Rachael DeMarce did well in middle school and at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls. But she figures if it weren’t for Montana’s Indian Education for All program, she might have never finished high school, with what she described as low expectations for American Indian students and a lack of visible and successful American Indian role models.
But she did graduate — and is now a junior at Carroll College, double majoring in political science and communications.
Next month, she will immerse herself into a major episode of American history, when she and 39 other college students from around the nation embark on the Student Freedom Ride. She’ll retrace the steps of the original Freedom Ride, 50 years ago in 1961, when black and white activists rode through the South on a bus to protest segregation, facing bombings and beatings along the way. Some of the original freedom riders will join the students, offering insights on history to a new generation of engaged students.
To DeMarce, a member of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa Indians and a descendant of the Blackfeet Tribe, the Civil Rights movement offers plenty of lessons that relate to the story of Indians in Montana and highlight the value of Indian Education for All — a program envisioned in Montana’s 1971 Constitution but never funded until 2005, when DeMarce was a sophomore at CMR. The program now provides funding and curriculum to teach the history of Indians in Montana at all levels of public education.
“It says that my culture is valuable, that my culture is important,” she said. “If we were to look at it from the point of view of students in the South, and didn’t learn about the Civil Rights movement or Martin Luther King (Jr.), or learned it wrong, I think we would say that that is a huge injustice. But we don’t really make that comparison sometimes in Montana for American Indian students, that American Indian culture is valuable, it needs to be recognized and when it is taught in schools, it needs to be done in an accurate way.”
The Student Freedom Ride is organized by the producers of the PBS history television series “American Experience,” which will present the documentary film “Freedom Riders,” directed by Stanley Nelson, on television May 16. More than 1,000 students applied for the Student Freedom Ride.
The students will start in Washington, D.C., on May 6 with two days of events at the Newseum. On May 8, they leave Washington and will visit eight Southern states, finishing in New Orleans May 16.
DeMarce remembers learning about the Civil Rights movement back in high school, and contemplating the meaning of racial segregation far away from the South.
“I thought, ‘Wow, there could have been a time when I wasn’t able to attend class,’” she said.
DeMarce is a Gates Millennium Scholar, meaning she is awarded funds to pay for most of her education, even through graduate school in certain fields. She’s worked a couple of internships for Office of Public Instruction Superintendent Denise Juneau, focusing on Indian education, among other things.
In January, she was watching a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr., with Juneau, who was also working on a speech planned around the King holiday, and got inspired to learn more about the movement. A fan of PBS television, she learned about the ride and applied.
She asked her grandmother about the meaning of the Civil Rights movement’s early days a half-century ago in Indian Country, but learned that its importance may have been lost on some American Indians. For starters, hardly anyone on the Blackfeet Reservation had television back then, her grandmother noted.
“It was really a whole world away,” DeMarce said. “So I don’t think she saw the connection of how the Civil Rights movement had actually impacted not only her, but me also through education and eventually Indian Education for All.”
In her internships in Juneau’s office, DeMarce has worked on Indian Education lesson plans and curriculum. She organized a conference of student leaders, called Stepping Up, and worked on the meetings of the OPI Student Advisory Board, a body of 40 high school students that’s part of Graduation Matters, an initiative by Juneau to increase graduation rates.
“She’s a phenomenal young woman,” said Juneau, who herself comes from Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation and is a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.
April 9, the Montana Indian Education Association named DeMarce its college student of the year for her efforts.
She was raised by a single mother and held a couple of jobs in high school while participating in speech and debate. She remembers being a small child and watching her mother doing her college homework at the kitchen table, and knew that she wanted to go to college, too.
Working with Juneau has been inspiring, she said, and made her realize that there were successful Indian people all along; she just hadn’t been exposed to them. Now, she’s trying to be a role model herself for youngsters, staying connected through Facebook and other tools not available until recently.
“I’m two or three years older than high school students, and for them to see that you can go to college, that this is possible, and you can be successful in college, that’s what I kind of wanted when I was in high school and I didn’t really get a chance to see that,” she said.
The Student Freedom Ride will be DeMarce’s first visit to Washington, D.C., or the South, although she spent a semester in Australia last year; that was the first time she saw an ocean.
She said she almost feels like she’s living with history working with Juneau, the first American Indian to hold statewide office in Montana. And she sees a similar opportunity on the bus trip next month.
“I’ll be with original freedom riders, and to hear it from their perspective, for them to be the ones that are guiding us through this trip, it’s going to be incredible,” she said.