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Learning through letters

A pen pal project between Midway Public School in Inkster, N.D., and Circle of Nations Indian School in Wahpeton, N.D., is bringing rural, Hispanic and Native American cultures together.

A pen pal project between Midway Public School in Inkster, N.D., and Circle of Nations Indian School in Wahpeton, N.D., is bringing rural, Hispanic and Native American cultures together.

On Wednesday, sixth through eighth-grade students at Midway learned about American Indian history and wrote letters to their peers at Circle of Nations. Next month, the students will meet face-to-face.

Students at Midway come from mostly rural families, and 30 percent are Hispanic. Circle of Nations is a boarding school for American Indian youth.

The combination of the three groups got the attention of Teaching Tolerance, a national organization that promotes diversity. The group awarded the schools about $2,000 for the project.

"Our (proposal) was so unique, we found out in three weeks," Midway School counselor and project coordinator Neal Tepper said. The process usually takes months.


Next year, the exchange may get larger, also involving Grand Forks St. Michael's School, East Grand Forks Sacred Heart School and Fort Totten Four Winds Schools, Tepper said.

The exchange was prompted by a recent survey of students at both schools about their cultural perceptions, Tepper said. The American Indian and Hispanic students had a lot of negative perceptions about each other, and the students from rural areas had negative perceptions of both groups, he said.

"We had a lot of kids that didn't know what being Native American was," Tepper said of Midway students. "Some didn't know if reservations had indoor plumbing or if they had tepees. None of it was said in a mean-spirited way, they just didn't know."

Tepper said Midway students were mostly unaware of the different tribal affiliations there are in North Dakota. Many just recognized the Sioux name, he said.

"Some of these kids, they could tell you everything there is to know about farming," Tepper said. "They have knowledge that's very specific to their region."

Midway students learned about Circle of Nations students Wednesday before making a list of questions to send them.

"It's our belief that the reason Hispanic people and people in the rural areas have a lot of negative things to say out Native Americans is lack of information," Tepper said. "We are trying to give them a better factual base."

Tepper told Midway students that Circle of Nations students live at the school nine months of the year and the student body may represent up to 20 different tribes at any given time. It's one of the few homogeneous American Indian schools in the nation, he said.


The lesson prompted Midway student questions to their peers about what tribe they are from, the kind of living arrangements at the boarding school and sports they play.

Midway sixth-grader Bruce Umphrey said he wanted to know whether Circle of Nations' students have American Indian language classes. Seventh-grader Lindsay McDermott wondered how students adjust to being away from their families for much of the year. "That would be scary," she said.

In a previous letter to Circle of Nations' students, Midway students wrote about themselves.

Midway sixth-grader Katie Bartuska said she wrote about some of the regular things she likes to do - eat, shop and play basketball - as well as her Czechoslovakian heritage and how her grandmother taught her to make traditional kolache pastries.

About 140 students are involved in the exchange, according to Tepper.

"When these kids go off to college and find themselves living in a dorm with people of every race and religion, the goal is that they will feel open and free enough to go out and say, 'Hi, who are you? Where are you from?" ' Tepper said.

Ricker reports on education. Reach her at (701) 780-1104, (800) 477-6572 ext. 104 or aricker@gfherald.com .

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