Education

Montana Enacts American Indian Education Provision

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More than three decades ago, Montana adopted a provision to preserve the cultural integrity of Native American tribes in public schools. Now, the state is finally enacting the measure.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The state of Montana appears ready to make good on a promise to help preserve the cultural integrity of Native American tribes. The state adopted an amendment to its Constitution promising to do that back in 1972. Kathy Witkowsky reports.

KATHY WITKOWSKY reporting:

It's late morning at Missoula's Hellgate High School, and Native American studies teacher Nancy Larum is reviewing the answers to a pop quiz.

Ms. NANCY LARUM (Teacher): Number seven: American Indian people who are enrolled, tribal members are exempt from federal income taxes. I love this one. `Oh, you guys are Native Americans. You don't have to pay federal income tax.' Well, I'm glad you know that, but a lot of people in our society don't know that.

WITKOWSKY: The vast majority of Hellgate students are white, but this class is aimed at the school's Indian students. As they spill out into the hallway, they're swallowed up in a sea of white faces, faces that Rocky Mombert(ph) thinks would look a lot friendlier if they belonged to students who also were taught about his heritage.

ROCKY MOMBERT: It would be good 'cause--so they wouldn't tease us, or they would really know what we're like and hang out with us more, and then they would just know who we were like. We're the same kind of race; we're just different color.

WITKOWSKY: Rocky, who's a Blackfeet Indian, would have gotten his wish years ago if Montana had complied with a state law requiring that all students, Indian and non-Indian, be taught about the state's tribes. That law underscores a unique provision in the state Constitution dating to 1972, which pledges to use education to preserve the cultural integrity of Native Americans. But like so many commitments the government has made to Indian people, this one's largely been ignored.

State Representative CAROL JUNEAU: It's time that the state step up and meet their promise that they've made 33 years ago.

WITKOWSKY: That's state Representative Carol Juneau, chair of the Montana Indian Education Association. For years she's been calling for the state to live up to its obligation to provide Indian education for all. She believes that would improve the abysmal academic performance of the state's 16,000 Indian students, only about half of whom graduate from high school.

Rep. JUNEAU: I think it would develop a sense of ownership and belonging for those kids, Indian kids in the schools, if they see themselves reflected in their curriculum. If they open a book or if they're having a lesson and if they're a Blackfeet student and all of a sudden the teacher's talking about some Blackfeet history or some Blackfeet culture as a normal part of the curriculum, I think they're going to feel a sense of pride.

WITKOWSKY: Based on her own experience, Native American studies teacher Nancy Larum thinks so, too. She's seen Hellgate's Native American dropout rate decrease substantially since she began offering the class here nine years ago. And Larum says her Indian students have become more confident and engaged, and not just in her classroom.

Ms. LARUM: For example, in history classes, if there's something that's being discussed that we've also studied, a particular issue like, say, Thanksgiving Day or, you know, the issue of Columbus, if it's presented in the history book incorrectly or inaccurately, the students are much more willing to stand up and say, `No, this is the way it really occurred,' or, `This is how Native Americans view it.'

WITKOWSKY: But not many schools offer anything like Larum's class, and even if they did, that still wouldn't be enough to fully comply with the law, says State Superintendent of Schools Linda McCullough.

Ms. LINDA McCULLOUGH (State Superintendent of Schools): We don't want the teacher to say, `OK, now we're going to stop and do our Indian-education-for-all lesson.' We want Indian education for all to be integrated into math and science and social studies and all the areas, music, PE, everything in our school district so that it's not a separate thing that we teach.

WITKOWSKY: But developing the materials and resources to do that requires money, and that's what has been missing until now. After years of coming away empty-handed from the Legislature, McCullough is thrilled that lawmakers have just passed a budget earmarking $3.4 million for Indian education for all. Some Indian leaders have complained the money's not enough, especially given their long wait. But McCullough says it's better than nothing and better late than never.

For NPR News, I'm Kathy Witkowsky in Missoula, Montana.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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