Denise Juneau, Mandan and Hidatsa, grew up in Browning, Montana, located on the Blackfeet Reservation. In 2008 she was elected as the superintendent of Public Instruction, the first American Indian woman to be elected to a statewide executive office in Montana.
She was recently invited by President Barack Obama to speak at the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte, North Carolina September 4-6.
With degrees from Montana State University, University of Montana Law School, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Juneau was honored as the educator of the year by the National Indian Education Association in 2009. She is up for re-election this year and is being challenged by Republican Sandy Welch.
Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with her about her views on education in Montana, specifically Indian Education For All, a policy written into the state’s constitution in 1972 to include Native knowledge across curriculums.
Has there been any resistance from teachers in implementing IEFA?
I’d say the majority of our teachers throughout the state have received at least an awareness training. Even before the lawsuit, [a 2004 Montana Supreme Court decision in Columbia Falls v. Montana addressed the lack of adequate funding for public schools in which IEFA was a key case component] we brought together tribal educators and went through a process where we said, “Okay, we need to get some information out there. What is it that you want everybody in our state to know about tribes?” Knowing that every tribe’s cultural practices and histories are different, what could be common things tribes want people to know about them? Before the lawsuit started, we were able to create an Essential Understanding that still forms the basis of everything we do. Everything ties into those tenants of cultural understanding.
And what I’m finding is with our mostly white population of teachers, many grew up next to reservations with a lot of myths and stereotypes in their heads about Indians. Once we started breaking those down, some teachers really embraced it and wanted to learn more. Then we have different stages of professional development they can take. We have pockets of excellence that are going on in areas across the state, but I would say there hasn’t been tons of resistance since our professional development has been well received. Everybody has a basic understanding of what IEFA is so they can at least recognize there are differences amongst tribes and talk about it on some level to their classroom.
Can you explain Carol Juneau, your mother’s, connection and involvement in IEFA?
My mom was a state representative, and later a state senator. But as a state representative she was the one in 1999 who got the intent behind the constitutional language put in the statute, and that’s where a lot of the lawsuit came from. There were three things the constitutional language meant: all personnel have an understanding of American Indians; every Montanan be encouraged to learn about American Indians; and where there are areas that need IEFA implementation, we constantly strive to improve it. She was the one who was able to move that forward, work it through a Republican governor and a lot of Republicans in the legislature, and really bring it to the forefront and get it passed.
What do you tell teachers to convince them of the importance of IEFA?
I used to be the director of Indian Education so I worked with a lot of teachers personally. We always had a philosophy we used since the beginning. There would be no blame, shame, or guilt in any of our training. People can’t help if they don’t know about American Indians when they weren’t taught it in school, or just know how the media portrays Indians. It’s not their fault, and we don’t want to walk in a room and wave fingers at them. We really want to take the philosophy that when we move forward, we do it in a very positive way. We need to take teachers and adult learners from where they are and build from their current knowledge and strengths. We look beyond “blame, shame, and guilt,” and say, “These are the facts, this is the way our country and Indian history is,” then lay it out and have discussions.
As a Native, how does it make you feel to be at the forefront of seeing IEFA’s intent manifest during your time at OPI?
I’m very proud of our state for taking this on, and very proud of what happened in 1972 and all of those delegates who came across the state who had the vision to put the first peoples of the state right in the language of our constitution. What’s important to know about that is there was not one Indian person among those delegates, yet they had the vision to look forward and know that everybody should learn about Native Americans and make better relations with their neighbors by breaking down stereotypes.
There has been so much effort and so many people involved from the school level up to the state level—we stand on a lot of shoulders to get where we are today. I travel around to a lot of schools and I see math and science lessons that pertain to tribes, discussions around Native literature, and it’s just a great feeling to see those lessons taught with our kids.
Are there any other thoughts you would like to add?
South Dakota now has some of those same efforts and they’ve just passed a statute similar to ours and they’re moving forward with their own essential understanding. Wisconsin has passed what they call Act 51, so we’re encouraged by other efforts that are going on in other states. We like to hold ourselves up as a model to the nations of what can happen with Indian Education For All, so everybody understands the accurate and authentic history of American Indians and tribal people.