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The Capitol building in Helena, photographed Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

A bill that would implement accountability measures into a unique Montana law that requires the state’s public schools to create and teach Indigenous history is so far making its way through the Legislature with noticeable support. 

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This story also appeared in ICT

The bill, as sponsored by state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, proposes stronger accountability into Indian Education for All, a requirement embedded into the state’s constitution that requires schools to incorporate curriculum on Native American history in Montana. So far, the bill has passed the House with a 73-24 vote and is expected to move onto the Senate floor. 

Windy Boy, Chippewa Cree and Assiniboine, described House Bill 338 as an accountability bill, which would require that school districts and the state’s Office of Public Instruction to include participation from Montana tribes when incorporating “the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Montana American Indians into content standards.” The bill would also enhance the reporting requirement that schools must complete if they are to receive Indian Education for All funds, according to the bill.

Earlier this month, Windy Boy introduced the bill, saying it would add transparency to how schools use state money meant for implementing the requirement in the classroom. 

“There has been some misuse or abuse over the course of the time of this particular funding,” he said. 

Windy Boy’s bill would require the Office of Public Instruction and the state’s public schools to create and manage a report that details exactly how that school incorporated Indian Education for All into its classrooms. The bill would also replace language in the constitution with stronger wording to reinforce the new proposed requirements. 

Windy Boy said he drafted the bill because school districts are falling short, if not neglecting entirely, the Indian education requirement. For instance, according to the complaints documented in the current lawsuit against Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, the Deer Creek Elementary School in Glendive cited its 2007 implementation of IEFA was completed by purchasing a book titled, “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving.” 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Native American Resource Fund filed the lawsuit in 2021 on behalf of several Montana Individuals alongside seven Montana tribes.

Some complaints date back as early as 2004 describing how school districts have been ineffective implementing IEFA curriculum. In 2020, Hellgate Elementary School in Missoula and Florence-Carlton Elementary both failed to detail how they used IEFA funds. These schools are within the district that receives the most amount of state funds, according to the complaint.

In addition to state funding, the Office of Public Instruction offers general resources to help educators implement Indian education. The OPI website provides some resources for teachers and schools on how to incorporate Indigenous education, including a 92-page online guide. 

In 2015, the Office of Public Instruction brought on an independent consultant to determine the depth of Indian education implementation. The study’s results showed that even though some Montana schools have been utilizing OPI resources, the level of implementation varied.

Some of what the assessment found was that IEFA involvement is not uniform. Some educators might have a clear plan while others have difficulty incorporating online resources into their lessons. Some educators also had difficulty finding ways to implement IEFA in various school subjects throughout grade levels. 

However, the study also found some educators thought OPIs resources were difficult to use.

“Other factors that reduced teachers’ access of website resources included feeling ‘daunted’ or ‘not knowing where to start’ and a lack of time to review the available materials,” the report stated.

Montana citizens, who helped draft the state’s constitution, first wrote into the document in 1972 that 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.” The constitution also dictates equality in education in both curriculum and funding.

Indian Education for All, as a curriculum requirement, was implemented into the state code in 1999 in a bill that dictated that “every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner,” according to the state constitution

The state currently pays about $3.6 million to schools to implement the curriculum, according to the Office of Public Instruction. This is nearly $23 per student, according to an email from OPI communications director Brian O’Leary.

According to Windy Boy’s bill, if schools do not comply with the new requirements, future funds for Indian Education for All would be withheld. 

According to the state constitution, public school districts are required to file an annual report with the Office of Public Instruction. The form should specify how the Indian Education funds were spent. 

However, the past reports submitted by school districts lack details in exactly where and how they spent funds. Instead, the statements focus on the number of students in each school and district with the total amount of money spent. 

“The thing is, number one: It lacks standards,” said Windy Boy. This current system mentions nothing about curriculum or professional development standards when it comes to Indigenous education, he said.  

Former state superintendent of the Office of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa and Blackfeet, spoke in a phone interview with ICT and Montana Free Press on the bill. 

Juneau said most people in the state have an idea of Indian Education for All, but it has taken a while to understand its intention. 

“They know the words, they know kind of the intent behind it,” Juneau said. “It’s taken a couple decades, but they’re getting there and they have an understanding and that’s really big for the policy makers in the Capitol.”

Juneau was the state’s superintendent from 2008 through 2016, a time where OPI was just then establishing what the curriculum should look like and how much money each school would receive. 

“Schools were receiving this money and it was sort of a time when people said, ‘Well, let’s see what they do with it and if they’re able to use it in the right way,’” Juneau said. “Now there must be an appetite for accountability among that. So that just tells me there’s been a lot of progression in this state, which is great.” 

Juneau also said she would like to see Montana’s schools implement Indian education and history, saying it should be incorporated in ways that feel natural in all subjects. She cited math as an example, in particular the origins of math and how tribes and other cultures used mathematical concepts throughout history. 

“I just think all along the way there could just be this integration [that] happens across all content areas,” Juneau said. “So it’s just natural and a part of the lessons that are across in every space that a student steps into.”

Juneau said she would like to see Windy Boy’s bill expanded even further to include state money that is given to OPI. 

“It would be helpful for the state education agency or the Office of Public Instruction because they also receive an apportionment of money from the Legislature, to have them report back to the Legislature how they use their dollars and be accountable to the people as far as that payment,” she said.

The Indian Education for All bill has steadily made its way through legislative committees with noticeable support. 

Partick Yawakie, who represented the Blackfeet tribe, was one of the proponents of the bill who spoke during its initial committee hearing earlier this month. He asked the committee members to raise their hand if anyone could list the state’s tribes and reservations. The only member to raise a hand was Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, who is co-chair of the American Indian caucus. 

“[The] Indian Education for All program offers a foundation in historical context that prepares the K-12 student for a broader understanding of the world they grow up in as well as the Native American communities and individuals a person meets in life and also in perception of their world as an adult,” Yawakie said in his testimony. 

The Indian Education for All bill is set to start making its rounds through the Senate in the coming days.

This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.

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JoVonne Wagner is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Northwestern Montana. She was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced and lived through all the amazing things about her home, but also witnessed all the negative aspects of rez life. Wagner is an alumni of NPR'S Next Generation Radio. JoVonne interned for Buffalo's Fire and she recently graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism.