IN 1972, 100 delegates from across Montana convened in Helena, rolled up their sleeves, and created what is still considered to be one of the most progressive state constitutions in the nation. Article X, Section 1(2), of this new constitution says that the state "recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage." For 34 years, this promise was shelved in cupboards across Montana's educational landscape.
During the constitutional convention, Mavis Scott and Diana Leuppe, high school students from the Fort Peck Reservation, testified before the Bill of Rights committee and expressed the need for K-12 students to learn about Indian people. Delegate Dorothy Eck eloquently articulated the young women's message when she introduced the Indian Education provision on the floor of the constitutional convention:
During one of our very early hearings ... there appeared
before us two young Indian students representing
student groups of the Fort Peck Reservation.
They came asking what ... the Convention could do
to assure them that they would have the opportunity
... to study their own culture, perhaps their own
language, and to develop a real feeling of pride in
themselves for their own heritage and culture, and
also a hope that other students all over Montana
would recognize the importance and the real dignity
of American Indians in the life of Montana. (1)
Delegate Richard Champoux realized the remarkable step the convention was taking by including such a provision in the state's constitution. He joined Eck in speaking to the amendment being debated:
The first day I came to this assembly, I looked around
and wondered why there were no Indians here as
delegates. Later, as I left the door, I saw four Indian
students--young college students from the University
of Montana--standing out there against the wall.
And I thought to myself, how ironic. Here they are,
typically, standing outside the door while the white
man makes all the decisions for them inside. Isn't it
also ironic to see here today a Frenchman from Boston,
without any Indian blood, standing at the Montana
Constitutional Convention pleading for the Indians,
to preserve their cultural integrity? (2)
Champoux understood the inadequacy of a curriculum that excluded Indians:
Every other ethnic group in this country has a country
of origin to relate to in their pride of heritage,
and we have learned in our schools about their countries.
All of us have taken Greek history, Roman history,
English history, French history, and so forth. Why
not Indian history? ... Why not a Chief Charlo Day,
Chief Joseph, Chief Hungry Horse, and so forth? What
is the country of origin for American Indians? It is
America. What have the average Americans learned
in our schools about our American people? Very little,
if not nothing. (3)
Hopes were high among many Indian educators that the new constitutional language would bring about a sea change in Montana's education system. In 1975, the state board of education convened a group of educators to create an outline of the Indian Culture Master Plan, which was intended to teach public school personnel more about Native American cultures. This step was followed by advocacy in the form of conferences, workshops, and summits. We owe a great deal to the early efforts of these educators whose work brought us to our current place in history.
One year after the adoption of the new constitution, the legislature enacted the Indian Studies Law, which required that all teachers in public schools on or near Indian reservations receive instruction in American Indian studies. This law, however, never went into effect. Connie Erickson, a former legislative research analyst with the Montana Legislative Services Division, has documented and cited many reasons for the failure of this law. …