POWHATTAN, Kan. — The sign on the wall in Rozella Ramirez’s kindergarten/first-grade class reads: “Less talking more beading.” Five- and 6-year-old hands diligently go to work stringing colorful beads onto necklaces that symbolize their heritage.
Some students sew moccasins. Pieces of buckskin, needle and thread lie out on tables, ready for small hands to work into one of the icons of their history. Colorful regalia symbolizing tribal loyalty hangs in the classroom closet. Soon the students will wear the handmade clothing in a ceremony that celebrates their Kickapoo Native American culture.
“We’re learning how to do arts and crafts, native bead work. All Native Americans do,” Ramirez said.
Kickapoo Nation School in Powhattan is one of the few Native American schools in the region and one of more than a few across the nation. According to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, there were 49,152 students in Bureau of Indian Education schools across the country. They could be found in 183 elementary and secondary schools, including residential settings, in 23 states. In 2012, there were 566 federal recognized American Indian reservations.
The Kickapoo Tribe has been in the Powhattan area since 1832. The Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas is one of three recognized Kickapoo tribes in the United States, including the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma and the Kickapoo Tribe of Texas. The Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas is one of three other Indian tribes in Northeast Kansas to contract with the state for gaming operations.
The Kickapoo Nation School moved into the former Powhattan school in 1981. The school has eight teachers and 58 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Many of the students come from the reservation 6 miles south of the school. A substantial number of students come to school from Topeka, which is about a two-hour ride each way, said Debra Turner, Kickapoo Nation School superintendent.
“The bus picks them up at 6 in the morning and then they get here by quarter to 8, and they don’t go home, we don’t dismiss school until 3:25. They get home when it’s dark and when they come it’s dark,” Turner said.
Powhattan is a rural town in Brown County, smack dab in the middle of seemingly endless crop fields and ribbons of county-maintained roads that go for miles before you see another vehicle. According to the 2010 census, only 78 residents live here and that’s not counting the chickens, goats and other livestock grazing in some of the front yards. But that number may be stretching it.
“There’s not one person besides myself, and I have three teachers that live here; we provide teacher housing but other than (that) no one actually lives in the city of Powhattan,” Turner said.
Modern building, ancient language
The Kickapoo Nation School, a modern brick structure, sits next to a chicken farm. The children arrive every morning to a rooster crowing.
There are updated areas as well as some older parts inside the school. Walls are decorated with inspirational Native American posters with saying like “Be Proud of Who You Are.” In the library, books are categorized by grade and by tribe. Shelves full of books marked with names like Nihara (Commanche) and Wintanto (Miami).
Diabetes is prevalent in the Native American community; that’s why the school cafeteria menu is full of fruits and vegetables. Nothing is processed. The bread is whole grain. The sugar is raw. Kids go back for seconds at the salad bar.
The mission and the goal of Kickapoo Nation School is to not only educate the children but also help preserve the culture and language, Turner said.
“It’s not even actually an elective here. All the kids take language and all the kids take culture classes,” she said.
George Baldwin, a 14-year-old student, said he enjoys learning the language. He’s afraid it will disappear.
“I use it at home and at school and I come here to learn it,” he said.
Sophia Suke, another Kickapoo student, is the school’s current Leadership Princess. It’s an honor bestowed upon her for being a good leader in the school. The language came natural to her, she said.
“I kind of learned it at 4 years old, I keep learning over and over because it’s really exciting to me. When I first came here I thought it was going to be boring. Well, it was really cool,” she said.
Preserving the language is important for many Native American tribes. According to the United Nations Organization for Education Science and Culture, half of the world’s more than 6,000 languages could disappear in the next 80-plus years as a result of globalization.
Kickapoo students are required to take culture and language classes as some of them know the history and culture and some don’t, Turner said.
“I think with a lot of our new students this year it was very important to them to take culture classes and they could take language. It was very important to them to have that for their tribe,” Turner said.
Word of mouth
The school has a huge gym but doesn’t have enough students to field any athletics teams. Turner said they hope to soon have a track team.
Last year some representatives from the Washington Redskins NFL football team donated iPads to the Kickapoo students.
“We have enough to have one on one but we don’t send things home so they can use all the iPads and things here,” Turner said.
There’s a myth that Native Americans are vanishing from the American landscape. Many people still think of Native Americans dressing in buckskin, hunting buffalo and deer and not speaking a lick of English, said Diane Gillo-Whitaker in her book, “There Are No Real Indians Anymore and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.”
She said that identity murder is the most common form of Native disappearance. It’s based on the definition of what constitutes a “real” Indian.
“Real Indians dress like Indian. Real Indians live on reservations. Real Indians are at least half blood. Real Indians know their language ...,” she said.
Whitaker said non-natives are conditioned to determine the authenticity of Native American people.
“Native people rarely ask each other about their blood degree because they know that being Native is not about an abstract mathematical equation that parses out their identity into measurable fractions,” she said.
Fred Thomas, vice chairman of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, said the community is still trying to hold onto a few things from their ancestors. Much of the language heritage was lost because Native American students often were punished for using their language in public school, he said.
“It was always the non-Indian version we were taught with a lack of respect for the Indian. There’s the other side of the story and a lot of what we’re trying to retain is because we don’t write it,” he said.
Thomas said they mainly prohibit recording the language. It’s passed on by word of mouth, much like the ancestors did it.
“If you’re going to learn it, you’re going to depend on your ears and sight,” he said.