup said. “It was like a domino effect; soon the whole room was sobbing. The next day everyone would carry on like nothing happened.”

No wonder he tried repeatedly to run away, an extreme form of dropping out.

Meanwhile, those who attended nearby public schools often faced bullying and harsh discrimination from kids in the non-Indian majority.

“I hated it,” said Marge Anderson, the recently retired chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “I was called names. I wanted to quit.”

Fortunately for Anderson, her father insisted she stick it out.

“He told me that education was the key to a good life,” Anderson recalled.

Anderson’s father was right, of course. Even so, the doors to that good life effectively had been locked for thousands of Indians in Minnesota and across the nation.

Red Lake Nation College
MinnPost photo by Steve DateGary Frazer, the executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe: “It’s hard to get that first generation of student into the education system, and once they graduate from a four-year degree, then it’s easier to get the next generation to realize that, yeah, there is a reason to go and get your degree.”

Now, their descendants are pressed to burst the doors open – to study, earn high grades, excel at tests and bring home diplomas.

It’s hard ground to break for kids from families where no one had managed to shake that aversion to schools, said Gary Frazer, the executive director of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, an umbrella organization representing six of Minnesota’s largest Indian bands.

“It’s hard to get that first generation of student into the education system, and once they graduate from a four-year degree, then it’s easier to get the next generation to realize that, yeah, there is a reason to go and get your degree,” Frazer said.

“It’s tough all over Indian Country,” Frazer said. “Blame it on gaming or not gaming, the graduation rate has gone up, but it’s still below the national median.”

Hunger for cultural relevance

While the boarding schools are long gone, Indians told me everywhere I went in Minnesota that a major reason public schools fail to excite Indian students is that the schools just don’t mesh with Indian cultural traditions and values.

At the Wolves Den Cafe in the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis, Mike Forcia works at something of a crossroads for Native people from many different reservations and tribes. For 15 years, he has listened to problems from urban schools, rural public schools and tribal schools.

The sum of the stories is a hunger for cultural relevance, Forcia said.

Now, with casino profits to spend, tribes could remedy that problem, he said.

“Part of the reason that children aren’t graduating is that once they get to the ninth grade, the school doesn’t fit them anymore,” Forcia said. “But there has been a growth of Indian schools on the reservations, and I think they’re doing a really good job, really good job of keeping the kids in school and focusing on the way native kids learn.”

Indian students are “more hands-on,” he said. They thrive in classrooms held outdoors. And, like students of all ethnic backgrounds, they are curious about their own environments and histories.

Forcia is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin. You can catch his remarks on this video:

Some schools already are making progress in the cause Forcia advocates by immersing students in Ojibwe or Dakota language. Increased revenues from gaming have helped make some such programs possible — and experts say they are producing results. Watch this video to see for yourself:

‘Encouraging trend’

Despite the problems, many who work closely with Indian students see reason for optimism as casino profits spur new ambitions across Minnesota.

Frazer has held leadership his post at Minnesota Chippewa Tribe since 1988 and thus been in a position to observe changes in education on Minnesota Ojibwe reservations since before the first casinos opened. He sees an encouraging trend: gradually increasing numbers of college graduates and tribal members entering professional careers. Casino money deserves at least part of the credit, he said. 

Frazer explains further in this video segment:

To summarize Frazer’s comments, many of the northern bands have decided for one reason or another not to pay per-capita profit sharing but instead to invest the money in community improvement, especially education.

The Grand Portage reservation, for example, “will fund you as far as you want to go, all the way through doctorate, with their gaming funds,” Frazer said.

Another example is the relatively well-off Mille Lacs Band, which operates two successful casinos within a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities.

Mille Lacs Band members get $900 a month in per-capita profit sharing. They’re also entitled to the so-called “18 Money,” although not as much as paid by the Dakota tribes closer to the Twin Cities. 

Concerned about student motivation, Mille Lacs officials have added a twist to the 18 Money rules. Young people can’t withdraw their money on their 18th birthdays unless they’ve earned a high school diploma. Instead, they have to wait a couple of years. Mille Lacs also offers sizable scholarships to all high school graduates who want to attend post-secondary schools.

In this video, former Mille Lacs Band Education Commissioner Dennis Olson explains how Mille Lacs used per capita trust funds as a motivator to keep kids in school:

“The elected officials here at the Mille Lacs Band have done a really good job of putting proper measures in place to ensure that students who receive those minor trust payments are continuing on and furthering their education,” Olson said. “And it’s spread out over many different years, so they’re not receiving one large lump sum, but rather an amount that’s more manageable over a course of several years.”

Could do better….

Other tribes also are investing in schools at the same time they chase questions about steering future casino profits toward improving education for their young people.

Ask tribal officials across the state where educational improvement is needed, and one of the first wishes you hear is for pre-kindergarten education, especially for children in poverty.

Betty Jane Schaaf is a member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and director of the Wicoie Nandagikendan Early Childhood Urban Immersion Project in Minneapolis. She looks to studies led by Art Rolnick, a former research director at the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, who has argued for years that Minnesota’s best economic investment, by far, would be in disadvantaged preschoolers.  If they are healthy and ready to learn by the time they start kindergarten, Rolnick argues, they will do better throughout their lives.  (You can read more on the subject here.)

Picking up on that logic, Schaaf argues that tribes could earn big dividends down the road if they invest casino money now in teaching and nurturing the youngest of their members.

She makes the case in this video clip:

For one thing, Schaaf says, tribes could save the considerable expense of trying to turn kids around after they go bad – costs of juvenile centers, jails, probation officers and treatment programs.

“If we invest in them when they’re younger and make them better people then, we won’t have to come back and pay for all these other services they may need from not getting properly educated at a young age,” Schaaf said. “A building is great, or a program is great. But how long are those going to last? You know our children are going to be our next descendants and are going to be the ones who are going to carry on the culture.”

In keeping with such thinking, other leaders are calling for kids to get more education and nurturing during non-school hours. In school districts with high rates of poverty, such supplementary programs are essential to academic success, they argue.

Take Tim Reiplinger. He exudes optimism — easy-going, quick to smile, wears a baseball cap everywhere. He’s the kind of guy who seems perfect for running a youth program, which he does. He grew up on the Leech Lake reservation, and now he coordinates the Boys and Girls Club in Naytahwaush, a village on the White Earth reservation.

Beyond recreation, Reiplinger explained that the Boys and Girls Club provides a lot of educational support.  In this video clip, he explains how the White Earth Nation has been able to use gaming revenue to work with the club and create a successful supplemental education program:

“Sixty percent of our total revenue comes from the tribe, and of that, I believe the majority is gaming money,” Reiplinger said.

“The kids get tutoring after school,” he said. “They get curriculum programs to help with childhood obesity, . . . a ‘Smart Moves’ program that’s a prevention of alcohol, tobacco, premature sexual activity. . . . We do programs in goal-setting for the younger kids.”

Another emphasis is cultural enrichment. For example, kids learn how to make outfits and drums for their powwows.

That cultural component is a thread running through all of the conversations I had last summer with tribal officials and members across Minnesota. We will dig deep into that subject in a future installment of this series.

Next, though, we look into questions of whether casinos have strengthened tribal governments and made tribes more self-sufficient.