Budget cut threatens American Indians

March 24, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

American Indians are the nation's great afterthought. They disappeared with the last John Wayne movie, didn't they? America gave them a bad deal something about genocide, something about stolen land, something a history teacher might have mentioned to us, and we forgot but that stuff ended long ago, didn't it?

Not exactly.

In a little room in East Baltimore's Highlandtown Middle School sit Jeanette Walker and Judy Barnes, and Milton Hunt, too. They're talking about the 13,000 American Indians in Maryland. They're talking about the 8,000 in the Baltimore metro area. And they're talking about how the past never entirely goes away.

On the walls around them, there's evidence: posters of legendary American Indians in their full, traditional regalia, heroic figures designed to instill pride in today's Native American kids about a past that's been forgotten or distorted by generations of pop culture into something shameful.

On nearby classroom desks, though, there are modern computers. Somehow, they're saying, the past and the present have to be reconciled, there has to be a rebirth of self-image. And it isn't getting any easier.

Walker and Barnes work for the Native-American Program, which touches about 450 kids in Maryland. Nearly a hundred of them attend Highlandtown Middle and Patterson High School. Hunt, president of the Maryland Homebased Business Association, is a Native American volunteering whatever help he can give.

In Washington, in a season of budget reducing, the Native-American Program braces itself. There's talk of shrinking an $83 million federal budget to $52 million. In Baltimore, in this little room, it would mean cutting a paid staff of three people to two.

"That," says Jeanette Walker, "would be devastating."

She mentions the one-on-one tutoring her office provides, the referral services, the social work students brought in from UMBC to work with kids trying to find some direction. And then Judy Barnes mentions hugs.

"We're talking about a lot of kids," she says, "who don't have support at home. I see kids getting hugged here, and they're not getting it elsewhere."

"There's a sense of a lost element in these children," says Milton Hunt. "Other ethnic groups have learned self-identity. Ours have been put on the back burner, and as a result, we see all these Native American kids who are simply lost.

"Our school dropout rate is phenomenal. We're seeing a disproportionate amount of AIDS, of drugs, of alcohol. Of absentee fathers. And of kids who have a mentality that says, the best we can possibly do for ourselves is a blue-collar job.

"There's a lost sense of where they came from," Hunt says. "Who are the founding fathers? Are we Jewish, are we black, are we Mexican? When you don't know, you don't have an identity. And the parents have the same problem. They whisper, 'Well, I think I'm a Lumbee.' "

There is, in fact, a sizable Lumbee population in East Baltimore, dating from the World War II migration here from North Carolina, when the big steel mills were going full blast and jobs were abundant.

"But," says Jeanette Walker, "there's never been a sense of identity established. What the kids see is what every kids sees on TV or the movies. The old Indian stereotypes. So we set aside November as Native-American Heritage Month, but it doesn't really register."

"In Black History Month," adds Judy Barnes, "African-American history is discussed. But our history kind of gets passed over."

This is not an implied competition, merely a sense of perspective: the poignant story of America's blacks has finally begun to be told; but the story of Native Americans is still located somewhere outside the fringes of popular consciousness.

"So we have this loss of identity," says Milton Hunt, "and a lack of role models. This program instills values, tells these kids about opportunities they've never imagined for themselves. They think good job is working for General Motors. But the blue collar market's shrinking. We're telling them about computers, showing them keyboarding, getting their grades up, talking about college. All their lives, education's been secondary for them."

A year ago, Hunt says, half the American Indian students at Patterson High School dropped out. It's a horrendous figure. But, before the Native-American Program started reaching some of these kids, the dropout figure was closer to 80 percent.

"I had one student here," says Jeanette Walker, "who was failing everything. I took down a book about the Indians of North Carolina, about people doing good things with their lives. I said, 'You have the same genes, the same abilities.' This child started excelling."

"We came north," Milton Hunt says, "and knew nobody. We should have left that old baggage behind, that sense of working on somebody else's land. We need a fresh start. I told my parents, I'm gonna be a millionaire. My mom said, 'Only white people make that kind of money.' When I went into business for myself, my parents cried."

Now it's a different kind of tears. Budget cuts would land like a blow to the head. The old, destructive myths about American Indians die hard. The aftereffects linger.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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