FLANDREAU, S.D. — At 6 a.m. the dorm’s hallway alarm blared. Then the overhead fluorescent lights beamed on.
Slowly, high school students Talitha Plain Bull, Juwan Grant and Ethan Young Bird tumbled out of bed and toward the showers.
They had arrived the night before, without much time to settle into this government-run boarding school for Native Americans.
Some of their schoolmates had flown to South Dakota from far-flung places like the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Some had come by car. Most had come on buses that traversed the Great Plains, stopping at reservations and towns along the way.
All of them, including Talitha from Omaha, Juwan from Macy, Nebraska, and Ethan from North Dakota, had brought duffels, bedding and plastic bins, all of which were meticulously searched for alcohol and other contraband. Then they picked their rooms and crashed.
After a quick biscuits-and-gravy breakfast, Talitha, Juwan, Ethan and 176 other teenagers, clad in jeans and hoodies, began their first day at the Flandreau Indian School.
The existence of a boarding school for Native Americans may seem anachronistic in the 21st century. Such schools were begun in the late 1800s as a way to force tribes to assimilate into white American culture. Enrollment peaked in the early 1970s, with 60,000 students reportedly enrolled in Indian boarding schools. Many closed after a 1975 law gave tribes more autonomy.
But the U.S. government is still in the Indian boarding school business. It is under treaty obligation to provide education. The federal Bureau of Indian Education, an arm of the U.S. Department of the Interior, funds and oversees 183 day and boarding schools in 23 states, plus two postsecondary schools. Most of the schools are now run by tribes. The bureau directly manages four off-reservation boarding high schools, including Flandreau.
The boarding schools still serve a purpose. They are a haven for students from troubled homes and schools, an alternative to schools at remote reservations. They also are seen as a familiar connection to relatives who attended in recent years and had good experiences.
“It’s ironic now that the past history of these boarding schools has been one of trying to scrub the Indian white,” said Monty Roessel, director of the Bureau of Indian Education. “Now they are a place where (students) can come and celebrate who they are. They reflect the cultures of the students and the cultures of the tribes they represent.”
Flandreau, a 3½-hour drive north of Omaha, sits near the Flandreau Santee Sioux Reservation and the 2,300-person town of Flandreau near South Dakota’s eastern border with Minnesota.
Once operated by religious groups and then by the U.S. government, most boarding schools a century ago were terrible places that traumatized generations of Indian children. Per U.S. policy, Native American children were taken from their homes. Their hair was cut. Their language was forbidden. Many experienced abuse, neglect and illness. Boarding school children died at higher rates than they did at home.
A damning report detailing conditions in 1928 spurred reforms. Today’s Indian boarding schools bear little resemblance to their predecessors. Native culture is celebrated. Aside from children sent there by court order, boarding school students generally choose to go there or their families choose to send them.
But the schools continue to face a number of problems, from turnover at the top (the Bureau of Indian Education has had 33 directors since 1979) to the huge academic and social deficits many students bring in the door. Most students come from deeply impoverished reservations.
American Indian students — particularly students in Bureau of Indian Education schools — tend to score lower than average on academic tests than children in federally funded Department of Defense schools or in troubled urban school systems.
In Nebraska, meanwhile, just 31 percent of American Indian 11th-graders met state math standards and 45 percent met reading standards. That compares with 61 percent (math) and 70 percent (reading) of Nebraska 11th-graders overall.
Flandreau has its academic struggles. One study placed Flandreau in the bottom tier of agency schools. In both reading and math, though, Flandreau students showed significant gains over a three-year period beginning in 2010-11.
The agency-run schools face challenges that are endemic to the population they serve. Besides serving many low-income students, the Bureau of Indian Education schools have higher proportions of students in special education than their public school counterparts. And the schools tend to be in remote locations with aging buildings and have a harder time recruiting and retaining qualified staff, according to a 2014 federal report. Those factors illustrate why per-student spending at these schools is higher than in regular public schools.
Roessel said the schools also have high mobility rates, with students constantly coming and going. That creates a challenge for Flandreau, but Roessel said students returning home can be a good thing — a sign of personal success not measured by test scores.
The Bureau of Indian Education system is facing potential change. A federal effort launched two years ago is calling for improvement, reform and reorganization. A trend is toward more local tribal control, though no specific plans for Flandreau have been announced.
Like the three other off-reservation boarding schools, Flandreau does not charge tuition. Enrollment is open to any high schooler who can show one-fourth American Indian ethnicity and is an enrolled member of a federally recognized tribe.
Flandreau draws students from several dozen tribes, including the Winnebago, Santee Sioux, Ponca and Omaha Tribes in Nebraska. So far this year, 34 of the school’s current 279 students (100 joined since the first day) hail from Nebraska. Seven come from Iowa.
They include students like Talitha, a member of the Fort Peck (Montana) Sioux Tribe, who was raised in Omaha. Talitha left Omaha Central High three years ago to come here. Talitha said her family’s constant moving around Omaha and a need to stay home to care for an ailing mother meant spotty school attendance. She attended six Omaha public elementary schools and missed 25 days of seventh grade and 23 days of eighth grade at Lewis and Clark Middle School.
Flandreau, with its dorms, ensured she’d be at class every day. Talitha is now on track to graduate in the spring.
Attendance also had been an issue for Juwan “Juju” Grant, who said a lot of kids skip school on his Omaha Indian Reservation in Macy.
“Where I’m from, people don’t go to school,” he said. “The kids up here are always in class.”
Juju isn’t just in class. The third member of his family to attend Flandreau — his twin brothers graduated last year — Juju is active in football, cross country, track and basketball. He’s also considering a tryout for school mascot: an American Indian in full headdress.
In sports, Flandreau students are the Indians.
It is a word used gingerly around here. Some students and staff say they prefer the term “Native American” or “indigenous” or tribe-specific references.
“It depends on who is using it and the context,” said Flandreau Assistant Principal Sheryl Burkhart. “The ‘Flandreau Indians.’ We’re proud of that name. We don’t want to lose a connection to our history.”
“Identity is everything,” said Burkhart, who is a member of the three affiliated tribes — Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara — of Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. “For our kids, maintaining a high level of knowledge of culture is so deeply enshrined in our (school). It’s so important. It’s who they are.”
Flandreau’s origins date to 1872, when the Presbyterian Church organized an Indian mission school in Dakota Territory. The U.S. government took over school operations in 1877, running a day school until 1892, when the school took in its first boarders.
It initially served elementary students but grew to include high schoolers, who were trained in tailoring, shoe repair, harness-making, masonry and plumbing. The school once operated a farm and garment factory there.
Flandreau Indian School survived a 1940s effort to close it. New buildings, including a cultural center, were added in decades since.
But a 2004 change in how the government calculates funding has meant steep drops that resulted in staff reductions and closures.
The chemistry lab, library and cultural center have been shuttered. The music and shop programs are no longer offered. Everall Fox, Flandreau’s administrator, said the school had to eliminate its second science teacher and librarian in 2012.
But the recent hire of a new science teacher with a background in chemistry holds promise for reopening the lab, Fox said, and the school hopes to hire a part-time librarian “at some point.”
Roessel said the budget is set by Congress. He said the building and program needs of Bureau of Indian Education schools are immense, that the agency is trying to prioritize its response and that the reforms hopefully will address some shortcomings.
“Those kids deserve a science lab, a full-functioning library,” he said. “How do you expect kids to do well if they don’t have access to a library?”
Priscilla Hovland, acting director of home services and a social worker, said the boarding school provides a safer place for American Indian teenagers, many of whom face poverty, isolation, substance abuse and broken families at home. She said nearly every student in a recent survey reported experiencing at home some form of trauma, defined as witnessing an assault or being the victim of one.
It was hard to escape the institutional feel of Flandreau. The harsh dorm lights and loud alarm of the wake-up call. The meals served on plastic trays. The rules posted on bulletin boards.
But teachers and staff exude warmth and a genuine concern for the students.
Dave Flammond, a social studies teacher, said the school tries to provide extracurricular activities, from sports to unique clubs. He runs one on music that once took students to see blues legend B.B. King, and another on paranormal activities. He also is a counselor for a group called Students Against Destructive Decisions. He said reservations are hit by poverty and gang influences, and though reservations remain important places, he said it’s good for high schoolers to get out and see something else.
A married couple, Lillian and Ron Goodeagle, provide cultural education. They used to travel the United States and 15 other countries as participants of the Lakota Sioux Dance Theater. Ron now runs a cultural class out of the school’s old auto shop and teaches beadwork, singing and dancing.
Students I spoke with seemed genuinely glad to be there, and staff described events and activities, including on-campus sweat lodges, that foster a sense of community, identity and belonging.
Parent Trish LaCroix of Yankton, South Dakota, who dropped off 17-year-old daughter Katie for her third and last year at Flandreau, said she’s watched her daughter grow. She called Flandreau a good pre-college education for Katie, who wants to study early childhood education.
“There’s a lot of benefits for her,” said LaCroix. “I’m proud of her here.”
Senior Ethan Young Bird described Flandreau as “comfortable.”
“I like it,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about a ride to school or food or a place to sleep.”
Young Bird placed fourth last year out of 128 runners in the state cross country meet. His high standing won attention and recruitment efforts by a high school closer to home.
But he’s sticking with Flandreau.