It's native American awareness Week in Lame Deer, Mont., and time for the Clean Indian Joke Contest. At many schools, the week is a serious occasion; at Chief Dull Knife College, it's a lighthearted celebration with a chili cook-off, art show, tepee-raising competition and a stick-horse race for adults.
The winning joke is from a 12-year-old Northern Cheyenne boy: "Three men are riding in a pickup--two in the cab, one in back. The truck falls into the river. The two men open their doors and swim out but can't find the third man. Finally, he comes up. 'What took you so long?' they ask. 'I couldn't open the tailgate,' he says."
The self-deprecating humor is familiar to the 4,500 residents of this beautiful, barren 450,000-acre (182 hectare) reservation. Irony is almost unavoidable because the realities of life here are grim. According to school officials, nearly half of all families exist below the poverty line. Unemployment runs as high as 85%. Alcohol and drug abuse are appalling.
The bright spot is Chief Dull Knife College, named for a Northern Cheyenne hero and fervent advocate for education. It and 36 other tribal colleges and universities, with a total of about 27,000 students, are a little-known part of American higher education. Like the other colleges, Chief Dull Knife was founded in the 1970s in protest over the curriculums that white institutions offered. "There was no connection with the reality at home," says its president, Richard E. Littlebear. The Indian students often had to endure racial cruelty too. "They called us 'prairie niggers,'" recalls one.
Chief Dull Knife College is small--only 141 full-time students, although a few hundred more attend workshops or study part time. The median age is in the upper 20s; some students have worked to raise money for college, while others needed time to deal with addiction and, in some cases, the law.
Isaiah Stotler spent seven months of his 18th year in the reservation jail for a variety of offenses tied to his drinking. "I had a major problem with being told what to do," he admits, "but I finally swallowed it." He cut his drinking to an occasional beer, qualified for college by passing a ged test and enrolled. "My record says I'm a drug dealer and gangbanger," he says. "But my transcript says that I'm getting all A's. I proved that people can change."
Courses at Chief Dull Knife are similar to those at any community college--English, history, math--but with a unique Northern Cheyenne flavor. Reading includes books like Cheyenne Autumn, a highly praised 1953 novel about the tribe's 1878-79 return to Montana after exile in Oklahoma. History classes teach America as experienced by both whites and Native Americans. Part of the curriculum is devoted to Northern Cheyenne culture and its complex language, which is still spoken by a few elders but almost no students. For decades, reservation schools were strictly English-only. The chairman of the Dull Knife board, John Wooden Legs, 60, remembers the punishment for speaking Cheyenne: "I had to kneel on beans for half an hour or stand in a corner with a bar of soap in my mouth."