A Mandate for Native History

By Pember, Mary Annette | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, May 17, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Mandate for Native History


Pember, Mary Annette, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


The Montana Indian Education for All Act may be setting a national precedent for America's schools, but colleges and universities are not yet on board.

The Montana Indian Education For All Act, the first of its kind in the country, may be setting an audacious national precedent for America's primary and secondary schools. The law requires all Montana schools to include curricula about the history, culture and contemporary status of the state's American Indian population. The new constitutional mandate has eyes throughout Native education circles trained on Montana, especially because the tribes will contribute directly to the curricula. Montana's Office of Public Instruction worked with the state's tribal leaders to create guidelines to support IEFA (see sidebar).

The history behind the Act is unique. It all began in 1972, during the Montana Constitutional Convention. At the time, the 100 constitutional delegates probably had no idea of the long, slow burn that their new article would ignite, nor the legal position in which the state would be placed as a result. The article read that the state "recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indian and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage." By adding the language to Montana's constitution, the delegates ensured that, sooner or later, the state would be legally bound to honor the mandate. Now, after 34 years of task forces, meetings, lawsuits and appeals, IEFA is a funded reality.

In 2003, the Montana Supreme Court held that the state was required to provide enough funding to meet the constitutional requirements of the Act. But it still took another two years for legislators to allocate more than $11 million to meet the mandates of IEFA, ensuring a "quality" education to all Montana students. During the same session, "quality" was defined as programs that "integrate the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians into the curricula with particular emphasis on Montana Indians."

This precedent-setting education legislation is reverberating throughout Indian Country and stirring hope among Indian educators nationwide that they might win similar victories in their home states. This year, the South Dakota Legislature began debating its own Native education act. South Dakota and Montana are very similar in terms of American Indian population and educational statistics, and the wording of South Dakota's proposed bill is comparable to IEFA. The South Dakota act, however, does not include any funding mechanism. Keith Moore, the state's director of American Indian education, was quoted by the newspaper Indian Country Today as saying, "We are taking baby steps."

The Fight For Funding

Denise Juneau, Moore's counterpart in Montana, maintains that the need for a public school curriculum regarding American Indians is intensely practical. She says state leaders need a strong background in Native history and culture to govern and work effectively with the state's eight tribal governments.

"There needs to be a baseline of knowledge [among public officials] in order for them to take on complex issues such as gaming, natural resources, water and treaty rights. All of these issues directly involve the tribes," says Juneau, a member of the Blackfeet and Mandan/Hidatsa tribes.

She says that prior to the mandate of IEFA, graduates of Montana's public schools learned virtually nothing about American Indians. Juneau says her hope is that IEFA will help create policy makers who know what they're talking about when working on policies involving Native peoples. In theory, according to Ellen Swaney, the director of American Indian/Minority Achievement, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, IEFA and the supporting funding should also be applied to state colleges and universities. She laments that the state has not allocated funding to colleges for American Indian education.

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