HELENA — Advocates have filed a class-action lawsuit, accusing the state of Montana of failing to meet the requirements for providing “Indian Education for All.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund filed the case in state district court in Cascade County, on behalf of 18 public-school students, 11 parents and five Montana tribes.
In the suit, they accuse the Montana Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education of failing to establish minimum standards for Indian education – to ensure school districts comply with the requirements and work cooperatively with tribes.
“What we have are some schools that are doing a fabulous job of implementing Indian education across the board in public school curricula, and some simply aren’t,” said Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana.
Montana’s Constitution includes a provision saying, “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.” In 1999, the state Legislature approved a law setting up the Indian Education for All program as a way to implement those commitments.
Shelly Fyant, the chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said Native and non-Native students all benefit from more exposure to tribal culture. She said, too often, Indian students are still subjected to negative stereotypes and prejudice.
“Teaching the truth from the Native perspective and the Native voice is how this issue will be addressed,” said Fyant.
OPI distributes about $3.5 million a year to school districts for Indian Education for All. Under state law, that money can only be used for Indian education curriculum, materials or training.
According to the complaint, OPI has a form for districts to report their IEFA spending, but many districts either don’t provide details on how that money is used or don’t report spending all of their allotment.
“That means that we have millions of dollars of Indian education funding that’s unaccounted for,” Rate said.
The complaint lays out some IEFA spending that plaintiffs consider inappropriate. For example, it says the Deer Creek School District near Glendive reported purchasing a book discussing Thanksgiving “from an evangelical point of view,’ and whose description says “the actual hero of the Thanksgiving was neither white nor Indian, but God.” In addition, it says Helena’s Broadwater Elementary School library includes a book on marmots – with no connection to tribal culture – with a sticker inside the cover saying it was purchased with IEFA funding.
Rate says they want to see the state establish clear standards for how districts report their IEFA spending, and they want districts to face accountability if they fail to use that funding for what is intended.
“The Office of Public Instruction has done a great job with providing some educational tools and resources related to Indian education, but where a school district is failing to meet its responsibility, OPI hasn’t done anything to ensure that they are adequately implementing Indian education and accounting for the money that they are allocated,” he said.
Fyant said CSKT and other tribes have extensive resources that can help educators working on Indian education plans – if they’re given the opportunity to share them. She said they’re hopeful the state will take steps to ensure the program is implemented more consistently.
“They have had two decades to figure this out,” she said.
A spokesperson for OPI declined to respond for this story, because of the agency’s policy not to comment on pending legislation.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to include new quotes from CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant.