A Downriver Educator Through and Through
By LISA MOREHEAD-NEUNER, TRT Contributing Writer
Looking at this woman, you may notice many things: her inner calm, her dignified poise, her striking features – especially the chin tattoo that marks her as a River Indian woman. In speaking with her, the thought may cross your mind: This woman would make a killing at the box office; she could breeze into any job down in Sacramento or back in D.C.
And her own aspirations? Margo Robbins has never wanted anything but to stay on the river.
“That’s where I’ve lived all my life. My mom brought me home there from the hospital; that’s where I returned from college; this is where I belong.”
Robbins is a family woman, a Yurok tribal member, a dedicated community member, and the Indian Education Director for the Klamath-Trinity Joint Unified School District. In this latter faculty she is able to practice much of what she has enjoyed doing most of her life: doing projects with the kids, working with families, and developing ideas of how to teach stories, handwork, dances, history, and the like.
Even as she comes from a family of dance makers and a line of Indian Doctors, Robbins tells that she hadn’t grown up in a fully traditional family setting, granted she remembers watching her grandmother peeling sticks. “She didn’t teach me though. She wasn’t much of a teacher – or maybe I never thought to ask,” Robbins reflects.
Her early school years at Jack Norton School in Hoopa helped her along the path she eventually decided to follow as an Indian educator. The school offered a project called “The Nice Program,” where they taught students basketry, beading, and language. “We also practiced Brush Dance once a week,” Robbins explains. “They took us out and we performed demonstration Brush Dances. Then, all of us would go to the real Brush Dances.”
The decision to continue her education after high school graduation was, in her words, a given. “It was never a question of if, but of which college.” True to her nature she wanted to stay close to home, making the choice to attend Humboldt State University simple. There she joined the Indian Club where she forged valuable friendships.
“My goals were clear: get a job that has to do with kids, move home back to the river.
Again, faithful to river and to heart, Robbins moved back home after completing her degree. She became an Outreach Consultant at Hoopa High School where her job was to improve the students’ attendance, academic performance, and behavior. “To do that you need to reach out to families and put support structures into place in order to achieve success.”
Recent legislation proposes to expedite Robbins’ objectives: Title VII is the policy of the US to fulfill the Federal Government’s unique and continuing responsibility to the Indian people for the education of Indian children. This is supposed to be attained through grant funding at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.
This supports what Robbins has been doing for many years: using the kids’ own culture to teach academic rigor. “When we create curriculum, we align that to the California State Standards. That means if the curriculum for the fifth grade says to read a story and discuss the plot, then that is what we write into our Indian Education curriculum.”
Robbins said that teachers feel more comfortable using the guidelines set for Indian Education if it meets the standards to which they will be measured. “Our subject matter is created around the history and culture of the people.” The payoff is easy to see: Student participation in education is improved. For Robbins, this leads to even greater benefits: The more the students learn, the more interested they’ll become. “Their sense of responsibility to this place and these people will increase.”
Native students’ poor performance on state-wide and national assessment tests was a catalyst to the Title VII legislation. Robbins illuminates: “You know, we’ve lost so much of who we are. As we get back we will become a healthier people. This is a huge key.”
To explain the roots of the problematic relationship between education and Native students, she continues: “When non-Natives tried to crush our culture and religion, they were successful – to a point. We lost much of who we are.” Then boarding schools came along. These factors played a decisive role in the losses sustained in Native culture.
However, being the positive thinker that Robbins is known to be, she says, “What a handy and fitting place to give it (Indians’ cultural and spiritual identity) back than the public schools. We’ve come full circle.”
As the traditions are reclaimed and incorporated into daily lives, it will help the People understand “what and who we were meant to be. Drugs and alcohol don’t go together with this traditional way of loving.”
Robbins goes on to state that Native Americans have lost much of their identity, but she suggests that everybody has a piece of the knowledge.” In all of the families, we’ve retained fragments. If we can put all those pieces together and seek guidance from creator, we can fill in the cracks.”
Another aspect of education dear to Margo Robbins’ heart is her belief in furthering education. While she believes that college isn’t for everyone, she feels strongly that people should be able to provide for themselves and their families. More often than not, those demands lead to some form of higher education.
“I’m a downriver person. This is where I belong,” she asserts emphatically. Nevertheless, she believes that people of the river should seek to attain some form of higher education. “I still believe in that.”
To this end, Robbins has started a scholarship for graduating seniors and seeks donors. A scholarship account has been set up at Coast Central Credit Union to benefit students who can show proof of enrollment in a two or four-year college or vocational school. For more information contact Margo Robbins at 625-5600 ext. 2335 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org