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Survival Schools

The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities

Julie L. Davis

Publication Year: 2013

In the late 1960s, Indian families in Minneapolis and St. Paul were under siege. Clyde Bellecourt remembers, “We were losing our children during this time; juvenile courts were sweeping our children up, and they were fostering them out, and sometimes whole families were being broken up.” In 1972, motivated by prejudice in the child welfare system and hostility in the public schools, American Indian Movement (AIM) organizers and local Native parents came together to start their own community school. For Pat Bellanger, it was about cultural survival. Though established in a moment of crisis, the school fulfilled a goal that she had worked toward for years: to create an educational system that would enable Native children “never to forget who they were.”

While AIM is best known for its national protests and political demands, the survival schools foreground the movement’s local and regional engagement with issues of language, culture, spirituality, and identity. In telling of the evolution and impact of the Heart of the Earth school in Minneapolis and the Red School House in St. Paul, Julie L. Davis explains how the survival schools emerged out of AIM’s local activism in education, child welfare, and juvenile justice and its efforts to achieve self-determination over urban Indian institutions. The schools provided informal, supportive, culturally relevant learning environments for students who had struggled in the public schools. Survival school classes, for example, were often conducted with students and instructors seated together in a circle, which signified the concept of mutual human respect. Davis reveals how the survival schools contributed to the global movement for Indigenous decolonization as they helped Indian youth and their families to reclaim their cultural identities and build a distinctive Native community.

The story of these schools, unfolding here through the voices of activists, teachers, parents, and students, is also an in-depth history of AIM’s founding and early community organizing in the Twin Cities—and evidence of its long-term effect on Indian people’s lives.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-9


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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

This project began in ignorance, and it was driven by unanswered questions. While reading about the American Indian Movement years ago, I came across a brief mention of two “survival schools” that AIM members had founded in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the early 1970s. ...

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Introduction: Not Just a Bunch of Radicals: A History of the Survival Schools

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pp. 1-10

In the Fall of 2011, I called Pat Bellanger, a Leech Lake Ojibwe activist, at her home in Minneapolis. As a longtime Twin Cities resident, an early American Indian Movement organizer, and a survival school founder, teacher, and parent, she had a long-term perspective on AIM and the schools that she generously had shared with me ...

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1. The Origins of the Twin Cities Indian Community and the American Indian Movement

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pp. 11-52

On a Monday morning in November the students, staff, and guests of Heart of the Earth school in Minneapolis gathered in their lunchroom to listen to a guest speaker, a Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe man named Eddie Benton-Banai. Before the talk, cultural instructor Johnny Smith, a Red Lake Ojibwe, led a group of Indian boys in drumming and singing ...

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2. Keeping Ourselves Together: Education, Child Welfare, and AIM’s Advocacy for Indian Families, 1968–1972

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pp. 53-98

Every time I talked to Clyde Bellecourt, he told a story about school. He told me the first story on a chilly October weekend when I attended the fall Midewiwin ceremonies in northern Wisconsin. During an afternoon break, people filtered outside from the teaching lodge into the damp cold to stand in small groups, chatting and drinking coffee. ...

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3. From One World to Another: Creating Alternative Indian Schools

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pp. 99-126

On a bright, invigorating morning in late September, a dozen Indian kindergarten students gathered in the cafeteria of the Heart of the Earth School in Minneapolis for a half hour of culture class with Johnny Smith. In one corner of the room, the boys sat in a circle of tiny blue plastic chairs with Smith as he taught them how to drum and sing. ...

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4. Building Our Own Communities: Survival School Curriculum, 1972–1982

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pp. 127-172

On a Monday morning in January, Heart of the Earth students and staff members began their school week with a ceremony called “circle time.” In a blue-carpeted, first-floor communal gathering space, two adult men and several male students sat around a large drum. ...

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5. Conflict, Adaptation, Continuity, and Closure, 1982–2008

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pp. 173-194

Early on a September morning, I met Heart of the Earth executive director and culture instructor Johnny Smith for an interview. As we talked, Smith expressed thoughts of leaving the school and retiring. After fourteen years, he thought this might be his last year at the school, that he might leave Minneapolis and go back to Red Lake, ...

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6. The Meanings of Survival School Education: Identity, Self-Determination, and Decolonization

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pp. 195-238

On an unseasonably cold weekend in October, several hundred Indian people gathered near the Bad River reservation in northern Wisconsin for the fall ceremonies of the Midewiwin lodge. Although mostly Anishinaabeg from Minnesota and elsewhere in the upper Midwest, ...

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Conclusion: The Global Importance of Indigenous Education

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pp. 239-243

On a cold, rainy afternoon in late November, I met a man named Jake MacSiacais in the An Cultúrlann café on the Falls Road in West Belfast. I’d come to Belfast to research interactions between AIM organizers and Irish nationalists in the early 1980s when Sinn Fein contacted AIM to learn about the survival schools. ...

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pp. 247-250

Writing may be a solitary enterprise, but many people contributed to the completion of this book. First and foremost, I must thank the people of the survival schools who spoke with me in oral history interviews and informal conversations. I am indebted to them for sharing their knowledge, experiences, stories, and dreams. ...


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pp. 251-286


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pp. 287-300


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pp. 301-308

About the Author

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p. 326-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780816687046
E-ISBN-10: 0816687048
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816674299

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013