Fort Belknap, Montana—Tuffy Helgeson, 31, is one of the country’s youngest fluent speakers of Nakoda, his native language. He’d like to change that.
In 1978, just a few years before Helgeson’s birth, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act became law, finally affirming the right of country’s indigenous people to access sacred sites, worship in traditional ceremonies, and use materials they consider sacred artifacts, like eagle bones, which non-Indians are generally restricted from obtaining. “That, alone, moved mountains,” Helgeson said. It also moved his grandmother to teach him, her youngest grandchild, to speak Nakoda. He thinks the law made her feel it was finally safe.
Knowing his culture and practicing his religion help ground him, Helgeson said. As a teacher at Hays-Lodge Pole High School on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, Helgeson works hard to pass on that cultural knowledge. Young people’s finding hope and pride in the past, he thinks, could be key to their future.
While there is great strength and beauty on Fort Belknap—in the tight-knit community, the vast land, the ancient ways—hope and pride can be hard to find. Alcoholism, drug addiction, chronic disease, and suicide are far too prevalent, while jobs are far too few. As Helgeson puts it, “This whole American Dream doesn’t apply to our people.”
A school-turnaround grant program—funded by the federal government and run by the Montana Office of Public Instruction—may be changing that. But given the weight of history, the persistence of poverty and the depth of disaffection here, it’s fair to ask: Is a three-year grant really enough to pull Montana’s reservation schools back from the brink?
Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, who is Native herself, launched the state’s Schools of Promise grant program in 2009. Participating high schools get teacher training, support for administrators, guidance on school culture, additional funding, and wraparound health and social services, among other benefits. The state dedicates nine full-time staffers to the program and an additional five work on it part-time. So far, six communities have been or are currently home to Schools of Promise high schools.
“Fair is not always equal,” said Juneau, who grew up in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. “If we’re going to achieve equity in education, we need to look at ways that we may provide more resources to certain areas than others.”
Hays-Lodge Pole High School “was in total disarray” when Margarett Campbell, who has served as her region’s state representative in the Montana legislature, took over as superintendent in 2014. “It became obvious to me that this wasn’t something I was going to wave a magic wand over,” she said. “I needed help.”