Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, speaks to the Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee on March 31. Credit: Lance FourStar

A bill that would revise the laws requiring Indian education in Montana’s public schools is making its way through the Legislature, although its sponsor maintains that a recent amendment weakens the mandate included in the state Constitution.

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This story also appeared in ICT

The Senate voted 47-3 to pass the amended Indian education bill this week. The amendment changes tribal history curricula in public schools, known as Indian Education for All, from a requirement to an “encouraged” recommendation.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, said he will challenge the amendment in a conference committee. He said he plans to “refuse to concur” with the amendment, giving him time to rework the bill’s wording. 

“I said, ‘Whatever you need to do to get the votes on that, get it the hell out of there, then do what you gotta do,’ because I’m going to do-not-concur anyway,’” Windy Boy said in an interview with Montana Free Press and ICT.

Windy Boy introduced House Bill 338 to address claims that the required curriculum isn’t being taught in many Montana schools, a contention also raised in a lawsuit filed in 2021 against Montana’s Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Board of Public Education.

Montana’s long road to make good on Indian Education for All

In 1972, tribal activists and Constitutional Convention delegates claimed space for Indigenous cultural integrity in the new state Constitution’s article on education. Half a century later, court battles and curriculum development have delivered scattered progress, but the fight to integrate Indian Education for All in public schools continues.

Windy Boy’s bill would require more rigorous reporting from public school districts to prove the curriculum is being taught to standards. Schools that don’t meet those reporting requirements would risk losing funding for the program.

“If you receive one Indian Ed for All dollar then you’re going to have to report what you’re doing,” Windy Boy said during the Senate Education and Cultural Resources committee hearing in March. “If you’re not doing what the court case says that you’re going to do as far as implementation of Indian Ed for All then we are going to hold your money back.”

The amended version of the bill, requested by Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, changed language in the bill from “requiring” to “encouraging” the Office of Public Education and Board of Public Education to implement Montana’s constitutional Indian education mandate.

“The reason that I proposed the amendment was because I wanted to, No. 1, ensure that the bill would pass out with the committee,” O’Brien said in an interview with MTFP and ICT. “I had reason to believe that it was not going to pass out of committee without the amendment, and it worked.”

The bill did pass out of the Senate committee unanimously, 11-0, on April 5.  Now the bill is headed back to the House to be deliberated again with the amendment attached.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Native American Resource Fund filed the lawsuit in 2021 on behalf of several Montana individuals and six Montana tribes. Last week a Montana district court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. A trial is expected in the summer of 2024. 

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.