According to Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI), 10.9 percent of that state’s students in grades 7 to 12 over the past five years were Indians, but Indians made up 48.6 percent of dropouts for grades 7 to 8, and 23.8 percent of all high school dropouts. The on-time graduation rate for Indian students was just 59.3 percent.
More bad news: The bigger the school, the less likely an Indian student was to graduate. In high schools with enrollments more than 1,250 students, the dropout rate was the highest for American Indian students, at 13.5 percent, compared to 3.2 percent for K-12 schools with fewer than 75 students.
Montana’s education system is trying to reverse that alarming trend, and enhance the future of Indian students by helping them look at their past. Educators hope that as culturally relevant Indian-related education becomes more visible—especially in urban areas—they will see a significant decline in the number of American Indian dropouts. Foremost in this effort is the Indian Education for All (IEFA), a policy written into the state’s constitution 40 years ago.
In 1972, Montana became the first state to embrace the importance of knowledge about American Indian culture into the language of the state’s constitution. Article 10, Section 1 of the constitution says, “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.”
However, it took almost 30 years for this commitment to Indian education to fully reverberate amongst Montana teachers and students. While many reservation schools naturally incorporated Native beliefs, values, and education into their curricula, for students in non-reservation and urban areas, it was left up to individual teachers to incorporate Indian education into their lesson plans, and most teachers simply didn’t have the training, expertise or will to tackle Montana Indian issues.
Denise Juneau, Mandan, Hidatsa and Blackfeet, is the state superintendent of the OPI for Montana. She says it took until 1999 and House Bill 528—Indian Education for All Act—sponsored by then-state representative Carol Juneau (her mother)—to bring the lack of funding to implement the objectives laid out in the state’s constitution to the forefront. A subsequent lawsuit in 2004 finally pushed the state to put money behind the implementation of IEFA.
Anna DeCrane, Crow, is a tutor and advocate for Indian education programs. She won the 2009 School Support Staff of the Year award from the Montana Indian Education Association for helping struggling American Indian students transition to the larger Billings Senior High School from reservation schools. She recalls going to Helena, the state capital, in 2005 to support funding for IEFA, but says many teachers were against it. “They didn’t want to be bothered with one more thing to be added into their classroom when they already had so much to do,” she says. The funding bill for IEFA was successful, however, and DeCrane says attitudes changed. “Since they spent money for it, the state also wanted to see results.”
Even before 1999, tribal educators and leaders agreed on what IEFA should mean for Montana. “Knowing that every tribe’s cultural practices and histories are different, what could be common things tribes want people to know about them?” Juneau says. “[We] were able to create an ‘essential understandings’ [document] that still forms the basis of everything we do.”
Mike Jetty, Spirit Lake Dakota Nation, is the Indian education specialist for the Montana OPI. He travels the state gauging interests and needs for IEFA while checking in with tribal leaders and training educators to make sure Indian-related information is authentic. “So far, we’ve had positive feedback,” he says. “I get to go to these tiny schools where there are no Indian students, and I see tribal flags hanging on the walls. Students re-create Indian seals along with a bunch of information they have about the nearest local area tribes. That’s really neat to see: students learning the names of tribes and what they call themselves—Dakota, Nakota, or A’aninin for Gros Ventre.”
All this has been great for the morale of Indian students. “The kids coming from a reservation [to a big school] have a kind of culture shock, because for one thing it’s a huge school, and they’re minorities in this big school,” DeCrane says. “Everything is different for them, and it’s real fast-paced. At smaller reservation schools the teachers and staff will cater to them, and they’re never really left behind. Here, it’s so easy to get left behind.”
Thanks to the curriculum funded by IEFA, those Indian students now feel less alienated. School counselor Marcia Beaumont, Blackfeet, spent 22 years working in rural reservation schools before moving to a Billings middle school 10 years ago. She says about IEFA’s impact: “For kids who have a real solid identity with their tribe, they’re happy about it because they’re like, ‘Finally I’m sitting in a class and a teacher acknowledges I exist, and I’m unique and that I’m Native American and not like every other kid in the class.’?”
But Beaumont also recalls a “hard lesson” when she initially met kids who had grown up as urbanized Indians: Not every child even knew what tribe they were. Some would acknowledge their white roots before recognizing their Native ancestry, because they felt uncomfortably stereotyped when Indians were discussed in class.
Dulce Whitford, a Sioux and Blackfeet IEFA and Title VII director for Billings Public Schools, says, “We have some students who don’t know much, and [we] have some students who come from the reservation that can help with that process, and feel welcome in our schools” now that IEFA is encouraged.
“The 12 tribal nations in Montana have their own languages, culture, history and government—each one is unique,” DeCrane says, noting that teachers should be mindful of not presenting Indian culture as an all-encompassing, pan-Native American mold.
Whitford recalls going to a larger high school, where one student asked if all Indians still get checks every month from the government. With more open dialogue, she says, “Those total misrepresentations, misconceptions and stereotypes get thrown out, and I think that’s really helped all sides.”
As Native culture becomes more visible in Billings’s schools—every junior high and high school has a tipi on campus, along with Native-themed posters and educational materials—previously reluctant Indian students have come forward with renewed interest in their tribes. Indian education trainers and teachers have also learned a great deal about neighboring tribes as information is exchanged. “We can promote better understanding among cultures,” Jetty says. “That’s the goal. We can’t let these goofy divisions keep us apart. Students from across the state will understand what tribal sovereignty is, and the government-to-government relationship with tribes. I think the future leaders of Montana are going to have a better understanding of Indian-white relations, and we can move forward together.”
Learning from Montana’s efforts, South Dakota created its own Indian Education Act in 2007, and the Wisconsin Indian Education Association is now working to strengthen the 1989 Act 31, which aims to educate residents about the state’s indigenous history.