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A Mandate for Native History

by Mary Annette Pember

A Mandate for Native History

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.

By Mary Annette Pember

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. The state universities support the spirit of the Act by trying to include more coursework on American Indian history and culture, but have not aggressively pursued state funding.

In general, there is an unfortunate history relating to Native issues and state governments, says Jan Lombardi, the education advisor to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

“States will say [to Indians], ‘We’ll give you a committee, but that’s really it,’” Lombardi says. “But Indian people are so grateful for any movement forward.” 

A 10-member Indian Democratic legislative caucus is part of the momentum keeping IEFA on the front burner in Montana. Among the contiguous 48 states, only Oklahoma has more American Indian legislators. Montana’s Legislature is hotly debating the education budget, with a particular focus on the allocations for the Act. The battle is squarely divided along party lines, with Republican leaders spurring the move to reduce funding.

“These fights are long and hard,” says Juneau, speaking from experience. Earlier this month, the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Education omitted $2.9 million from the Indian Education Office budget for the next two years. The total budget is $3 million. Although initially shocked by the action, which would essentially gut her office, Juneau says the move was purely political.

“The final budget has a long way to go before it is finalized,” she says. “I’m being reassured by people who’ve been in the system for a long time that we will not lose all of our funding.”

Ultimately, Juneau says she’s certain that IEFA will be funded in a meaningful way.

“So many people worked so hard for so long to make this a reality. We just have to trust the momentum we’ve gained in the state,” she says, adding that seeing Native education come this far in Montana has been worth the struggle.

“If Indian Education for All gets to the national level, it is going to be powerful and will have sprung from the roots of democracy,” she says. “It’s an historic moment.”



The Montana Indian Education for All Act includes the following guidelines, called “Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians.”

1. There is great diversity among the 12 tribal Nations of Montana (8 are federally recognized) in their languages, cultures, histories and governments. Each nation has a distinct and unique cultural heritage that contributes to modern Montana.

2. There is great diversity among individual American Indians as identity is developed, defined, and redefined by entities, organizations, and people. A continuum of Indian identity, unique to each individual, ranges from assimilated to traditional. There is no generic American Indian.

3. The ideologies of Native traditional beliefs and spirituality persist into modern-day life as tribal cultures, traditional, and languages are still practice by many American Indian people and are incorporated into how tribes govern and manage their affairs. Additionally, each tribe has its own oral histories, which are as valid as written histories. These histories predate the “discovery” of North America.

4. Reservations are lands that have been reserved by the tribes for their own use through treaties, statutes, and executive orders and were not “given” to them. The principle that land should be acquired from the Indians only through their consent with treaties involved three assumptions: I. Both parties to treaties were sovereign powers. II. Indian tribes had some form of transferable title to the land. III. Acquisition of Indian lands was solely a government matter not to be left to individual colonists.

5. Federal Indian policies put into place throughout American history, have affected Indian people and still shape who they are today. Much of Indian history can be related through several major federal policy periods: Colonization Period, Treaty Period, Allotment Period, Boarding School Period, Tribal Reorganization Period, Termination Period, Self-determination Period.

6. History is a story most often related through the subjective experience of the teller. With the inclusion of more and varied voices, histories are being rediscovered and revised. History told from an Indian perspective frequently conflicts with the stories mainstream historians tell.

7. Under the American legal system, Indian tribes have sovereign powers, separate and independent from the federal state governments. However, the extent and breadth of tribal sovereignty is not the same for each tribe. There is great diversity among the 12 tribal Nations of Montana (eight are federally recognized) in their languages, cultures, histories, and governments. Each nation has a distinct and unique cultural heritage that contributes to
modern Montana.



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