Culture Clash: Towaoc to Aspen

private planes in Aspen
Private jets greet your entrance to Aspen

I went into a bit of culture shock last week. I spend Thursday on the reservation town of Towaoc doing vision screenings for 22 three year olds who will be going into head start this fall. On Friday, I was having lunch at the Red Onion in Aspen. I honestly can’t believe these two places are in the same country, let alone the same state. It made me wonder if success is truly based on life circumstances. Maybe where you’re born does dictate your fate in life or is that just an excuse?

Reality on the Reservation

Last week was week two of the school screenings. The first week, I had the four year olds who were finishing up a year of head start. Out of 17 kids, I had one who knew letters. She lives off the reservation and only attends head start there because her mother works for the tribe.

Two of the 39 kids were living at the youth shelter because their parents were in jail or somewhere unknown. More than half had a speech delay. About half were obese. Several had anemia from nutrient deficient diets. About a fourth had been removed from parental care at one time or another for various reasons, mostly involving alcohol abuse and/or violence. I can’t tell you how many kids I see who have very bad prescriptions but never have glasses, even though they are free if you turn in the proper paper work.

Native American children have a 24% high school graduation rate in our school district. So, unless serious progress is made, only 9 of those kids I screened will graduate from high school.

towaoc colorado issues
Entrance to Towaoc

Is Aspen for Real?

I have never lived in Aspen, so I can’t really comment on the children of preschool age. However, we did drive by the school while we were there. Since Jim is in education, he was drooling over their fleet of brand new buses. Their elementary playground looks like something from Disneyland. Aspen had a 100% graduation rate from high school last year. I would argue that the Aspen public school district could take on most private schools as far as academic success and variety of learning environments.

If you go to their school’s website, you’ll notice that they are enrolling for ex-ed classes that seem to be required for all high school students. These are things like a week of kayaking in the Pacific Northwest or a tour of Chicago’s art and culture scene. It looks like these classes tend to average around $600 each. Scholarships are available, but since only 5% of the student body is classified as economically challenged, I bet most don’t need one.

I’m not saying that being born on a reservation means you won’t succeed in life. Likewise, being born in Aspen doesn’t guarantee a carefree ride to easy street. However, you can’t argue with the statistics.

Politics Offers No Solution

If you’ve never experienced tribal politics at work, it’s as bad as Washington. There is lots of posturing and blaming everything and everyone else. Ultimately, no one, including the district, the tribe, or the parents are stepping up to say that they are failing the children. Without some sort of change, we can’t really expect different results.

My very strong feeling is to offer financial incentives, either as payments or increases in assistance for meeting basic human standards like making sure your kids go to school and have regular medical and dental care. If goals are not met, then I think assistance payment should be cut.

I also think the tribe needs to utilize more positive role models that youth could be exposed to on a regular basis. Maybe finding people who are willing to share their experience about how they came from similar circumstances to find success would be a good idea. The tribe has LOTS of money from their casino, oil and gas royalties, farm subsidies, and their construction company. It is a shame more of that money isn’t used toward promoting education and proactive support from a very young age. Realistically, you still get your monthly check whether you graduate from high school or not. I think that’s a shame. Until people expect more from themselves, whatever I expect is irrelevant.

It’s easy for me to think I can solve all the world’s problems. Some days I need to remind myself  to mind my own business, but I think it’s really important to understand how much disparity exists between certain parts of this country. I know there are children in other countries that are in much worse shape, but this is right on my doorstep, and I see it every week.

It would be a fun experiment to take a handful of people from each area and do a swap. I’d love to see some of the rez kids get to fly on one of the  private jets that greet you upon arrival to Aspen. I’d really love to see some Aspenites have to eat at the gas station, which doubles as the only restaurant in Towaoc. I don’t think they have organic quinoa and wild caught salmon on the menu.

Do you ever experience culture shock? Is there hope if you’re born into difficult circumstances?

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28 Comments

  1. I have traveled all over the world and have seen this kind of economic disparity often. I am more and more convinced that the luck of your birth determines your economic outcome in life. If you are born dirt poor, you have to work so much harder just to survive that you end up never really getting anyplace. The developmental economists have a term for it. They call it the S-curve. IF you are born underneath the S, you might just as well forget it.

  2. It is pretty hard to get out of a bad situation as a child. I just bought a few dozen books for the kids in my village, so when they go to my computer classes they leave with a book and return it the next week. Most 10 year olds are having a hard time reading books with big letters, simple words and a lot of images. In the village their only hope is to be hired as a builder or gardener, otherwise they’ll be left to cultivate a small parcel and have barely enough to live by. Teachers go on strike regularly or don’t do their hours so they don’t even get the full curriculum over the school year. In the capital city they have a better chance, even in public school. I doubt it will change soon.

    1. Whatever challenges kids here face, they all are a million times more lucky than ones in that situation. I wish there was a way to make them appreciate their opportunities more.

  3. “Until people expect more from themselves, whatever I expect is irrelevant.” This statement is so important, Kim, to what you’ve seen both at the tribe and at Aspen. Growing up quite poor (by U.S. standards)I never really thought too much about my future, except I knew that I wanted more. Then, when I got a job, I realized that I did have at least some control over my future (a teacher in my inner city troubled high school suggested I enter the OJT program because I sure as hell wasn’t doing anyone any good in school – including myself). That job led to other jobs (I am a hard worker) and as I chose to observe people I came in contact with, I realized that there was a better life out there. I didn’t understand exactly how it worked, and I still thought on some level that a person’s success was based on the luck they had in getting a job that paid good cash, but it did open my eyes to the fact that I did have choices. I completely agree that these kids need positive role models. It says something about the adults in the community too (both the teachers and parents) if the kids are coming off a year of Head Start and haven’t learned anything. 🙁

    1. Yes, it says tons, and I have a really hard time with the fact that so many of these kids never have a book at home and get all their language from SpongeBob.

  4. That is the problem with giving enough handouts to ‘get by’. Once people do not have to work for a living, they get lazy and get satisfied. Their ambition is destroyed. You can see it in many major cities too, not just the reservation.

    There are plenty of examples, mine included, where people started with next to nothing and made it much better. I never feel sorry for people with no ambition, I just use it as a motivator for myself.

    1. I’ve always said that being given things for free over a long period of time creates no value. I think that’s a huge reason they don’t generally pay attention to health because all the care is free and they take it for granted.

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