HELENA, Mont. – Focus is lacking and funding is wholly inadequate for teaching Montana students about American Indian cultural issues and history, a group of tribal educators and political leaders argue in a landmark lawsuit over the state’s flagging commitment to public education.
The Montana Indian Education Association (MIEA), backed up by tribes on six of the state’s seven reservations and a variety of tribally related public interest groups, recently submitted an extensive friend of the court brief outlining how the 1972 Montana Constitution’s promise to “recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage” of Indians and to commit “its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity” has been largely ignored by state and local school officials over more than 30 years.
The legal brief, prepared by MIEA attorneys Steve Doherty and Pat Smith, is part of an ongoing case in Helena’s First Judicial District Court that is examining how the Montana Legislature is funding public schools and whether current policies and financial formulas are violating constitutional mandates. The suit, filed by a coalition of 11 school districts, six citizens and four education groups, went to trial in late January before Judge Jeffrey Sherlock, who is expected to issue a ruling later this year.
On Jan. 27, state Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, who also serves as MIEA’s president, and Joyce Silverthorne, education coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, testified that all public schools in the state are supposed to have programs in place under House Bill 528, the 1999 Indian Education for All Act, which was sponsored by Juneau.
But, Juneau and Silverthorne told the court, the state hasn’t developed any specifics for the programs, and districts are only required to answer “yes” or “no” on a form asking whether they are following the law’s mandates. With no independent verification, there’s no way to determine whether the districts are complying or not, they explained.
“Nobody has any standards,” added Doherty, a former Democratic minority leader in the Montana Senate who has long championed tribal issues. “Nobody knows what it means. It could mean having a Thanksgiving Day program that includes a reference to Indians.”
In their brief, the tribal leaders and educators argue that the time has come for the state to fulfill its vows.
“The provision is unique: no other state constitution in the nation contains such a commitment in its educational goals to preserve tribal cultural integrity,” Doherty and Smith wrote. “This language, brimming with promise, has been stripped of practical meaning and application by over three decades of neglect, and in some instances, outright hostility by the state’s legislative and executive branches. The state’s failure to implement and enforce this constitutional mandate has resulted in diminished educational sensitivity and understanding by generations of Montana’s students. As a result, lowered expectations for the educational achievements of Indian students attending both on-reservation and off-reservation schools, has become institutional.”
Court documents submitted by the tribal groups show that every attempt to include education about Indians in core curriculums have suffered slow deaths from inattention and a corresponding lack of funding. The group also argues that little has been done to recruit Indian teachers in a state where Indian students make up about 10 percent of the school-age population.
“The Indian community has long decried the lack of Indian teachers and the lack of non-Indian teachers who understand the cultural background of Indians,” documents state. “Yet, very few districts actively recruit Indian personnel, and most school districts are not requiring any specific training in Indian studies for their teachers and administrators and are not using (professional training) days to provide such instruction.”
In addition, the groups argue, state officials have been lackadaisical at informing districts that the Indian education mandate “applies to all schools, not just those with a significant Indian population.”
The Indian Education for All Act was passed by the 1999 Legislature and signed by former Gov. Marc Racicot, who now serves as chairman of President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. A task force was convened to define how to carry out the law’s provisions, but “the problem, once again, came down to finances,” court documents note.
“Although there are policies, action plans, and curriculum guidelines through the standards, there is no money to enforce these provisions or any financing to assist schools in meeting these requirements,” Doherty and Smith wrote. “Tragically, the momentum and promise of Indian Education for All has, once again, ground to a halt.”
In the 2001 and 2003 legislative sessions, meager requests for funding from the state Office of Public Instruction, run by a Democrat, were knocked down by Republican majorities. The action prompted Indian elementary students from several schools across the state to raise more than $7,000 on their own and present the cash to legislative leaders and Republican Gov. Judy Martz for use in the program.
The tribal groups also note that the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and New Mexico, despite lacking constitutional mandates, have raced ahead of Montana when it comes to incorporating Native peoples and their issues into school curriculums and other programs.
“The public record is clear: the Montana Legislature and governors have simply not provided the funds necessary to implement the law designed to bring the constitutional language to life,” the groups maintain. “Curriculum guides do not drop out of the sky. Development plans do not write themselves. Accreditation standards are not met simply because they are on paper.”