The Magazine of The University of Montana
One Foot in Front of the Other
Determination, Experience, Propel Joyce Silverthorne to National Leadership Role in Indian Education
By Jacob Baynham
Photos by Doug Graham
Joyce Silverthorne directs the Office of Indian Education, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
Silverthorne, born to a Kickapoo mother and a Salish father, was the only Native student in the class, and her teacher, Mrs. Dayton, saw a unique role for her in a presentation for the students’ parents. She spoke with Silverthorne’s mother, who agreed to sew a traditional outfit for her daughter to wear. Silverthorne was thrilled.
But when the day of the presentation arrived, and Silverthorne walked to the front of the class in her buckskin fringe jacket and skirt, she suddenly was terrified. She sat on a stool and everyone looked at her. Some of her classmates laughed. She felt too small to be singled out as a symbol for the entirety of American Indian culture.
“I was embarrassed,” she remembers. “I was all alone, sitting on a tall stool. It reminds me of the picture of the child in the class with the dunce cap.”
For what felt like an eternity, Silverthorne sat there as her classmates and their parents inspected her, anthropologically. Like any third grader, Silverthorne just wanted to fit in. The scrutiny that exposed her otherness was unbearable.
“It was kind of traumatic to be in the spotlight of the whole process all of a sudden, and not know how to do that,” she says.
The presentation ended eventually, and Silverthorne found comfort from her mother. But she’s thought a lot about Mrs. Dayton over the years. And that memory of sitting in front of the class has resonated throughout her decadeslong career in education. How do we teach non-Native students about Indian history and tradition? And how do we teach Native Americans to succeed in today’s world while also educating them in their cultural heritage?
Old as they are, those questions never have been timelier to Silverthorne. Because that shy little third-grader, squirming in her buckskin dress, now directs the Office of Indian Education in Washington, D.C.
Silverthorne’s achievements in education never were guaranteed. Her father’s career in the United States Air Force uprooted the family often. They moved from Colorado, where she was born, to Oklahoma, Spokane, California, and back to Spokane. When Silverthorne was in eighth grade, her father retired and they moved back to St. Ignatius, where his family lived.
Silverthorne’s transition into St. Ignatius High School wasn’t easy. The students were mostly non-Native in a predominantly Native community. High school dropout rates for Native students were high on the Flathead Reservation, a statistic that eventually claimed Silverthorne, too. She left school her senior year to get married. Before she dropped out, though, Silverthorne’s English teacher, Mrs. Van Haverback, pulled her aside. She told Silverthorne that she would make a great teacher one day. There weren’t many teachers advising young Native girls of their potential in that era, and Silverthorne remembered her words.
“Years later as a single mother with three children, I needed to support myself,” Silverthorne says. “I decided going back to school was the answer. I was determined I was not going to be on welfare. I made it my mission to get an education and along the way to help other young people who found themselves facing problems.”
So in 1969, Silverthorne got her GED and enrolled at The University of Montana as a business education major and Native American studies minor. There were roughly 100 Native students on campus at the time. She grew close to many of them through the fledgling Native American Studies Department, directed by George Harris, Al Spant, and a special mentor, Henrietta Mann. Still, it was a rocky road, and Silverthorne’s education was stop-and-go. All the while, she was working part time and raising three children. She took a break from school when she married for the second time and had her fourth child. But she stuck with it.
“You don’t realize it’s hard,” she says. “You just do what needs to be done next. One foot in front of the other.”
Around that time, Silverthorne met Madgie and John Hunt. Madgie was a sociology student, and her husband, John, directed UM’s Upward Bound program and taught graduate courses in the College of Education. The couple took an immediate liking to Silverthorne, and became mentors early in her career.
“In mentoring her, it’s kind of a joy,” Madgie says. “We are going to learn as much from her as she could ever possibly learn from us.”
John agrees. “She used to call and ask for advice,” he says. “She has reached the level of attainment in her career, that people are calling Joyce.”
Silverthorne, seen here in her office, earned two degrees from UM.
After Silverthorne graduated from UM in 1977, she took a job at a new school on the Flathead Reservation. The school was an experiment in tribal education and operated out of a former apartment building at the Dixon Agency. The classrooms on the second floor had windows that overlooked the Flathead River. When the students looked out of those windows and noticed an eagle’s nest in a tree on the riverbank, the school found its name: Two Eagle River.
Silverthorne taught typing on IBM Selectric typewriters to small classes of high school students. At the time, Joe McDonald, who later would become president of Salish Kootenai College, was on Two Eagle’s board. He says the school was created to curb the dropout rates of Native students on the Flathead Reservation by picking up the students who fell through the cracks at the reservation’s public schools. Some had been suspended or expelled. Others had dropped out. Attendance rates were low. Before Two Eagle opened, McDonald says, the state was sending more truant students to reform schools from the Flathead Reservation than from Butte, Billings, or Great Falls.
To keep those kids on the reservation, Two Eagle teachers had to hold their attention and amend the shortcomings of the public school system. They did this with an innovative, flexible curriculum that incorporated Salish and Kootenai language, history, and culture. McDonald says Silverthorne was an important pioneer of this new movement in Indian education.
“She was one of our warriors that taught those kids at Two Eagle under real tough conditions,” he says. “Those people were really dedicated. The challenge was really great at that time.”
For Silverthorne, it also was rewarding. “Passionately so,” she says. “For some of the students who made it to school, it was the only place they had a meal. It was a place of refuge.”
From Two Eagle, Silverthorne went on to work at the new Salish Kootenai College. She returned to UM part time and during summers to get a master’s degree in secondary education administration in 1990. She developed and directed a bilingual education program that incorporated Native languages at SKC, and in 1999, after earning a Ph.D. from Gonzaga University, she became the director of the Tribal Education Department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She spent almost ten years in that position before moving to Helena in 2009 to serve as policy adviser for Denise Juneau, the incoming State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“She was on top of my list when I first got elected,” Juneau says. “She just has rich experience and a really varied perspective.”
And although Juneau says it was hard to lose her when Silverthorne was accepted as director of the Office of Indian Education in September 2011, she was proud to see her assume such a leadership position, and she’s excited to see the change she could bring.
“She really has a deep understanding, particularly around Indian education,” Juneau says. “I could think of nobody better to fill the director’s job than Joyce.”
But the challenges loom large. National data from the Department of Education show that, on a 500-point scale, Native American eighth-graders are performing nineteen points below their non-Native classmates in math and thirteen points below them in reading. Juneau attributes this achievement gap to a specific type of poverty that is concentrated, isolated, generational, and deep.
“When you look across the country and you have those four components of poverty, it happens in reservations and in inner cities,” she says. “That’s where you have that achievement gap.”
There’s also a painful history to overcome. For much of the past 150 years, Indian education meant taking children from Native families and educating them in boarding schools to forget their culture and learn the ways of the white world. Many Indian students in school today have parents or grandparents with bitter memories of those schools. Regaining their trust in the education system is important for schools in Indian Country, Juneau says, which operate like state islands within the reservation.
“They have to help heal the past but build the bridge to the future, as well,” she says. “It’s a big job.”
Silverthorne says she misses Montana but is excited about her job in Washington, D.C.
When John and Madgie Hunt heard that Silverthorne got the job as director of the Office of Indian Education, they were happy but not surprised.
“We would not be surprised by any appointment that Joyce would receive in a leadership position,” John says. “In fact, we would expect that of her.”
But when Silverthorne saw the director position advertised in early 2011, she wasn’t sure she wanted to move 2,000 miles across the country to work in Washington, D.C. She was nearer to her retirement than the beginning of her career, and she would miss her family. But her life and work experiences uniquely qualified her for the position, and she believes in the role of education in providing a positive path to opportunity for Native Americans. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren hear it from her all the time. So in May 2011, she sent in her application and landed the job. She started four months later.
Silverthorne does miss Montana, her family, and the twenty-five-foot MacGregor cruiser that she loves to sail. And she’s still adjusting to the sheer scale of the nation’s capital.
“Out here,” she says, “I probably see the population of the state of Montana on my morning and evening commute.”
But she’s excited to be in the position to help craft successful education policy that meets the needs of Native students across the country. And she finds hope in the rising generation of new Native leaders who are using education to help bring opportunity to their people.
As director, Silverthorne looks for ways to stem high Native dropout rates and bridge the achievement gap—two of the same problems she faced when she dropped out of high school. But if Silverthorne could go back in time and advise her younger self, she knows what she would say.
“No matter what your circumstances or the problems that you’re facing, without an education it will be harder,” she says. “With an education, there are other doors that can be opened.”