Rural, Hispanic and American Indian students get together 4-12-07

WAHPETON, N.D. (AP) - A project to bring rural, Hispanic and American Indian students together started with months of letters. Then the pen pals got to meet.

About 60 students from Midway Public School in Inkster traveled Wednesday to the Circle of Nations Indian School in Wahpeton.

Midway students are from mostly rural families, and 30 percent are Hispanic. The Circle of Nations is a Wahpeton boarding school for American Indian young people, with about 100 students representing 17 states and 35 tribes.

During the next school year, the cultural exchange project is expected to grow, possibly involving St. Michael's School in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks (Minn.) Sacred Heart School and Fort Totten's Four Winds Schools, said Neal Tepper, the Midway school counselor and project coordinator.

Every sixth through eighthgrader at Midway signed up to go to Circle of Nations on Wednesday, although the trip was optional, Tepper said.

The Circle of Nations students will be invited to visit Midway, he said.

Wednesday's pen pal introductions got off to an awkward start. Some pen pals did not attempt to find one another. Others turned their back on their pen pal after just a ``hello.'' Most conversations were brief. But some of the students were enthusiastic.

The Circle of Nations drum group performed while other students did a ``friendship'' dance. The dance is traditionally done in the spring to both spark and renew friendships, drum coordinator Jason Kingbird said.

For many Circle of Nations students, attending the 99yearold school is a family tradition, said Jeanne Swartz, the school representative and project coordinator.

 ``For a lot of them, their parents went here they can even find their grandparents pictures in the hall,'' she said.

 Midway students talked about Hispanic and migrant cultures, with their families traveling back and forth from Texas to North Dakota to farm. They talked about rural lifestyles, with several towns served by Midway School and several miles between each others' homes.

``They have different cultures, but we're all the same,'' said Charmaine Mitchell, a Circle of Nations eightgrader.

``It was pretty cool,'' Jessica VanGerpen, a Midway seventh grade student. VanGerpen said she found out her pen pal Holly, who is from Red Lake, Minn., is on the school basketball team just like her.

The exchange project is being sponsored by Teaching Tolerance, a national organization that promotes diversity. Because of the unique combination of Hispanic, Native American and rural cultures, the group awarded the schools about $2,000 for the project, Tepper said.

Pen pals Ethan Moreland, a Midway eighthgrader, and Megan Patneaud, a Circle of Nations eighthgrader, swapped stories about their common title of ``class clown.''

``It's kind of one of these 'go figure' situations,'' Megan said.

Both said they will keep writing to each other.