Wednesday’s ceremonial groundbreaking for new high school on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation is a testament not only to Minnesota political teamwork, but to the hard work of the school’s students.
For more than a decade, advocates have pushed federal officials to replace the dilapidated pole barn that has served as the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School for roughly 30 years. The Bug school, as it’s known locally, is part of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).
Chronic underfunding for new buildings left the Bug school and roughly a third of the 183-school BIE system rated in poor condition, a disgrace detailed in the 2014 Star Tribune series “Separate and Unequal.” Students at the Bug school, such as Seneca Keezer and Chaz Roper, found themselves in a national spotlight at a young age, playing host to numerous visiting politicians, federal officials and journalists.
Without fail, these teenage leaders were passionate advocates for their school and their community. They patiently pointed out the leaking roof, cold classrooms and evidence of rodent infestations. But they also wove their dreams for a better future into this sad narrative, leaving visitors inspired about the potential for these students and their impoverished community.
The students’ tireless work included trips for many to Washington, D.C. Along with Leech Lake’s tribal leaders, the students energetically lobbied congressional leaders for better funding for the Leech Lake school and other falling-down BIE facilities.
It was an up-close opportunity to learn how the American political process works. That the school is now being rebuilt suggests that the students made the most of this educational opportunity. If this were a class they were graded on, they would have earned an A-plus.
These lessons in the political process should last a lifetime. The new Bug high school, slated to open in 2017, is just one of many BIE schools that needs rebuilding. American Indians face other daunting challenges, including unemployment, shockingly low high-school graduation rates and disturbing levels of crime on reservations. Serious health conditions such as diabetes and drug addiction also plague this group.
Many of the Bug school students who lobbied for the new building have graduated. While they won’t benefit personally, their involvement in getting it built provided them with a unique set of skills. They learned how to get things done and, more important, that their voice matters.
The legacy from the teamwork that led to Wednesday’s groundbreaking hopefully won’t just be a new building. Students empowered by securing a new school have the potential to become a highly effective next generation of American Indian leaders. Minnesotans expect great things from them and look forward to seeing what they will do next.