THE ANSWER—around All Nations Elementary School—came the next day when Kyle arrived ten minutes late for the first faculty meeting. He was dressed in blue jeans and a striped summer shirt, which Cynthia would have considered too casual for a day of professional meetings if she hadn’t been the only professional in the room who was professionally dressed.
While he was making his way to an empty chair and offering a handshake here, a nod there, Cynthia found herself squirming a little. She was sure he was the same man—the one who’d been sitting at the table with the rest of the guests while she’d been serving, doing her civic duty. She remembered exactly what she’d thought, and she was doing her best to remember anything she said that might embarrass her now. The last thing she wanted to do was offend anyone, and this man, this—
“Kyle Bear Soldier,” principal Darlene Toule announced with a teasing flourish. “Still running on Indian time.”
Kyle took a seat toward the front of the sixth-grade classroom, where most of the empty seats were. “Left my running shoes at home this morning. That’s why I’m late, see. But I got myself all dressed up for the first big meeting of the year.”
He hadn’t missed much, Cynthia thought. They hadn’t gotten down to business yet. So far there’d been just a few introductions and lots of welcome-back greetings. She wanted to be part of this group, and she was anxious for the new-kid-on-the-block feeling to wear off. With Cynthia, it always took time. She had introduced herself to Lily Moore, the elderly Indian woman who was sitting next to her, and their brief conversation had been a start.
“This is Kyle’s second year with us,” Darlene continued from her place of authority at the head of the class. “We recruited him from South Dakota to teach fifth grade.”
“He’s one of those West River Sioux,” Lily related behind the screen of her hand. “They speak L, and we speak D. I’m East River Sioux.” Lily seemed to chuckle, but no sound came. Her ample breasts bounced gently. “The other difference is they’re ornery and we’re not.”
Cynthia nodded solemnly, wondering what river the woman was talking about. She knew nothing about L and D, but since Darlene was moving on with the introductions, this was not the time to ask. She wasn’t sure how she should interpret the twinkle in Lily’s eye.
Darlene introduced the Indian language teachers. Marty Blue, representing the dominant tribe in Minnesota, taught the Ojibwa language, while his wife, Patty, another South Dakotan “from a little town west of the Missouri River,” taught the Lakota language. Lily Moore was not a certified teacher, but she contributed to the language program as a native Dakota speaker. And Cynthia felt somewhat enlightened about the river separating two letters—those living on the west side spoke Lakota, those on the east, Dakota.
The reference to the language program prompted Darlene to mention the experimental nature of the program at All Nations. It was that aspect that most interested Cynthia. She knew a lot about Native American art, but little—with the exception of her artist friends—about the people. She knew all the sad statistics, the dreaded high numbers in illness, infant mortality, alcohol dependency, unemployment, and school dropouts. It was this last statistic that All Nations was attempting to change.
“We’ve gotten some criticism since we opened last year,” Darlene admitted. “This is a public school, and we have to abide by desegregation laws, but we’re having a little trouble achieving racial balance.”
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs never worried about that,” someone in the back of the room commented. “I went to a BIA school. Didn’t see the government recruiting anyone for racial balance.”
“Well, that’s federal, and this is state.” Darlene folded her arms across her chest, ostensibly taking a stand. She was a small middle-aged woman of mixed blood for whom taking a stand was clearly not a new experience. “We just have to build such a great program here that non-Indians will flock in and sign up. With this city’s magnet school system and open-enrollment policy, we have to be competitive, because parents can shop around.”
“We’ve got Indian kids on the waiting list,” Lily reminded her.
“I know, but we can’t take any more until we can recruit more non-Indians.” There was some grumbling in the ranks, but Darlene lifted a hand to pacify them. “The road isn’t always smooth, but I think we have to come together somehow. Our school is called All Nations, and we really want all nations. We have a lot to teach all our students.” She looked from one to the other, a gesture that recalled her own teaching days. “We Indian people have good things to share.”
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