The Pine Ridge Girls’ School, known locally in the Lakota language as Anpo Wicahpi Morning Star school, will focus on preparing its students for college. The school was, in part, a response to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s high youth suicide rate.
PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION — Here on the rolling plains of the Oglala Lakota people’s territory within South Dakota, a U.S. state, young Native American girls will soon have a chance to get a unique educational experience, designed especially for them.
The Pine Ridge Girls’ School, located in the Porcupine district, is scheduled to open on Aug. 23. When it does, it will be the first all-girls school on the reservation. The school will educate sixth and seventh-graders.
Locally, the school is known as Anpo Wicahpi Morning Star school. “Anpo Wicahpi” is a Lakota word for “morning star,” which in Lakota culture is a focal point for morning prayer and the start of a new day, and which guides young women in particular to lead honorable lives.
“We wanted to embrace the local language, the Lakota language, because that’s a big value of the school,” says Caitlin Dempsey, a founding board member. “A couple of our board members speak the language, so we had them consult for a name that would embody more of the local presence and identity.”
ABOUT GPJ TRIBAL NATIONS: The Oglala Sioux Tribe is one of nine Native American tribes within the U.S. state of South Dakota that are formally recognized by the U.S. federal government. The U.S. government is required, under the terms of the treaties it signed with the tribes, to allocate funding for education, health care and other services, but there are deep disputes over whether the federal government is fulfilling its treaty requirements.
Eight of the nine tribes within South Dakota are formally known as Sioux tribes, by the name used colloquially during the pioneer era to describe the Lakota people and other groups. The name Sioux is still used formally, but many people who are members of those tribes prefer to use their traditional tribal names. The Oglala Sioux Tribe, which is based at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the tribe’s sovereign land, is often referred to as Oglala Lakota Nation.
The Lakota name could eventually become part of the school’s official name, Dempsey says, but for now the board thought it important to use a name that would be easy to remember and would indicate the location of the school.
A primary goal of the school is to prepare girls to go to college, says Victoria Shorr, who spearheaded the school’s creation. Shorr says she was compelled to create the school after reading about the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s high suicide rate and other endemic problems.
“We want them to come in here thinking of themselves as girls who are going to college,” she says.
The school, which is located in a building once used for a youth and family program, will be open to any female Native American student, but will specifically incorporate Lakota culture and values. Prospective students must submit recent test scores and a written referral from a teacher, says Cindy Giago, who was hired to be the school’s Head of School.
Giago is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the tribe of Lakota people who call the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home. (See box for more information on the tribal names used by the Lakota people.)
Anne Eagle Bull, GPJ Tribal Nations
The school will be the third in the immediate Porcupine area. There is one federally-funded school and one private Jesuit school. Both schools take students in kindergarten through eighth grade. High schools exist elsewhere on the reservation.
Anpo Wicahpi, which does not receive any federal funding, Giago says, has a two-year goal to apply for accreditation through the South Dakota Board of Education. As students graduate from seventh grade, eighth grade classes will be added, she says.
Lakota values are evident even in the earliest stages of acceptance into Anpo Wicahpi school. There’s a registration fee of $150, but that fee can be paid via volunteer hours or through a trade of craft items, Giago says.
“At no point will there be a student turned away for a financial hardship, as continued fundraising efforts will be able to provide scholarships as well,” Giago says.
Once the school opens, students will learn and use Lakota kinship terms, which school leaders say will set the tone for strengthening of the Lakota language.
School leaders haven’t publicly released their operating budget, but they say enough funding has been raised to hire teachers to work the equivalent of 3.5 full-time jobs. Those teachers will also perform other jobs, including cooking, cleaning and transporting students, including others. The school’s first students will have a chance to help decide on a school mascot, school colors, sports activities and other details.
Anne Eagle Bull, GPJ Tribal Nations
The school’s primary focus will be to steer girls toward advancements they can make once they graduate, Shorr says.
“We want these girls to take it for granted that they are people who, if they choose, will go to college,” she says. “And if they are good students they will be going to the college of their choice. So this empowerment will lead to intellectual achievement and they will be able to be the most prepared students because of this grounding environment.”
Heather Brings Plenty, a parent, attended an April meeting for prospective students. Her daughter is entering sixth grade this fall.
There’s a great need for the school, she says, “because we know all the distractions that these girls go through in school that prevents them from learning.”
The schools on the reservation have been impacted by teen pregnancies, high dropout rates and suicide. In February 2015, the Oglala Sioux Tribe formally declared a state of emergency to seek outside assistance to address the high suicide rate.
Richard Greenwald, a representative to the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s council for the Pine Ridge District, says the school will emphasize the “sacredness” of Lakota girls. That sacredness has been lost, he says, due to violent influences that aren’t part of Lakota culture.
“I have a daughter and I worry for her future,” he says. “Today our girls are treated like a piece of meat, not sacred as the giver of life and we need to instill that back into our society. Maybe one day my daughter will attend.”
Shorr’s experience suggests the Anpo Wicahpi school will be a success. She co-founded The Archer School for Girls in 1995 with an enrollment of a little over 30 girls. Now, that school enrolls about 500 girls each year.
Anpo Wicahpi will be a sister school to the school in California and to the Young Women’s Leadership Network of schools in New York, and there will be opportunities for academic exchanges, Shorr says. Students will be given uniforms and computers, and, if funding allows, transportation to and from school.