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Impassioned tribal leaders and educators here are eager to make their case for replacing deteriorating school buildings. But the most powerful argument may be in the blazing lights and nonstop activity at the Little Wound school in Kyle.

One of seven federally funded Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and one of four rated in poor condition, Little Wound opens around 7 a.m., with the cafeteria quickly filling up as students arrive early for breakfast.

The preK-12 school, with an enrollment of about 900, bustles long after the school day ends as parents cheer on the Mustangs girls’ volleyball team and admiring students watch the school’s 7-foot Division I basketball recruit, Nate Brown Bull, as he practices jump shots nearby.

Outside, kids shoot hoops at the crumbling elementary school playground, and skateboarders show off near the main entrance. Even as darkness descends on the prairie, more kids head toward the school than away from it. Boys’ basketball coach Jay Jacobs closes the gym at 8:30, but it takes time to shoo everyone out before the lights dim.

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On a sprawling reservation known for its Third World conditions, schools like Little Wound offer a haven to some of the nation’s most disadvantaged learners. The buildings where students spend most of their day should be in safe, modern learning environments that send a strong message to students: Your education is a priority. Instead, the four worn-out BIE schools here reflect the poverty around them.

After a decade in which funding for BIE school construction and improvement has declined sharply nationwide, about a third of the 23-state system’s 183 schools need to be replaced. South Dakota has the third-highest number of BIE schools in poor condition, and the Pine Ridge reservation has one of the largest clusters nationally — a reality that’s unlikely to change soon without stronger advocacy from the Obama administration.

“These are our future teachers and our future leaders,’’ said Maria Kirkie, a mother of three and a teacher at Little Wound. “We need to invest in them.’’

Poverty’s toll

There’s a clear weariness on the reservation from being held up for decades as one of the poorest places in the United States. Students know why outsiders — known pejoratively in the Lakota language as “wasichu’’ — often come here, and they’re reluctant to see their community’s troubles in the spotlight again.

“Sometimes when people come here, they think we’re trashy and stuff … that we’re homeless and we starve all the time. That’s what kind of hurts,’’ said Kristina Looks Twice, 13, an eighth-grader at Wounded Knee District School, a K-8 facility in Manderson. Wounded Knee is another of Pine Ridge’s four BIE schools rated in poor condition. It’s located close to two potent symbols of the U.S. government’s long, tense relationship with tribes: the memorial marking the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre and the hamlet occupied by Indian activists in 1973.

Cecilia Fire Thunder, a former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and current member of the Little Wound school board, says visitors need to look beyond the economic challenges here and see the value of the strong family ties and the richness of Lakota traditions. “Yes, we have a lot of poverty, but it balances out because we don’t have cultural poverty,’’ said Fire Thunder, who was relocated to California in her youth by U.S. government policies but eventually returned home to embrace her heritage and become a leader for her Oglala Lakota Nation. The tribe has 45,364 enrolled members; the population of Pine Ridge is estimated at 30,000.

Still, the depth of the poverty on this 3,468-square-mile reservation — bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined — is what makes federal neglect of BIE school buildings here and on other reservations unconscionable. Unemployment on the Pine Ridge reservation, about nine hours west of the Twin Cities and about 90 miles southeast of Rapid City, has been estimated at 70 percent or more. Roughly half the residents in Shannon County, which lies within the reservation’s borders, fall below the poverty level, compared with 13.8 percent of the rest of the state. Per capita annual income is $9,136 and the median home value is less than $20,000, according to U.S. Census data.

In Manderson, where the Wounded Knee school is located, these figures morph into grim reality. Manderson is on the western side of the reservation, where the prairies give way to the barren, rose-hued buttes of the Badlands.

Many of the town’s 626 residents live in a neighborhood of about 100 small one-story or split-level homes. Houses generally have as many windows broken as unbroken. Doors are often ajar, siding is peeling or broken away, and roofs wear a threadbare layer of stained shingles. The roads are so rutted that even a four-wheel-drive vehicle needs to slowly navigate the neighborhood.

From his home, Tom Clifford watches over his grandchildren Gabe, 9, and Breanna, 6. The two are playing outside on the front stoop and are fascinated by a large wolf spider meandering on the concrete. Before long, Philomena Clifford, the kids’ mom, pulls into the driveway in her small SUV and tells the kids to stay close to home. “Don’t be going down the road,” she warns. “There’s drunk guys down there.’’

Tom Clifford worries about substance abuse. “There are a lot of drugs here. I’m talking a lot of drugs,’’ he says. Like any grandfather, he wants Gabe and Breanna to have a brighter future.

If federal officials “really wanted to help the schools, they’d take care of that,’’ Clifford says, nodding down the road toward the Wounded Knee school. “I think they have forgotten about us.’’

Preserving a culture

The reservation’s BIE schools, where Lakota language and culture are taught along with regular subjects, are where the rich traditions touted by Fire Thunder are most often on display.

On a hectic morning in Wanblee, a remote town on the eastern side of the reservation, students crowd into the Crazy Horse school just before the first morning bell. About 334 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attend school here. The older students noisily milling about in the cafeteria commons area move into place as high school and middle school principal Daniel Seibel calls out: “Circle up!”

The day here typically begins with “smudging,” a spiritual purification ceremony in which a sacred plant is lit in a large clamshell and passed around the ring of students as it smokes. “It’s like a wash for the soul,’’ says Elroy Cross, a security staffer at the school who already has lit the cedar for this purpose and is ready to go when Seibel turns the ceremony over to him.

Cross tells students it’s a beautiful day and asks them to give respect to Jamie Dull Knife, a junior, as she leads them in a traditional Lakota song. The teenager’s high, clear voice fills the commons with the melody’s soaring, keening notes. Other students in the smoky circle join in quietly and without self-consciousness.

The clamshell makes it way around the room. Brianna Bettelyoun, a 15-year-old sophomore, is its most enthusiastic recipient this morning. She vigorously cups the smoke and pulls it up and over her head. It’s a chance to rid herself of this morning’s bad start — missing the bus and having to walk 30 minutes to school.

“I smudged so I could open up my spirit to a better day,’’ she said later.

As Cross recovers the clamshell, the room is calmer. The circle and the smudging have sent students on their way with a powerful sense of history and belonging. “They’re descendants of a proud, proud people,’’ Cross said. “We want them to recognize that so they can compete in this world and achieve what they need to achieve.’’

The Crazy Horse school, named for the legendary Lakota warrior, is housed in a worn, brown-brick building that’s about 40 years old. It’s another of the four BIE schools rated in poor condition, and deferred maintenance now tops $4.5 million. The replacement price tag: $30 million.

Although school officials keep the building clean and well-lit, part of the school recently had to be closed off because the roof was leaking. A crumbling corridor near the gym area remains permanently locked so students don’t use it. The small building at the end of the corridor may be condemned.

The most alarming deficiency at the school is the subflooring in two hall ways used by students and the public on their way to the gym. There are two large areas where asbestos tiles have broken into shards, and what’s left of the floor visibly bows as football coach and athletic director Carroll Webster walks on it.

As for the dusty, crumbling asbestos tiles kicked and scuffled by students, “They tell us it’s fine as long as it’s not disturbed,’’ Webster said with a wry grin, referring to federal officials’ response when the school has raised concerns about exposure to tile containing this carcinogen.

Broken promises

While there are few such obvious safety risks from conditions at the other three BIE schools rated in poor condition, the buildings are dated and crowded, making it difficult to attract and keep quality teachers. Electrical systems and plumbing, which age faster than the structures, are out of sight but in need of expensive updates.

At Little Wound K-12 school in Kyle, a gym attached to the overcrowded main high school building was erected in 1939 and is still used for gym class and community gatherings. One of the two middle school buildings is a rundown pole barn with dark, low-ceilinged classrooms, broken windows and no air conditioning. Locker space is inadequate; students stuff sports gear and other equipment on top of lockers and into the hallway.

To get to the middle school pole-barn building, students pass through a covered corridor. Staff members monitor the activity because of the bats that roost there and because hanging electrical and communications cables are within easy reach.

One nearby portable building with a decaying foundation may be condemned. The portable next door, which is used as an alternative learning center, has a floor that’s falling in and a bowed ceiling that leaks; it’s difficult to heat, and it lacks separate restrooms and other facilities needed to maintain student discipline and privacy.

The fourth BIE school in poor condition is the American Horse K-8 school in Allen, with 283 students. The school, which is over 40 years old, is overcrowded, has broken asbestos tile flooring, and lacks the electrical and communications infrastructure needed to support the technology used in modern education. The building is also poorly insulated, resulting in high heating costs that eat up funding intended for other educational needs such as building maintenance.

Deferred maintenance for all four Pine Ridge schools in poor condition tops $13.5 million; total replacement costs would be at least $73 million.

At American Horse, superintendent and principal Gloria Coats-Kitsopoulos, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel of Indian descent, bristled at the delays in building schools and the questions critics raise about the federal government’s obligation. “I don’t want any handouts. I just want what was promised,’’ she said, referring to educational responsibilities assumed when land treaties were signed with tribes in the mid-1800s. Federal funding for BIE schools flows from these.

Seeking a new source of aid

Unlike other reservations, where BIE schools are the only option for Indian students, there are public schools serving Pine Ridge reservation students. The Shannon County School District runs four schools for preK-8 students, as well as an online high school.

Three of the schools are new and, although district officials say the fourth needs to be replaced, the gap in quality between the public school facilities and the four distressed BIE schools is a touchy subject on the reservation.

The public schools are eligible for a federal funding stream called impact aid that only “a few” BIE schools get, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Public school districts near reservations without a strong property tax base often receive this help.

Expanding impact aid availability to BIE schools, or making other federal education funding available to state or local agencies, would help address construction backlogs. It’s a policy discussion that Congress should have and one that Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline — the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce — should push for, given the concerns in his home state and region.

BIE students at Pine Ridge are sometimes conflicted about whether to go to the newer local public schools or to stay in the BIE system, whose facilities may be closer to home and have a more intensive cultural curriculum. But the four Shannon County schools, which serve about 1,500 students, are already at capacity or overcrowded, according to officials, meaning Pine Ridge students may not have a choice.

Paul Pawnee Leggins, an eighth-grader at Wounded Knee, said his friends who attend Shannon County schools work with iPads in class. Because he aspires to be a game designer, he’d like to have tablet computers at his school, too. But iPads aren’t enough to make him switch.

“They only have Lakota once a week,’’ he said. “I would rather have Lakota every day, so we can learn it. We have to keep that alive.’’

Bettelyoun, one of the students who participated in the “smudging” ceremony, has similar motivations for staying at the Crazy Horse school. Her parents want her there, and Bettelyoun believes BIE schools shelter kids from stereotypes and low expectations at other schools, while passing on cultural traditions that will keep them connected to their families.

Still, the comparisons are difficult. “It’s not a good feeling. … A lot of the schools we went to for basketball tournaments look so fancy. So much fancy things — fancy floors, new flooring, new design, new curtains. … They had technology, they had TVs in the hallway to show the student activities. It makes our school kind of look sad,” she said.

Bettelyoun dreams of the day when visitors come to the Pine Ridge reservation because the schools are standouts both for academics and sports. An investment in schools would pay off, she promised. “This generation I’m growing up in, us teens, we want to make a change on the reservation,’’ she said.

Fire Thunder, the former tribal president, also yearns for the day when Pine Ridge is known more for its strengths than its weaknesses. Outside the American Horse School, a whimsical but inspirational statue of an Indian child riding an eagle soaring through the air greets students at the entrance.

“That,’’ said Fire Thunder, nodding to the artwork, “is what we hope and dream for our children.’’

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Separate and Unequal, a four-part series that will be published on consecutive Sundays, was reported and written by editorial writer Jill Burcum, with input from the Star Tribune Editorial Board. News photographer David Joles, who traveled with Burcum to northern Minnesota and South Dakota, shot the photos.