In the late 1960s, my mother decided to finish getting her education. At that time there was a strong push to get an education, and a small segment of the American Indian population was starting to attend college classes.
As a young child, I remember some extended family members questioning Mom’s motives in furthering her education. During that time in history, women were mothers and housewives. But my mother was always a rebel for the cause. Her name—Jessie James— says it all.
Years later I realized that Indians who were going to school were breaking down the barriers that hinder American Indians from receiving post-secondary educations.
Jessie attended classes at the University of Montana in Missoula in order to earn her degree in social work and journalism. Her two brothers and sister were also studying in Missoula: Gerry Lankford earned a Master’s in Education, and Tom Lankford a degree in accounting. The small Indian population of students became “adopted” family; they visited our trailer to eat, meet, and have that sense of home.
Last year an A’aniinin elder, Elmer Main, passed away. During his funeral, many remembered how he had helped Native students get the financial aid they needed to pay for college. Whenever anyone had education issues, someone would inevitably suggest, “Go ask Elmer; he’ll know what to do.”
As for me, I went to college off and on while raising my children as a single parent. In 1996, I earned an Associate in Arts Degree in Architectural Technology from Spokane Community College in Spokane, WA. I returned home to Montana and attended Northern Montana College. At age 47, I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Communication and a minor in Community Services with departmental distinction. I did this the same month my son graduated from high school—proving it is never too late to get an education!
After graduation I went to work for a nonprofit, Opportunity Link, Inc. Its main focus was to lift people out of poverty using unconventional strategies. One of my first projects was providing transportation for American Indians attending the first civil rights conference for American Indians in Montana. At this conference a co-worker made me aware of the history I had lived in while growing up and watching Native students earn their college educations.
Several of my mother’s classmates are now the “who’s who” of the American Indian education, business, and government worlds. I had always related to them as people who sat at our table, studied, and whose children I babysat. Suddenly I became aware of our shared history, and it redefined my perspective of these adopted “aunts and uncles.” I realized I had grown up among the “movers and shakers” of their generation.
With this realization, I began to see them through a different lens—and also began to comprehend the hardships they had faced while attending college. Times were different back then. I remember standing with my mother and other students in picket lines and holding signs to change some civil rights issue. Watching them stand up to “da man,” push back, and with a united voice demand their civil rights taught me firsthand that positive change can— and does—happen when people stand together.
As a young girl, I knew that going to college meant taking classes, studying, doing homework—and also lean times and tight cash flows. Not having a fulltime income caused us to go without sometimes. Mom’s friends and fellow students would step in to help with loans and food, and there was a lot of bartering going on, too.
Now that I work for Aaniiih Nakoda College, the tribal college on the Fort Belknap Reservation, I am aware how few people know what hardships my mother’s generation experienced to get their education. My family always held education in high regard. My mother and dad, Donald Bishop, both continued their educations at a later age than the typical high school graduate.
People such as my mother and her fellow students need to be recognized and thanked for their efforts and for all the amazing things they accomplished. For instance, the Montana American Indian Tuition Waiver was implemented to encourage students who would otherwise not be able to attend college. Under this program, people with onefourth or more American Indian blood are eligible for a waiver upon demonstration of financial need. Without it, many Indian residents would not be able to afford college.
Yet today many students have little or no idea it was their grandparents’ generation that made this all possible! Today, my son is a music theory student—and Honor Roll student—at Montana State University, Billings. He would not be able to attend without this assistance. I would not have been able to get my bachelor’s degree for that matter!
That generation carried on the warrior spirit. Many of these people did fight in various wars and defended our rights as American Indians and citizens of America—and they know the value of education. I am a United States Army veteran, and so is my daughter Renata Shopteese-Lindo. But it was my mother and her ancestors who showed us how to stand up and fight for what is right.
I come from a family that truly believes in education; it is not just a piece of paper. Rather, education gives us the tools we need to make a better life for ourselves and those who come after us. My nephew Eddie Moore is going to school at Haskell Indian Nations University, and a friend of his, Corey Hudson, wrote on his Facebook page, “RISE UP! For our ancestors and become warriors of today. Education is our best weapon for success!! RISE UP!”
Rebecca Bishop (A’aniinin/Little Shell Chippewa Cree) is the public relations specialist at Aaniiih Nakoda College (formerly, Fort Belknap College) near Harlem, MT.