Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities

Aug 20th, 2015 | By | Category: 27-1: Tribal College Communities, Media Reviews

survival-schoolsBy Julie L. Davis
University of Minnesota Press (2013)
307 pages

Review by Bradley Shreve

“They did what??” This was author Julie L. Davis’ reaction upon learning about the American Indian Movement’s (AIM’s) community education efforts that began in the early 1970s and lasted until 2008. Heretofore, nearly everyone who has written on AIM has fixated on the organization’s confrontational tactics, militant rhetoric, and sometimes seedy underbelly. In her new book, Survival Schools, Davis presents AIM in a new light as radical as the organization itself.

Davis’ story has familiar beginnings. The author takes us back to 1962, when a cadre of Ojibwe inmates at Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison formed what would become AIM. Upon their release, Edward Benton Banai from Lac Courte Oreilles, Clyde Bellecourt from White Earth, and Dennis Banks from Leech Lake were called to action in an effort to address the dire circumstances that engulfed the Twin Cities’ Native population. They gained notoriety for their use of the “Indian Patrol,” which policed the police to stop unwarranted brutality and harassment. But AIM also gave urban Indians rides to work, distributed food to the needy, and raised money to help poor families. The organization worked to establish the Indian Health Board—the first urban Indian health care facility—and started the Little Earth Housing Project to improve living conditions. Perhaps most impressively, AIM founded the Heart of the Earth Survival School in Minneapolis and the Red School House in neighboring St. Paul that sought to ameliorate the racial prejudice, social anomie, and academic failure that plagued Native children in the Twin Cities’ public schools.

AIM’s community schools were truly grassroots efforts. During their formative years, neither had a permanent location, with classes held in condemned buildings, basements, churches, and even a tent. Their lunch program depended on donated food stamps and classes were taught on a volunteer basis. Despite such depressing realities, AIM refused to abandon the project. Their perseverance ultimately paid off when they landed a series of federal grants, which led to permanent locations and improved programming. Besides basic academic curricula, the schools were able to offer a variety of cultural courses like canoe-making, tipi and wigwam construction, and wild rice-harvesting.

For over 30 years, the schools kept their doors open until a series of power struggles and funding misappropriations ultimately led to their demise. Davis, however, maintains that despite such blemishes AIM’s community schools served as a beacon of hope and were tremendously successful in elevating graduation rates, revitalizing culture for urban Indians, and underscoring the need for education reform. Davis, who grew up on the Leech Lake reservation, offers a refreshing, if sympathetic portrait of an oftmaligned organization. Survival Schools will no doubt change the discourse on AIM and Native activism for students of modern American Indian history and education.

Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal and author of Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism.

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