A Question of Trust

By David Levine

Mention the words “trust status” on the west side of Milwaukee these days and you are likely to get a strong reaction.

For the Indian Community School (JCS) and its strongest supporters these two words mean the financial survival of the school and the chance to create a Wisconsin Indian Cultural Center (WICC), a unique project of great potential benefit to the 8,000 Native Americans living in Milwaukee and the whole community..

But to many west side residents, the words “trust status” evoke fear for the future of their neighborhood. They are frightened that it might bring loss of local control, high stakes bingo, high rise apartments, and a campus free to ignore the local laws and regulations which help protect the quality of neighborhood life.

The conflict has bitterly divided the community. Neighbors have argued out-the issues in block club meetings, at a forum in the school’s auditorium, and at a three hour meeting in front of the Judiciary Committee of the Common Council. For a while, polarization was fueled and feelings wounded by the appearance of front lawn signs saying “No Trust – Preserve Local. Control.” Sarah Backus, a supporter of trust status, reflected on how divided her neighborhood had become: “To the neighbors with signs on their lawns, this represented the exercise of free speech. To the teachers and children at the school the signs represented burning crosses.”

The Indian Community School is located on an attractive eleven acre campus·in the middle of Milwaukee’s west side. The school purchased this campus and its eleven buildings from Concordia College in 1986, four years after the college had abandoned the site for a new location in Mequon. Nine full-time and nine part-time teachers work with 130 Indian children in the K-8 school. ICS director Roger Thomas, his staff and board of directors believe that trust status would provide federal money needed to ensure the survival and expansion of the school. While the school has been able to restore two buildings and work is proceeding on a third, it does not have money to restore the rest of the campus. In fact, the school must now struggle to adequately fund its present program. “We’re still happy when we get a donation of chalk and paper,” says Rachel Fenwick, who teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. “We have very few materials and a lot of teachers buy things out of their own pockets’.” Nora Hedderich, a 2nd grade teacher, adds, “I just feel we have to have trust status. There are only so many times you can ask different foundations for pledges. Just writing the proposals becomes very strenuous, very tedious. It weighs so heavily on everyone that I think we could do a better job if we had the resources that trust status would provide.”

Because Indians at the school and in the city are from many different tribes, they are nqt eligible for important educational benefits  available to Indians living on reservations. The ICS would solve this problem through an agreement with the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe which has. historical roots in the Milwaukee area and has members who reside in Milwaukee and on a reservation in Northeastern Wisconsin. As a single tribe, the Potawatomi’s have exercised their right to ask the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put the ICS sue in trust for them. If trust is granted, they will lease the campus and its buildings to the I.C.S. Trust status would make the school’ eligible to receive federal money  for education, housing, economic development and restoration which could  total more than $3,000,000 per year.

Advocates of trust status have argued that the funds it will provide are essential for the renovation of the campus. They note this renovation would help prevent deterioration of the neighborhood. Some of the presently unused buildings have offered a haven for drug use and other criminal activity. A fully functioning campus would make the neighborhood safer and bring in jobs. The school has offered to open the gym, pool, and library to the community. And Roger Thomas points out, “As these buildings are restored and occupied, property values are going to go up.”

Many people in the neighborhood are sympathetic to the JCS and the proposed Wisconsin Indian Cultural Center. According to Karen Hendrickson, director of the West End Community Association, “Everybody I have talked to wants the ICS and the Indian Cultural Center to be able to thrive in the neighborhood.” Yet for many west side residents trust status would be too high a price to pay for meeting the needs of the ICS. In Hendrickson’s words, “We are not convinced that taking this land into trust for the Potawatomis is the answer. We’re not convinced it’s the only way to fund this. We’re not convinced that even if it were the only way to fund it that it would be an appropriate thing to do.”

A big fear has been that once trust status is granted, the I.C.S. would set up high stakes bingo on the campus, drawing a lot of traffic into the area and driving local church and school based bingos out of business. Neighbors are also fearful that the eleven acre campus would function as a sovereign entity free to put up buildings or sponsor events harmful to the neighborhood. Neighbors have speculated that the site could become the home of immigrant housing, a center for recovering alcoholics, or a 24 hour liquor store. Neighbors have also wondered if local laws would apply to ‘the campus and if the city’s police and fire protection would cover it.

The I.C.S. Board has responded to these fears by promising to write into their 20 year lease with the Potawatomi Tribe pledges not to hold bingo or violate any local land use ordinances. They have also pointed out that under federal law 280 all local laws would apply to the trust site and the city will continue to provide it with police and fire protection.

While representatives of both sides are still searching for a compromise, they remain profoundly divided on such questions as the necessity of trust status for the continued survival of the ICS and the development of the cultural center, the level of risk it would entail for the neighborhood, and the likelihood of finding adequate legal mechanisms to protect the interests of the surrounding neighborhood.

The ICS – Past, Present, and Future

The ongoing need of the Native American community for educational institutions which reflect and nourish its culture is demonstrated by the history of the I.C.S. The school was started in 1970 because many Indian parents felt the schools in the area were not meeting the needs of their children. Several simply withdrew their children and began teaching them at home. As the number of these children grew, organized instruction began in a church basement. In 1971 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the out of use Coast Guard station on Lake Michigan. They claimed it for Indian use under an 1868 treaty between the Oglala Sioux and the federal government which provided for Indian ownership of all abandoned federal property. AIM turned over the station to the school which used it until negotiating a better location at the old MPS Bartlett Avenue School. Cutbacks in federal funding forced the school to close in 1983, even though enrollment had grown to 150.

When the school reopened at the Concordia College site in January of 1983, its new staff was strongly committed to the school’s tradition of integrating Indian culture into all aspects of the curriculum. The school offers instruction in five American Indian languages and in American Indian dance, singing and drumming. In a culture class children learn Indian folk tales and folklore from a Native American teacher. Periodically the entire school participates in traditional Native American celebrations, such as the tobacco ceremony and commemoration of the equinox. Roger Thomas explains, “One of the reasons that we focus on pride of heritage is that so many of. the children really don’t know their own tribal traditions…If they do not have confidence and pride in who they are they are not going to be able to compete very well.”

Rachel Fenwick is convinced that this emphasis on culture has a strong impact on the self-esteem and sense of identity of students. “I notice that the drumming class brings together these students in a strong type of companionship because they are learning their heritage together and can pass it on to their children. And I see a lot of children very interested in their language classes. They are very disappointed if for some reason the class is cancelled.” Nora Hedderich agrees, “These children just come alive in these classes and they feel so good and so excited that I see this excitement and a better self-concept brought back into the regular classroom and they seem to learn better.”

This commitment to honoring Indian traditions is complemented by an equally strong commitment to creating within the school a supportive community which nurtures the individual student. In a 1987 report, Professor Jack Williams of UWM’s School of Education noted, “Upon entering the school, one can sense a rather relaxed and informal atmosphere. There were no hall monitors, no bells, and no security guards; and, there was not chaos. Instead, one noted a discipline and rapport achieved through a sense of mutual respect and a spirit of camaraderie. This atmosphere was also present in the classrooms. Smaller classes do allow for the type of instruction the school desires, i.e. a great degree of student-teacher interaction and individual attention.”

According to Hedderich this sense of community allows the children “to be very open and verbal about their problems. They will cry, they will yell, and they will tell about difficult family situations. And the other children will be very caring toward them. In the public schools I think they would be kind of lost and they wouldn’t get this attention.”

While detailed plans for the development of the Wisconsin Indian Cultural Center await the granting of trust status, the broad outlines have been sketched out. According to Thomas, “We plan on having the entire scope of educational services here on campus, which would include an early child\. hood education program or a daycare learning center, a whole K-12 educational sys, tern as well as an adult vocational technical program and an American Indian Community College focusing on American Indian languages and American Indian fine arts.”

One important feature of the WICC would be to preserve and popularize Indian oral traditions now threatened by extinction. Roger Thomas explains, “We have been concerned about the diminishing number of fluent speakers of the various languages, particularly those found here in Wisconsin. For each passing of a tribal elder it’s essentially like losing a library. The difference being of course that if the Milwaukee Public Library would burn down today, in all likelihood the books in that library could be found in another library. If, however, we lose a tribal elder, that knowledge is gone forever.”

The WICC would counter this cultural attrition through oral history projects and instruction in several Indian languages. And, Thomas adds, “We hope that we will eventually have one of the best collections of American Indian literature and manuscripts in the Milwaukee area. It would be a resource not only for the American Indian community and for the educational programs here but also for the neighbors and Milwaukee residents,” When the trust battle first began to hit

the newspapers, the tide of community sentiment seemed to be running against the proposal. But in the past several weeks, a strong current of support has begun to emerge. The most visible sign of this current is Neighbors Trusting Neighbors (NTN), a community group formed to support the Indian Community School and convince area residents that the granting of trust status would benefit the community. Even before NTN coalesced, its founders approached people who lived next to the campus and asked them to sign a petition supporting the WICC plan “even if this should require land trust status.” They were able to collect over 50 signatures. Soon after the antitrust signs began to appear, the group collected money at one of its meetings and brought playground equipment for the school. Rachel Fenwick speaks appreciatively of Neighbors Trusting Neighbors visiting classrooms to deliver the equipment and show their support – “The kids now know that there are many people in the neighborhood that want them here. We’ve been able to balance the negative with the positive.”

A Question of Trust

At the heart of this controversy lies a question of trµst. Opponents of the WICC plan argue that no matter how sincere the promises they give the community are, the ICS Board and the Potawatomi Tribe can­ not offer ironclad assurances. Perhaps this is true, and no absolute guarantee can be given that trust status will not be abused.

But the absence of a legal, “failsafe” mechanism should not be allowed to destroy the trust proposal. The ICS Board has gone to great lengths to demonstrate its commitment. to. meeting. the legitimate concerns of its neighbors. The whole his­tory of the school since its birth 18 years ago has shown a commitment to service antithetical to actions which would harm the neighborhood within which it resides. And the positive effects of a vibrant educational and cultural center on the neighborhood compares favorably to the probable effect of a set of large abandoned buildings.

While its positive effect on the neighborhood is a strong argument in favor of trust, there are more compelling reasons why it should be granted. In Milwaukee and other cities across the country, the difficult circumstances that Native Americans find themselves in are in large measure a result of explicitly racist policies of federal, state and local authorities. The most blatant examples of these, treaty rights violations and genocidal campaigns, have captured some space in the public imagination. But fewer people are aware of how the US Congress used a kind of forced urbanization in the 1950’s to erode Indian identity and assimilate Indians into the dominant culture. As reservations were being forcibly terminated, Indians were given money to move to cities as far away as possible from reservations and thrust into city life with minimal preparation. In Milwaukee, Indians have responded to urban life by building organizations and inform.al networks to sustain a community. But they remain a small minority of the population with little economic or political power. Their spiritual resources are sorely tested by material poverty and a dominant culture often indifferent to Indian tradition.

The great value of the trust proposal is that in an eminently practical way it provides some redress of historic grievances by placing in the hands of the Native American community the means to create a sustained celebration of the art and values of American Indians.

However, it is exactly this idea of placing eleven acres directly “in the hands” of Native Americans which upsets many people. While it is understandable for people to be concerned about the future of their neighborhood, aspects of this opposition are disturbing. There is, for instance, a fear that Indians will not be capable of handling their own affairs or safeguarding the interests of their neighbors. It is probably this undercurrent of distrust which leads Roger Thomas to feel “No matter what we do people are going to be in opposition,” or leads Sarah Backus to this reflection:

“What’s scary is that for every concern that’s being answered, people are coming up with more concerns. And these are the people that are the most hard-set about it. The people who I think are the closest to racist are the ones who say, ‘I’m not a racist but you can’t trust them,’ ‘I’m not a racist but they can’t manage their own affairs,’ ‘I’m not a racist, but what’s going to happen in 20, 40, or 60 years?”‘

And for some residents, the idea of reservation status means a dangerous separation. Karen Hendrickson says, “We want the ICS and the WICS to be a part of the community. Reservation status is going to· set them apart. We. think that in the long run that is not going to be beneficial to the Native American community.”

But it is precisely  this “setting apart” which will help Indians more effectively forge their own community and, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, share their heritage with their neighbors. Despite the fearful speculations raised against it, the granting of trust status would not be the gateway to disaster. It would be a small act of justice which would enable Milwaukee Indians to more effectively control  and nourish their own community.

David Levine is an English teacher at Shalom High School in Milwaukee.