The concept of a community college implies some connection to the community beyond mere setting. A tribal community college suggests even more—a college which maintains its roots in traditional Native culture and serves the tribal community in a unique way. Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College (LCOOCC) embodies these principles. Located in northwest Wisconsin within the traditional homelands of the Ojibwe people, LCOOCC serves the communities of Lac Courte Oreilles, Bad River, Red Cliff, St. Croix, and Lac Du Flambeau. The college’s mission is to provide Anishinaabe communities with classes in the language, culture, and history of the Ojibwe. LCOOCC’s Oshki Bimaadiziiwin (New Day) Program furthers that mission.
Oshki Bimaadiziiwin is an educational outreach program developed in the fall of 2011 by a small group of dedicated faculty. It was designed to extend educational opportunities to incarcerated populations in Sawyer, Ashland, Vilas, Washburn, and Bayfield Counties, as well as those at the Lac Courte Oreilles Halfway House. On an individual level, the program seeks to foster change and offer redemption and hope. It is designed to reintegrate individuals not only into their former communities, but into an academic community, surrounding them with more positive influences and opportunities. The larger goal of the program, however, is to create an outreach educational model that can be imitated at grassroots levels in other communities. If incarcerated people tend to have low income, low job skills, and low educational levels, then educational opportunity should provide a way out.
The Oshki project extends this mission beyond the traditional confines of the college by reaching out to marginalized people. The incarcerated populations in local and state correctional institutions in northwest Wisconsin are disproportionately Native American. According to James McLaughlin, chief public defender for Burnett, Sawyer, and Washburn Counties, Wisconsin incarcerates more Native Americans than any other state in the country; and the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. People of color receive more jail time than Whites for the same type of offense. Recidivism is a major concern for policymakers; people who are incarcerated once are likely to return to jail again. Once a person is caught in the net of the criminal justice system, it is hard to escape.
Throughout the country there are similar patterns. People in jail typically are low-income, have low educational levels, have few if any job skills, and are disproportionately people of color. In 2013, there were 22,462 people incarcerated in Wisconsin jails. Only 4% of the men and 5% of the women reported that they had completed a post-secondary education. Less than half of all inmates reported they had completed high school or that they hold a High School Equivalency diploma or a GED certificate.
In many cases, social problems are passed on through generations. “If you are educated and/or employed you are less likely to offend society,” explains McLaughlin, who has defended a son, father, and grandfather of the same family. “When you don’t have enough opportunities—not enough food in the home, when the utilities have the right to shut off the heat or electricity, when you live paycheck to paycheck— you don’t have the means, you don’t have opportunities. You have hopelessness. When you have hopelessness you turn to alcohol and drugs because you don’t want to look at the world you live in.” Consequently, there is a greater likelihood of recidivism. Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Court judge James Mohr notes that not all those in jail are the murderers, robbers, and rapists that we hear about endlessly in the media. In many cases, they are the neighbors we grew up with next door who made bad choices.
The goal of the Oshki program is to restore balance and harmony to the lives of incarcerated people by integrating individuals into an academic community rather than just taking a punitive approach to crime. This approach has deep roots in traditional Ojibwe culture, which realizes the health of the individual is an integral part of the health of the entire community. Traditional hunting and gathering tribes could not afford to lose people. For the Ojibwe, the goal has been to restore balance and harmony to both the individual and the community. Punishment alone cannot achieve this.
Historically, our current policies of confining and warehousing people for misbehavior would have been foreign to traditional Ojibwe people. Restoring the individual to their rightful place in the culture would have been more natural. In The Struggle to Restore Lives, a documentary on the Oshki program, Judith Hankes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh, says, “Restorative justice is a traditional system that was in place long ago—long before colonialism—when communities were small, when people had to rely on each other, when family members had to work collaboratively. If someone violated that collaboration, the community dealt with it. They couldn’t cast that member out. They needed all members to be part of the community.”
Carol Hand, a retired University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh professor, further explains that from the Ojibwe/Cree perspective, children are gifts of the Creator. But today, mainstream education, child-welfare, and juvenile-justice systems tell children they are not good enough. This message was also enforced in the boarding schools. Karen Breit, a Lac Courte Oreilles Tribal Community planner, adds, “When you’re looking at social problems among Native American communities, all roads lead back to colonialization and the effects of colonialization on people.” But she goes on to note, “If you rewind the clock even further, there was a system in place that worked naturally within Native communities, within Native societies. That system of restorative justice was disrupted. When talking about historical trauma, all of our ways of living were cut off. You need to look back beyond that to find ways to restore balance to the people. Restorative justice is about restoring balance to the community and to the people.”
Implementing the Oshki program presented many challenges. Besides financial obstacles, program organizers had to deconstruct the prevailing attitude that people who are in jail do not deserve opportunities—they are there to be punished. The constant chorus we hear is that people do not want their taxpayer money being spent on opportunities for people in jail. We are not saying that people should not be accountable for their actions, but if there is to be accountability it must also come at the institutional level. If punitive policies alone are not working, then taxpayer money is indeed being wasted. It costs about the same amount to house someone in a jail for a year as it does to send him or her to college for a year— and the results in the latter case would be quite different. After all, there is not a pattern of educated, skilled, high-income people in jail.
Judge Mohr reminds us of a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Mohr adds, “As long as the state continues to deal with Native people without understanding the need to look at things differently, we will continue to have the same results. That result is a disproportionate number of Natives in our jails.” The Oshki Bimaadiziiwin Program symbolizes a change in the way we view and treat offenders. Education is a human right. And since the college exists to serve the community, we know this is the right thing to do.
Patricia Hemming is the director of the Oshki Bimaadiziiwin Jail Education Program at LCOOCC; Patrick Shields founded the program.