SD Indian Education draws leader from retirement
By Nora Hertel
PIERRE (AP) — Former educator Lowell Amiotte is leaving retirement and treasured time with his own 13 grandchildren to help Native American children statewide.
The 72-year-old Oglala Sioux member takes over June 9 as director of the Office of Indian Education, eight years after retiring from South Dakota State University where he served as assistant professor in the College of Education since 1990.
Amiotte said he was first offered the position when it was created in 2007. The last director left in 2012 and Keith Moore, the original director, has led the office in the interim.
"I guess they appealed to my ego," Amiotte joked about why he agreed to take the job until someone capable, willing and younger comes along. "They said, 'You can do it.'"
The office is charged with addressing the achievement gap between native and non-native students and seeing to the educational needs of the state's largest minority. Native Americans make up nearly 9 percent of South Dakota's population and there are nine tribes in the state.
While the state has oversight over public schools, the Indian office also coordinates with tribal schools and the federal Bureau of Indian Education.
"We do what we can do to be collaborative," said Melody Schopp, South Dakota's secretary of education.
Amiotte's longtime friend and colleague Jr. Bettelyoun understands why Amiotte agreed to come back.
"Sometimes it's hard to retire when you keep your interest level up and you want better things for Indian children," he said. "Lowell is well known, well respected, and will be looked upon as a good candidate for the position."
Amiotte has a degree in counseling, experience working on budgets and experience with federal boards and offices, all of which Amiotte thinks will help him help educators.
Amiotte began his career as a teacher in Wyoming and Nebraska in the 1960s. In 1972, he became director for the Center of American Indian Studies at Black Hills State University. He also spent three years as the president of the Oglala Lakota College and worked in the Indian education program for Rapid City Area Schools. And he's a former president of the National Indian Education Association board.
Chairman of the State-Tribal Relations Committee Sen. Jim Bradford said it was tough to have the spot open for a few years. The Pine Ridge Democrat said he's glad to see it filled by Amiotte, who already has credibility with Native Americans in the state.
Amiotte said he will have to re-familiarize himself with the issues affecting Native American students. He said he doesn't know much about Teach for America, for example, a federal program that sends young volunteers to teach on reservations and draws mixed support from state legislators. He said he's heard good things about the program.
Amiotte and Bettelyoun agree that not much has changed in Indian Education in the past few decades. Funding for education and economic hardship on reservations remain issues that hurt native students. Amiotte said it's not enough to talk about curriculum, but administrators must consider a bigger picture, such as making sure students are well fed.
"We're still having a lot of things that we need to do," he said. "I'd like to increase the test scores of Indian students. But that's going to be quite a job."