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Judge denies effort to dismiss Montana Indian education lawsuit

Indian Education For All
Posted at 1:06 PM, Apr 25, 2023

GREAT FALLS — An effort by the state of Montana to dismiss a case regarding Indian education has been denied.

A district judge’s opinion issued on April 19 in Cascade County means a lawsuit on behalf of Montana students and tribes will proceed.

“I think it's the right thing. I think she made a very just and excellent call,” said plaintiff Shauna Yellow Kidney of Missoula.

Yellow Kidney, a member of the Blackfeet nation and a parent of three children in the Missoula School District, is joined by students, parents, guardians and six tribal governments as part of a group proposing a class action lawsuit against the Office of Public Instruction and State Board of Education.

The case was initially filed in July of 2021 against Montana for violating a state constitutional mandate to teach Indian Education for All.

“I think everybody knows it's about time for our cultures to come to understanding and respect with one another,” said Yellow Kidney. “And learning about each other's cultures is the only way to do that, in my opinion. As of right now, the understanding is one of the words was changed to 'advised' rather than 'required.'”

In her ruling, Judge Amy Eddy said: “The individual Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a past, present and threatened injury to their fundamental constitutional right to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner. The Tribal Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged a past, present and future injury to their ability to work cooperatively with educational agencies and personnel in developing and providing Indian education. The Plaintiffs have alleged these injuries have or will result in racism, bullying, stereotyping, prejudice, a dangerous school environment, mental and emotional harm, and loss of cultural heritage.”

According to the ACLU of Montana, which along with the Native American Rights Fund, filed the suit, the lawsuit seeks accountability, saying the state gives millions of tax dollars to public schools for Indian education without requiring schools to report how they invested the money, developed curriculum with tribes, or taught the subject.

In her opinion, Judge Eddy added: "The Defendants’ argument that despite the plain statutory language, they specifically have no responsibility or authority to enforce the IEFA is completely unfounded. The duties prescribed by the IEFA apply to 'every educational agency' and 'all education personnel' and the Defendants present no cogent argument they should not be included in these terms."

House Bill 338, which would revise laws related to Indian Education for All, is currently making its way through the legislature.

Yellow Kidney says the bill’s original form was good, but Senate amendments have made it ambiguous.

“As of right now, the understanding is one of the words was changed to 'advised' rather than 'required,'” said Yellow Kidney. “And that simple word change leaves the ambiguity to not be able to follow up once again.”

OPI is represented by the Montana Department of Justice, which typically doesn’t comment on pending litigation and didn’t respond to MTN’s request for comment.

However, OPI communications director Brian O’Leary did tell MTN: “Indian Education for All is an important and necessary part of public education in Montana. Local school districts have a responsibility to ensure that Indigenous culture and history are taught to our students.”

Yellow Kidney also serves on the parent advisory committee for Indian Education for Missoula County Public Schools, which she says is among the many across Montana doing a good job administering the program.

“No matter where you are, even if you're in a district that doesn't have a lot of Indian students at the cross, cultural and understanding of learning how to communicate with one another better, understanding one another better, the social cues. I mean, there's this in addition to all the indigenous practices, it really goes hand-in-hand,” said Yellow Kidney.

Attorney Alex Rate of ACLU Montana told MTN there are still legal proceedings that will take place. He says the case is scheduled to go to trial in August of 2024.