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Principal uses life experiences to help students

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WINNEBAGO - As St. Augustine Indian Mission celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first day of school Nov. 8, Principal Don Blackbird Jr. reflects on his personal history and how his experiences can help students at the reservation's K-8 Catholic school.

"The winding path I took to get here gives me a different perspective when speaking with the kids and dealing with the kids," said Blackbird, 31, who attended St. Augustine from first through eighth grade.

That path included becoming a high school dropout and struggling with his faith.

But a series of events got him back to high school and on to college, and eventually back to St. Augustine, where he has worked since 2001, teaching fifth, seventh and eighth grades and serving as head teacher last year before becoming full-time principal this year. He also reconnected with his faith.

Special understanding

Blackbird, a husband and father of four, said his experiences give him an understanding and patience with the students at St. Augustine, especially because he knows what it feels like not to fit in and to feel "beat down."

As a student at Bishop Heelan High School in Sioux City, Iowa, Blackbird said he encountered racism and stereotyping about his abilities to achieve, which he blames for his decision to drop out of high school during his sophomore year.

But he also knows there are people, like him, who will welcome and build a student up, he said.

He had those people in his life when he was a student at St. Augustine, he said, and in his family. He credits a nephew for making him rethink his decision to give up on his education, he said.

"I'd taken my nephew to school and he said, 'Someday when I grow up, I want to be just like you,'" Blackbird said. "I didn't want him to be like me."

So, Blackbird returned to school, enrolling at Omaha Nation High School in Macy. The school's administrators were patient with him and worked with him as he took independent study classes, he said. They encouraged him to work hard, get involved and to be a leader, he said.

"At Omaha Nation, the opportunities that the principal and counselors and teachers gave me and their support gave me the drive to accomplish whatever it was I wanted," said Blackbird, who graduated in 1996 from Omaha Nation as class valedictorian.

Relying on faith

Blackbird uses that same approach - instead of focusing on discipline - when helping St. Augustine students, he said.

And that requires a reliance on his faith, he said.

"I try not to carry too much home with me and just leave it up to God," he said, noting he ends many of his school days in prayer in the church. "When I was younger, I thought I could solve it all myself and now I realize that God is going to operate the way he needs to and he'll put other people there to help me."

Blackbird, who is working on a master's degree in administration at Creighton University in Omaha, said his life has been blessed, especially since he teaches in a Catholic school on the reservation.

"I spent a lot of time in prayer fighting with God over what it was he wanted and what I thought I wanted and searching for a way to serve both my people and the church," he said.

Being a Catholic school educator is his way of combining his ministry and effort to try and improve the life for Native Americans, he said.

He wants to make sure St. Augustine students are serious about their education.

"Education gives people the ability to widen their view of the world, and it allows a person to become aware of and exposed to the opportunities and good things in life," he said. "It's good that we're rooted and grounded in our traditions because that forms how we view the world, but the view we have is something we need to share with others."

Blackbird, who received a multicultural scholarship to Wayne State College, also took courses at Nebraska Indian Community College and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

He became involved in UNL's program for Native American educators with an emphasis on ESL to teach Native American language, and graduated from college in 2001 as a Chancellor's Scholar and distinguished graduate.

"If we're not exposed to the wider world to experience and share, then we're missing out on something," said Blackbird,

Finding a balance

"It's been 100 years since St. Augustine started and we're still trying to find what works best for our kids," Blackbird said.

"We are really taking on culture and language and helping the kids have an understanding that their Native American spirituality and their Catholic faith live side by side," he said. "When I was a kid, I felt divided, and when the two come together, it makes you a much stronger person. That's what we're trying to do now, to give them a center, a focus with which to encounter the world."

Father Dave Korth, director of St. Augustine Indian Mission, said Blackbird's personal story is a "beautiful example for the kids."

"We are so lucky to have this outstanding member of the Omaha Tribe," he said. "I really believe that we have one of the best and brightest."

Blackbird said the lesson to be learned from his life story is to have faith and trust in God.

"You never know what God has planned for you and the talents with which he has blessed you."

INFORMATION ON WINNEBAGO FOUNDER

St. Augustine Indian Mission in Winnebago was founded in 1909 by Mother Katharine Drexel, who was canonized a saint in 2000.

Not only did she establish the Catholic school for Native Americans in the Archdiocese of Omaha, but also other boarding schools for Native Americans and blacks throughout the country, including Xavier University in New Orleans.

In 1887, St. Katharine began building schools on Native American reservations, and providing food, clothing and financial support. She also started a boarding school for black children in Bensalem, Pa.

In 1889, Bishop James O'Connor, St. Katharine's spiritual director and later bishop of Omaha, urged her to pursue a vocation to the religious life and begin a congregation to work with the black and Native American peoples.

Two years later, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People.

When she died in 1955, there were more than 500 nuns teaching in 63 schools throughout the country.

St. Katharine was beatified Nov. 20, 1988, by Pope John Paul II. He canonized her Oct. 1, 2000, as the second recognized American-born saint. Her feast day is celebrated March 3.

Information taken from www.katharinedrexel.org and www.catholic.org.

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