TOPPENISH — Getting help at home with school work was something Samantha Olney learned to do without.
Neither of her parents graduated from high school, and both her older brother and sister dropped out.
That left the 18-year-old high school senior at Yakama Nation Tribal School relying heavily on her teachers.
“I used to do my homework three different ways and have the teacher tell me which way was right,” said Olney, who will graduate in May. “The teachers at Kirkwood (Elementary School) were real supportive.”
It’s an all too familiar story here on the Yakama reservation, where tribal members — like many American Indians across the country — face more than their fair share of poverty, few jobs, and alcohol and drug abuse, all significant barriers to education.
For decades, these inequities have resulted in a dropout rate among American Indians in Washington that’s higher than any other ethnic group and more than double the statewide average of 5.6 percent.
And over the past decade, their enrollment at public colleges and universities has slightly declined.
In an effort to encourage more children to stay in school, school districts on the Yakama reservation are teaching traditional languages and customs in the classroom and working more closely with college recruiters.
And for the first time, students will get financial help this year from gambling profits at Legends Casino, a move that tribal leaders hope will help convince the next generation of Yakamas to pursue higher education.
“I think we have some wonderful programs in place, but we still have a lot to work on,” said Patsy Whitefoot, director of Indian education for the Toppenish School District and a Yakama tribal member.
The challenge isn’t just poverty and substance abuse, but the Yakamas’ history and cultural connections to Central Washington that go back thousands of years. Their identity is rooted in the land, and many are reluctant to leave the 1.2-million-acre reservation or cannot afford a college degree.
Although efforts to increase the number of American Indians in colleges and universities have had some success, in 2006 they accounted for only 1 percent of all college students, according to Pathways for Native Students, a 2008 report conducted by colleges in Western Washington.
Statewide, only 13 percent of tribal members had a bachelor’s degree — half the rate of the state’s white population, the report said.
The numbers among the 10,000-member Yakama tribe were worse. Only 6.5 percent of tribal members age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree, while only 35 percent of adults had graduated from high school.
Frank Mesplie, superintendent of Yakama Tribal School, has made it his mission to convince more students to attend college and get their diplomas.
“I was afraid to leave when I went to school, but the opportunity is there,” he said.
He wants to see more American Indians become role models and says he hasn’t met a parent yet on the reservation who doesn’t want their child to be successful. But it’s tough, he said, when the parents themselves are often unemployed and struggling to pay the bills.
“We need doctors, lawyers, archaeologists in our tribe, to maintain our sovereignty,” Mesplie said. “We’re trying to get (our students) to apply for a lot of scholarships — not just one or two — to get them some money.”
Like other members of the Yakama tribe, Mesplie sees education playing a vital part in the tribe’s economic future.
As an incentive, the tribal school gives students gift cards and movie passes for good attendance. The Toppenish School District does, too.
Representatives from the University of Washington visit the tribal school once a month to identify interested recruits.
And all seniors at the school are asked to apply to at least one college, and have to take a class that teaches them how to fill out financial aid forms and write essays, and puts them in contact with college recruiters.
Olney is among those students taking advantage of the effort. She’s already applied to a handful of colleges in the state.
She wants to teach math to elementary school students living on the reservation.
“I love little kids, so I think that will be a good fit for me,” she said.
There are other success stories.
Seattle attorney Quanah Spencer left the reservation in pursuit of an education after graduating with honors from Toppenish High School in 1994.
Today, he works for a downtown law firm that provides a wide range of legal services to businesses and individuals and specializes in American Indian law. He earned a law degree at the University of Colorado.
“It was a challenge; law school is extremely hard and I had to take out student loans. That’s a huge burden,” said Spencer, who grew up in White Swan. “I know a lot of people think just because you’re Native American the government pays for your school. That’s not true at all.”
He worked his way through college fighting forest fires and painting houses.
Without his father in his life, Spencer’s mother, Frances, was the driving force behind his success. She stayed active in his and his brother’s education, and kept them involved in after-school programs.
“She pushed us quite heavily,” he said. “She made a commitment to keep involved with us academically. She knew she wanted us to go to college.”
But many students lack that support at home and drift into what Spencer describes as the “reservation lifestyle.”
“I have friends who are no longer alive because they got in car wrecks — I mean alcohol was a part of it,” he said.
“It comes down to fortitude, dedication,” Spencer said. “Or are you going to let those things become excuses? I’m not going to do that.”
He often returns home, and last fall he helped coach a youth basketball team in White Swan.
Troubles at home
American Indian students need more than just academic support to stay in school, said Whitefoot, the Toppenish director of Indian education. Many students come from broken homes, suffer abuse or are abusing drugs and alcohol, she said.
“Middle school and high school is where they begin to struggle,” Whitefoot said.
Toppenish Middle School has set up a resource management team that offers intervention strategies and student counseling on substance abuse, gang issues and other support for students and their families.
For about two years, Whitefoot has been working with a coalition of parents and educators from the Toppenish and Wapato school districts to combat alcohol and drug abuse on the reservation. The goal is to remove some of the social barriers that hold students back from higher education.
“It’s going to take a very concentrated effort by our communities to achieve the vision and goals that these parents have,” Whitefoot said.
In her job at the Toppenish School District, she’s working on a project to track American Indian students transitioning to college.
Equally important for the Yakamas is that their cultural traditions be part of childhood learning.
“The identity of these students is vital to the overall vitality of Indian tribes,” she said.
Aside from the social ills, there is the distrust many American Indians have toward public schools — much of it rooted in their history with boarding schools run by whites.
More colleges are offering American Indian studies. And the Yakamas helped establish Heritage University, a private college situated on the Yakama reservation just outside Toppenish, to focus on students who are the first in their families to attend college.
Last year, 13 of 25 graduating students at the tribal school received full scholarships for their first semester at Heritage.
“We try to have a big safety net for our students,” said math and tribal government teacher Elese Washines.
Jonathan Tallman, 40, decided to go back to school six years ago.
He worked as a logger for a dozen or so years and said “it was getting really hard on me physically. I just wanted a better life.”
Two days a week he commutes to the University of Washington, where he’s working on a master’s degree in forestry. The rest of the week he manages timber sales in the forested areas of the Yakama reservation.
The Yakama Nation forestry program paid his tuition when he attended Oregon State University to get a bachelor’s degree in resource management.
Tallman intends to use what he’s learned in college to help the tribe manage its timber program.
“I protect the resources, that’s part of managing the land,” he said. “We have all these things we’re looking after. … Basically we’re trying to manage the natural resources for our future generations down the road.”
Said Mesplie, a CWU graduate: “I was afraid when I went to school, but the opportunity is there.”