Montana sued for failing ‘Indian Education for All’ commitment

Some things look better on paper than they perform in reality.

Such seems to be the case in Montana, the only state in the country with a constitutional amendment and specific laws to require public schools to teach Indian education for all students.

The language sounds so promising. Yet a number of Native Nations and Indigenous parents say after decades the state still isn’t living up to those promises. Some have proposed a class action lawsuit to force the issue.

Montana’s 78,000 American Indian people make up more than six percent the state’s population and nearly 11 percent of its public school population.

Montana amended its constitution in 1972 to read: “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

It’s been a long, slow road to get there.

According to the proposed class action lawsuit:

A 1989 Montana Supreme Court ruling found that the Constitution’s Indian Education Clause created a “special burden in Montana” to provide funding to support it.

A mid-1990s legislative compliance review found several public schools “were doing a poor job” of living up to the Constitutional requirement, “and some were not implementing the Clause at all.”

That led the Montana Legislature to pass the Indian Education for All Act in 1999. It required:

  • “[E]very Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.”
  • “[E]very educational agency and all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana tribes … to include information specific to the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on Montana Indian tribal groups and governments.
  • … “school personnel will gain an understanding of and appreciation for the American Indian people.”

A legislative resolution at the time stated: “the Legislature recognizes that the history of Montana and the current problems of the state cannot be adequately understood and the problems cannot be addressed unless both Indians and non-Indians have an understanding of the history, culture, and contemporary contributions of Montana’s Indian people.”

Problems continued. A group of schools and concerned parents brought a lawsuit in the early 2000s about the lack of progress. The District Court ruled, and the Montana Supreme Court agreed, that “the State has failed to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and that it has shown no commitment in its educational goals to the preservation of Indian Cultural identity, as demanded by [the Indian Education Clause].”

In 2007, the Montana Legislature appropriated $3.4 million for the biennium to implement Indian Education For All, and has continued funding since.

A 2014 study funded by the Montana Office of Public Instruction found some districts were meeting the law’s requirements, while “implementation in other districts was ‘very minimal.’” These problems would likely continue without more accountability, the report said.

According to the current proposed lawsuit: “Despite over a decade of dedicated annual state appropriations, the Indian Education Provisions’ goals and requirements remain largely unmet in many Montana public schools. In those schools, the cultural heritage and integrity of American Indians is not being preserved, and Indian and non-Indian Montanans are not learning about American Indian heritage in a culturally responsive manner.”

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF), which is representing plaintiffs along with the ACLU, spoke to the real world consequences of this failure:

“Native students in Missoula County schools experience incidents of cultural or racial bullying from classmates, which to me, always stems from the bullies having a lack of awareness, a lack of understanding, a lack of education about tribes,” said plaintiff and parent of Montana public school students Cammie DuPuis (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes). “If [the Montana Office of Public Instruction] implemented the laws, we’d likely see reduced bullying and violence in school.” [Emphasis in original.]

Native American Rights Fund

In Minnesota, we’ve seen promises to Indian Country fall flat, too. Gov. Tim Walz promised “meaningful consultation” with Tribal Nations on issues of mutual concern. He even issued an executive order. Meaningful consultation didn’t happen with Enbridge Line 3.

In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature put Tribal consultation requirements into law. If things don’t get better, perhaps it will provide leverage for drawn-out lawsuits to enforce it.

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