In 2013, news headlines lit up the Internet with the release of report from the respected publication Education Week, declaring that nationally, high school graduation rates had reached a 40-year high. While graduation rates increased in most demographic sectors, the study said, for Native Americans they had actually dropped to an astoundingly low 51 percent, the lowest of all groups. The numbers are even worse for American Indian boys, at 46 percent.
This is par for the course in Indian country. Substandard education has been a seemingly intractable problem since the very earliest days of compulsory government education for Indians, and it is felt especially hard in reservation communities. Discussing the Bureau of Indian Education, an cites ineffective leadership, financial mismanagement, and lack of expertise among BIE staff in dealing with tribal schools as accounting for the problems.
So when two boys from the same household on the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Nevada graduated this spring it was a cause for celebration. The boys, Robert Lowery and
Dalton Broncho, are brothers in the isolated community of Schurz, Nevada, the seat of the Walker River tribal nation. About 100 miles south of Reno, Schurz has a population of 658 people, according to the 2010 census. The nearest town to Schurz is Yerington, some 25 miles away. With a population of roughly 3,000, Yerington is like a big city compared to Schurz.
The community is so small that its only school is an elementary school that goes from kindergarten to eighth grade, with a student body of approximately 65 students. Robert was one of eight students to graduate from the eighth grade this year.
Despite its isolation in the desolate Nevada desert, like most reservation communities Walker River is plagued by high rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy, according to Katherine Quartz. An independent consultant and education advocate (and Walker River tribal member), Quartz explained that poverty is so rampant on the reservation that the boys know what it’s like to grow up with extreme hardship. She has been a mentor to Robert and Dalton, providing encouragement and other kinds of support when necessary to help fill in the gaps.
“The pep talks I (and others who happen to care) give them are on how to succeed in life through music and art as talent as well as academia,” Quartz told ICTMN. She believes the accomplishments of these two young men are remarkable given all the factors, making their story so inspirational to small reservation communities like theirs.
“For youth to make it in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by all these social problems, is phenomenal,” Quartz said. “It shows that different choices can be made, and Robert and Dalton took the diligent route.”
Making it even more difficult to succeed in school is that the nearest high school is in Yerington, which is about a 45-minute commute that the parents have to make.
“Throughout high school Dalton’s days were extremely long,” Quartz said. “He’d have to leave the house at 6:30 a.m. and wouldn’t return home until about 7 p.m.” This will be the same schedule that faces Robert as he begins high school.
With a 4.0 grade point average, Robert graduated with honors. His favorite subject is science and he foresees a career in law enforcement or firefighting. He is also an emerging artist whose paintings depicting reservation culture are made into greeting cards, which he sells to earn extra money.
Dalton has been playing flute since he was 12 and often plays at community events such as the Veteran’s Memorial Day event and other family gatherings. This summer he is working in the tribal summer program and plans to attend college in Carson City in the fall to study journalism.