Native American education is in a state of emergency. At tribal high schools, 70 percent of the students drop out before graduation. Although President Obama has allocated $3 billion to help fix a system of education plagued by leaky roofs, dilapidated buildings, and lack of funds to pay for skilled teachers, problems still remain.
While most Indian Country schools scramble to obtain funding for new programs, in one tribal school in the rural Midwest, teachers and students are already doing something to significantly reverse this downward spiral.
In the past year, 22 students at the school have learned to practice the Transcendental Meditation technique as part of a wellness program, and the interest is exploding as more students and schools sign up to learn.
“After re-starting TM, I experienced the burden of stress literally lifting from my shoulders… I became convinced that a state of pain and imbalance can be overcome with the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique.” —Christine Spotted Elk
One Woman Who Turned the Tide
It all started two years ago when Christine Spotted Elk, who worked as a guidance counselor at that same tribal high school, began to feel frustrated with the current strategies for helping the students.
“I felt a strong desire to help my Native American students go inside and self-reflect, to look at their culture and their traditional ways in order to heal,” said Christine. She was familiar with TM, having practiced it briefly as a child, and felt it could be the key.
Soon after she began practicing TM regularly again, she quit her job to enroll in a Masters program at Maharishi University of Management (MUM) and attended a five-month TM Teacher Training Course. “I told the children that I would come back with something different, something better to help them,” she said.
As a woman with Apache and Tewa ancestry who had spent a 20-year career working with Native American youth and families, Christine knew first-hand how the historical burden of stress affected her people. “After re-starting TM, I experienced the burden of stress literally lifting from my shoulders. My teenage son, Rain, and my husband, Blue Spotted Elk, also saw their lives turn around after starting TM. I became convinced that a state of pain and imbalance can be overcome with the practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique.”
TM Comes to the Reservation
While still a student at MUM, Christine stayed in touch with a guidance counselor and colleague back at the tribal school. She emailed her friend some research studies showing that teaching students TM dramatically increased attendance rates by 98 percent, graduation rates by 15 percent, and standardized test scores by 42 points.
At that point, TM teachers Shirley Boncheff and Patricia Dunn were invited to come to the reservation to teach Christine’s colleague—along with her family and a few interested students.
“From there it was like a wildfire,” says Christine. The kids liked TM so much that they started talking to their friends, and more kids learned.” Christine finished her Teacher Training Course in February 2015 and returned to the reservation to teach 12 more students.
“Kids were literally running up to me saying, ‘I started this meditation thing you brought to the school, and it makes me feel so good, so alive,’ ” says Christine.
Finding Calm, Energy, and Creativity
Some students found their relationships improving. One mother reported that after a fight, her daughter used to stay mad for two to three weeks. But now she retreats to her bedroom to meditate, and after that, the anger is gone. Another student said, “The way I experience meditating is that it calms you. It helps your brain work, and helps it grow.”
Shirley Boncheff says, “The exciting thing is that the desire for this program is coming from the students themselves. These children are feeling deeply, deeply settled when they meditate. Now they are doing it on their own on weekends and after school. Even the first day, they were asking for more knowledge, for more group meditations, and that’s not so common with other school projects.”
“The way I experience meditating is that it calms you, helps your brain work, and helps it grow.” —Tribal student
Christine notes that the energy and creativity experienced by the meditating students has spread to the whole school. “As part of a Wellness club which was mostly made up of meditating students, the kids started participating in community service, something the students had never been interested in before,” she says. “They learned how to eat healthier and keep a better routine. Kids started getting summer jobs, which had never happened before. The meditating kids are the ones making the changes.”
More Funds Are Needed
So far the school itself has paid for children to learn TM, but administrators are now writing a grant to make TM available to more children in the school. “Word is spreading by ‘Moccasin Telegraph,’ ” says Patricia Dunn. “Many other tribal schools are requesting programs as well, but more funds are needed.”
Christine Spotted Elk notes that when the parents, teachers, and administrators see changes in the children, then they want to start meditating too.
This is exactly what happened in 2007 in a tribal school at the Winnebago Indian Reservation in Northeast Nebraska. Originally, tribal leaders invited TM teachers Patricia Dunn and John Boncheff to begin a “Quiet Time” program funded by the David Lynch Foundation. Over a period of five years, 300 students learned TM and practiced twice a day in school.
According to research conducted on the project, the meditating tribal students had 28 percent less absenteeism than non-meditating students, and the meditating students’ scores on standardized tests moved from well below average to above average, while the control group’s scores stayed the same.
Reversing Heart Disease and Diabetes
The elders saw these positive changes in their youth and wanted to learn TM too. They found that TM helped them solve a completely different set of problems—those associated with the high rates of diabetes and heart disease that affect tribal populations. With regular practice of TM, their glucose levels fell, blood pressure fell, and other metabolic markers returned to normal.
For example, Warner Earth of the Winnebago Tribe says that his blood glucose level would sometimes climb to over 500 mg/dL. Normal levels are between 70 and 120 mg/dL. After practicing TM for several months, his blood glucose levels dipped into the normal range. “I am sold on TM,” he says.
John Boncheff recounts that one tribal elder who practiced TM picked up his medications one day, but found that half were missing. When he inquired about the omission, he was told that he no longer needed insulin.
That incident caught the attention of Ahmed Mohammed, M.D., the medical director at Winnebago Indian Hospital, who estimates that up to 66 percent of the Winnebago tribal members served by the facility are either Type 2 diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Reducing Stress in the Battle against Diabetes
Most of Dr. Mohammed’s patients could not control their diabetes, despite restricting their diet, taking standard prescription medications, and getting regular checkups. “I do believe that stress is a precipitating factor for losing our battle with diabetes,” he says. He now recommends the TM technique to his patients.
“I believe that Transcendental Meditation will have an impact in the short term in controlling diabetes, but also for the long-term,” says Dr. Mohammed. He cites research, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, showing that by lowering stress levels, regular TM practice lowers blood pressure, reduces glucose levels, and results in a decline in other risk factors associated with diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
“TM has helped us get in touch with the sacred again.” —Prosper Waukon, Winnebago Tribe elder
The Power of Connecting to the Sacred
“TM has helped us get in touch with the sacred again,” says Prosper Waukon, elder of the Winnebago Tribe. Waukon feels that getting in touch with the sacred is a key to healing not only diabetes but also other ills. He believes that substance abuse, violence, and diabetes are symptoms that have resulted from the loss of contact with traditional spirituality.
The elders who practiced TM also found that they began to remember some of the traditional songs they had forgotten.
John Boncheff, who has taught on many Indian reservations, agrees: “Native Americans still have this tremendous connection to the sacred, to Nature. When they begin TM, they immediately transcend and experience deep, settled awareness of Transcendental Consciousness. When they meditate they say, ‘This is our sacred knowledge coming back.’ ”