Earl Barlow’s family expressed disappointment when he announced he wanted to become an educator as he was heading to college in 1946.
What American Indians needed, they told him, were lawyers – not school teachers. But he felt that he could make a bigger impact as an educator.
Based on the honor bestowed on him Tuesday, he was right.
As Barlow celebrated his 93rd birthday Tuesday in Spokane, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared June 2 “Earl J. Barlow Day” to honor Barlow’s numerous accomplishments. He became the first American Indian to serve as Montana’s director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Indian Education in 1969.
“I am just absolutely astounded by the honor and I’m not sure that I’m deserving, but I am very grateful,” Barlow said.
Barlow, who has six children, moved to Spokane in the mid-1990s to live closer to two of his children. He grew up in the Blackfeet Reservation with his widowed mother and six siblings. When he was 16, he left the reservation having graduated as his high school’s valedictorian and enlisted in the Army in 1944. Thus began his “adventure into the non-Indian world.”
Life outside was different from what he had experienced in the reservation – the lifestyle, the customs, people’s approach to life – it was all different. Although it was difficult to adjust, it was a true learning experience, Barlow said. He went to college tuition-free after the Army and said it was that opportunity that helped him bridge the gap between both cultures.
“I loved reading from a very early age, and I realized that in order to really make progress I needed to go to school,” he said.
Barlow’s first teaching job was in a public school in the Flathead Indian Reservation, but that first year didn’t go without any problems. At the end of the spring term, the superintendent told Barlow that a parent was heavily opposed to him being offered a contract because “he was Indian” and he didn’t want his daughter learning from him, he said.
“I was quite disappointed to hear that but life as an Indian, we’re exposed to all kinds of considerations and remarks,” Barlow said. “It didn’t stop me.”
The board unanimously approved his contract and Barlow went on to be a loved and revered educator for the next 30 years. Barlow taught eighth-grade students his first years, which at that time had to take a high school entrance exam.
“For the first time in the history of that little school, all of the eighth-graders passed their state exam and that kind of put me on a pedestal, I guess,” he said.
Education was key in preparing students to cope in the world outside the reservation and handle any situation they faced out there, he said.
The educators at the time thought that American Indian students did not do as well as the white students, so their expectations and investment in them was lower, he said.
“What I tried to do was give them all an equal opportunity to learn,” Barlow said. “And I produced some outstanding Indian graduates and non-Indian graduates.”
Some American Indian parents thought he went overboard with his expectations, but Barlow said maybe that was a result from having an educator interested in their child’s success for the first time.
Barlow said he was trying to encourage students to learn and break down stereotypes, so they could achieve success through education.
Barlow later became a principal and a superintendent. He started a program during his time as superintendent that trained teachers to provide all students with equal opportunities.
When Barlow became the first American Indian to become the director of Indian Education at Montana’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, he got right to work.
“The first thing I did was, I rewrote the state plan for Indian education,” he said. “My new state plan was accepted without any changes.”
The plan included the creation of an Indian Education Committee comprised of parents in every public school on reservations.
He received federal funding from the Johnson-O’Malley Act, which made it possible to start programs that boosted opportunities of American Indian students, he said.
Barlow testified and lobbied for the 1972 Indian Education Act, which among other initiatives recognized that American Indians and Alaska Natives have unique culturally related academic needs.
Five years later, he was recruited by the administration of President Jimmy Carter to lead Indian education in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“It had been in turmoil for years and years,” Barlow said. “So I went back.”
He then served as the regional director of Indian Affairs in Minneapolis for 12 years, starting in 1982. There were about 30 tribes in the area and Barlow sat down with them to create goals, he said.
“They could not believe that a bureaucrat would sit down and ask them what had to be done,” Barlow said.
Their first goal was economic development, because that would enhance the quality of life for American Indians, he said. The other two goals were to strengthen tribal governments and maintain federal trust responsibility.
“My major claim to fame is, I’m the guy that started the tribally controlled casinos,” he said. “They gave the tribes a lot of employment opportunities and they had funds to carry out programs.”
There is still much to do in addressing poverty in American Indian reservations, but the educational opportunities for American Indians have improved immensely, Barlow said
He was a successful teacher and able to cultivate long-lasting relationships with some of his students who still wish him a happy birthday every year, said Arlene Barlow, who’s been married to Earl for 72 years and is a former educator, as well.
“He’s a friend to everybody,” she said. “He’s always come out on top because of his intelligence and good-natured attitude.”
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