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The Choctaw Journey: Making The Case for a Segregated Education

By Sandra Knispel | Published 16 Feb 2011 01:30pm | comments
An example of Choctaw traditional housing at the reservation in Choctaw near Philadelphia

Segregation seems to fly in the face of every lesson learnt from Mississippi’s past. Still, for the Choctaw separate schooling has been key to maintaining tribal identity. MPB’s Sandra Knispel continues her series on the Mississippi Choctaw Journey.

You may be forgiven for not recognizing the Pledge of Allegiance recited during Choctaw language class here at Choctaw Central High on the reservation near Philadelphia. 85 percent of tribal members still speak Choctaw at home, but that number is much lower among the younger generation. Monte Farve, a high-school student who speaks Choctaw fluently, is the exception among his peers.

“I guess you can say it’s the root of our culture, of our tradition," Farve said. Without the language everything is gone.”

According to Roseanna Thompson, Choctaw director of education, the tribe is rightfully concerned:

“We started working with the Head Start Centers also. We do an immersion for the little children, because we realized we were losing our Choctaw language and we had to do something quick[ly]."

In order to enroll at a Choctaw school in Mississippi you need the right pedigree. One quarter of any federally-recognized tribe to be precise; non-Indians need not apply. Dr. Greg Carlyle, a white Canadian, is the school’s principal.

“We’re dealing with the preservation of a culture that if different than the culture around," Carlyle explained. "So, I guess it becomes an argument against assimilation.”

In Mississippi, every fourth Native American student in a public high school does not graduate. By contrast, the average Mississippi high school dropout rate hovers just below 17 percent. Sahinna Anderson, a senior at Choctaw Central, tried public school in fourth grade and lasted all of two weeks.

“I just felt like I was an outsider. There was nothing wrong with the people or anything. It’s just – I just felt that, you know, I did not belong,” Anderson explained.

Her classmate, Laettner Johnson, went to a public kindergarten in Newton County. At age five he was just beginning to speak English.

“I started speaking in my own language, which is Choctaw, and then the teachers got mad at me. Well, really gave me a paddling for speaking it because they said I’m not supposed to say things they don’t know," Johnson recalled. "I was like, ‘What did I do wrong?’ ”

In first grade he transferred to Conahatta Elementary, a Choctaw school, and stayed in the tribal system.

"I liked that because I got to express myself. [Laettner speaks a sentence in Choctaw]. I just said, ‘I’m happy I’m here.’ ”

Anecdotal evidence aside, statistics show that the Choctaw are on to something. The segregated high school here is proud of their now relatively low dropout rate of just 11 percent, less than half the rate for Native American students in the state’s public school system. Principal Carlyle says his Indian students are different from non-native students he taught before.

“They may be more reserved than other students, at least initially. And [I] have just found that’s through their culture," Carlyle said. "Just respect for elders and just holding back their thoughts, but they eventually will share them.”

Of those who graduated last May, 62 percent went off to college. For the tribe they are a vital investment and are guaranteed a scholarship to the college of their choice. But will they return? Most say they plan to.

But sixteen-year-old Lanena John, who wants to become an ObGyn or lawyer, is not necessarily wedded to her native soil. She’s says she’ll be back regularly, though, especially to see her two little sisters.

“I just want, you know, help them see that there is more to life than just the reservation. And to open up their eyes and open their options, but to let them remember that they are Choctaw. And they should be proud of it," John said.

Tomorrow in part three, we continue our journey with a look at Choctaw economic independence, the road from poverty to self-reliance.

Sandra Knispel, MPB News.

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An example of Choctaw traditional housing at the reservation in Choctaw near Philadelphia


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