Molly Hootch Hymes recalls famous Native education case

Posted: Wednesday, March 03, 2004

ANCHORAGE Molly Hootch Hymes' name is synonymous with the struggle for equal education in rural Alaska.

''I'm proud of my name, but it's not just my name,'' Hootch said. ''There are a lot of kids behind my name.''

Hootch, who now lives in Bemidji, Minn., with her husband Alvin Hymes, returned to Alaska for the University of Alaska Anchorage conference: ''Thirty years later: A look back at the Molly Hootch case and forward to the future of rural schooling in Alaska.''

The landmark settlement requ-ired the state of Alaska to construct high schools in each rural village with an elementary school.

Hootch's name led a list of plaintiffs in a 1972 lawsuit against the Alaska state-operated school system, and she became the face of rural education.

The lawsuit contended the school system was violating the Alaska Constitution and the U.S. Constitution by failing to maintain a public school system open to all children.

While the Molly Hootch case was renamed the Tobeluk v. Lind case, Hootch's name would stick with the 1976 out-of-court settlement and consent decree and go on to represent changes in rural education for generations.

Before 1976, Native high school students often would travel hund-reds of miles away from home to boarding schools.

Hootch recalled her first boarding school experience. She cleaned her host family's house and watched their children.

''I was dropped off and brought home. There was no explanation,'' Hootch said. ''If you had problems you had no one to contact that's where you stayed.''

Hootch stayed with a different family each year. She said things got better after the first family.

Marshall Lind, now the chancellor of University of Alaska Fairbanks, was the state's Educ-ation commissioner when the Hootch case was settled. He was involved with implementing the Molly Hootch agreement.

''We had to do something about the way education was delivered in rural Alaska, especially secondary education,'' Lind said. ''We had to change the entire system.''

The settlement was a critical turning point in rural education. And Steve Cotton, who worked on the Molly Hootch case beginning in 1973, said it happened almost overnight.

''White kids where treated differently, they got to go to the school they wanted,'' Cotton said. ''The Hootch case was bound to expand the stance, budgets and responsibilities (of rural education).''

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