Judge Says Montana Falls Short On Indian Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 28, 2004 4 min read
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Montana’s American Indians have for decades argued that local public schools aren’t complying with a state constitutional requirement to teach students about Indian history and culture.

Now, a judge, ruling in a high-profile school finance case, agrees.

Since 1972, the Montana Constitution has said that “the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

Montana is the only state that has such a requirement addressing Indian education in its constitution, according to a legal brief filed by the Montana Indian Education Association in the recent school finance case. But Montana has violated that mandate, according to Judge Jeffrey M. Sherlock of the first judicial district in Lewis and Clark County.

In a court ruling April 15 in which he asserted that the state wasn’t providing adequate funds for Montana’s K-12 schools, the judge also wrote that the state “has failed to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and has shown no commitment in its educational goals to the preservation of their identity.”

Specifically, Judge Sherlock wrote, the state hasn’t provided money to support the Indian Education for All Act of 1999, which clarifies the constitutional mandate by saying that every Montanan, whether Indian or not, is encouraged to learn about the heritage of American Indians and that schools should work with Montana tribes in providing such instruction.

As of last week, Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath had not decided if the state would appeal the ruling in the school finance case. Mr. Sherlock, who had anticipated an appeal, ordered that his ruling, which would have required the legislature to come up with new school aid, not go into effect until Oct. 1, 2005.

Lack of Funding

State Rep. Joan V. Andersen, a Republican and the chairwoman of the House education committee, said last week that she disagrees with the judge’s conclusion on the issue of education about American Indians.

“Most of the schools in Montana—in 4th grade and some time during junior high—spend a fair amount of time teaching Montana history, which includes teaching about Native American tribes in Montana,” she said.

American Indians counter that teaching about their heritage has not been integrated into the curriculum in most Montana schools.

“I imagine there is a small percentage of schools doing some things, perhaps in primary school, mainly at Thanksgiving or those times that they spend a little time on Indians,” said Rep. Carol Juneau, a Democrat who sponsored the Indian Education for All Act and testified against the state on the matter of Indian education in the school finance case.

She has lived for years on the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana, though she is a member of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes of North Dakota.

During the three legislative sessions that have taken place since the Indian Education law passed, Rep. Juneau said, the legislature has rejected requests to provide $60,000 for curriculum development and professional development about American Indians. She said she is delighted with Judge Sherlock’s ruling.

Rep. Andersen said she voted against providing Indian education funds in the 2003 legislative session because she felt the state already had materials on American Indian heritage and culture.

Joyce Silverthorne, a member of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, who served on the state school board for a decade, said until now, the state’s responsibility for teaching American Indian heritage has been left to individual commitment. “That’s well and good,” she added, but it does require a financial investment.

‘Generic Things’

That’s not to say that individual commitment can’t make a difference in some districts.

Cal E. Gilbert, the principal of Longfellow Elementary School in Great Falls and a member of the Rocky Boy Chippewa-Cree tribe, said his 11,080- student district has wholeheartedly supported an Indian-education department. That is not true of many school districts, he added.

The district has a Native American resource library, put together by a member of the Blackfeet tribe, with artifacts, books, teaching plans, and newspapers. “You name it,” Mr. Gilbert said.

The principal conducts workshops for teachers on Native American heritage, often using the resource library.

But, he adds, materials on Montana tribes are scarce. “We have generic things in textbooks,” he said. “We’ll have a classroom where [Indian] students are learning about Iroquois, Seminoles, and Navajos, but nothing about themselves.”

About half the 250 students attending Longfellow Elementary are American Indians, even though the closest reservation is more than 100 miles away. Some 16,300 children in Montana’s public schools—or about one in 10—are Native Americans.

Mr. Gilbert believes teaching such students about their heritage is one way to keep them in school. He knows something about that because he dropped out at age 16. He later earned a General Educational Development certificate and eventually landed a master’s degree.

Linda McCulloch, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, said it’s rare for school districts to have Indian-education departments. She said the only money the state has provided for Indian education is $92,000 each year to pay for an Indian- education specialist and assistant in the Montana education department.

Ms. McCulloch agrees with Judge Sherlock’s conclusion on American Indian education. “What the constitution is getting at,” she said, “is making sure we don’t have a racism problem in the state—to erase those barriers.”

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