• Native American community fighting for Indian Heritage High School

    By: Deborah Horne


    For Seattle's Native American community, the 1990s were glorious days when an entire Seattle high school was devoted to the education of the city's indigenous population.  

    KIRO 7 cameras were at Indian Heritage High School's graduation ceremony in 1995.  Every one of its graduates that year -- a cross-section of the city's racial makeup -- had been accepted into college. 

    "It shows that, you know, the stereotypes aren't right," Isaiah Brokenleg said in 1995. "We've done a lot."

    Brokenleg was valedictorian of that class.  Now some 22 years later, he is studying for his second master’s degree, this time in divinity. He talked by Skype. He said he was homeless for a time. 

    But Indian Heritage High School used a holistic approach in educating its students.

    "And because of that, I was able to maintain a good GPA, and successfully complete high school" he said.  "And we know that American Indians have low graduation rates and low educational attainment for a wide variety of reasons."

    But a year after Brokenleg graduated, Robert Eagle Staff, the school's legendary principal, died.

    The community says the late Superintendent John Stanford made a promise to Eagle Staff's widow.

    "That the Indian Heritage High School from 1986 to 1996 would be continued," said Tom Speer, a member of the Duwamish Tribe who was appointed to the Elders Advisory Council for Urban Native Education Alliance. 

    He says subsequent superintendents have not kept Stanford's promise.

    "What have they done then?" he was asked.

    "They have gradually cut the monies to Indian Heritage High School time after time," said Speer. "So now all that remains of the Indian Heritage High School program is six classrooms in the attic of Northgate Mall."

    A.J. Oguara, who is part Colville Indian, is a student there. 

    "Growing up, we didn't really know any other indigenous students here in Seattle," Oguara said, "throughout high school and middle school and even elementary school."

    Still, he has learned of the visionary educator who once led Indian Heritage High School.

    "Robert Eagle Staff was more than just a principal," said Oguara.  "He was like a father figure and a real teacher who put them on the right path of life."

    But a lot has changed since Eagle Staff died.  His old high school has been replaced with a brand new middle school that bears his name. In addition, two tribal members sit on the Seattle School Board.  

    "With American Indians, this being our indigenous place, I'd like to see that, yes, one of the schools in Seattle schools reflect the community that we're at," said school board member Scott Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce, or NeeMee Poo, Tribe.

    "The school system, the school district, is supposed to be for every group. So why single out one group and name, put that name on the school?" he was asked.

    "Again because of the indigenous territory they were on," said Pinkham. "And it reflects the values and culture that we were in the Duwamish, Coast-Salish area."  

    Even he concedes running Indian Heritage High School was expensive. 

    "But when we're trying to balance a budget at, to me, almost at the cost of one particular group," said Pinkham. "It's, that's a risky thing to do."

    Still he knows he faces an uphill battle with his fellow board members.    .

    "Hopefully, I'll convince them that this is something that's needed," Pinkham said. "Not just for the American Indian population but all of Seattle."

    It is a hope Brokenleg shares.

    "Through all of that cultural education," he said, "it really helps to create and form your identity as an American Indian."

    It is an identity that can seem all but lost in this land that first belonged to them.

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