Montana capitol
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

A bill designed to hold Montana school districts accountable for implementing a unique state education requirement to teach Indigenous history will continue its circuitous journey through the Montana Legislature. 

ICT indian country today
This story also appeared in ICT

Lawmakers had suggested an amendment that the bill’s sponsor said compromised the integrity of the state’s Indian Education for All programming, which is mandated by the state Constitution. The sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, at one point asked the Legislature for a “do-not-concur” vote on the amendment, which would have changed the verb “require” to “encourage” in the bill title. 

But following a conference committee action on April 28, the bill is now moving forward in its original form. 

House Bill 338 was intended to hold school districts accountable for spending Indian Education for All money appropriately to implement appropriate curricula. Montana’s Indian Education for All program was implemented by the state Legislature in 1999.

In early April, Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, suggested an amendment to HB 338 that changed language in Windy Boy’s bill title from “requirement” to an “encouragement.” The amendment  was approved in the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee. 

O’Brien said she offered the amendment to help the bill move forward through the committee process.

Sharen Kickingwoman, Blackfeet and A’anniii, who represents the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana speaks during public comment to the conference committee on House Bill 338 on April 28, 2023. Credit: JoVonne Wagner / MTFP

“I wanted to ensure that the bill would pass out [of] the committee,” O’Brien said in an interview with Montana Free Press and ICT at the time. “I had reason to believe that it was not going to pass out of committee without the amendment, and it worked.”

In response, Windy Boy asked the House to pass a do-not-concur motion, which was approved 75-25. That launched the bill into a conference committee, where six lawmakers met to reconsider the amendment.

The committee restored the bill’s original wording, characterizing Indian Education for All as a requirement. 

The current bill now also carries an additional amendment in which the applicability of IEFA budget reporting begins after July 1, 2023 — an effort that Windy Boy said will allow the state Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education to prepare for the new reporting requirements.

Sharen Kickingwoman, who is Blackfeet and represents the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, was in attendance during the conference committee and spoke in support of the new amendment. 

“Funds for this mandate should go directly to the instruction and education of our students,” she said during the hearing. “This means curriculum development for an American Indian Studies program, any related materials for that program, and providing training for teachers around said curriculum and program.” 

Kickingwoman said all Indian education dollars should continue to be used for books, field trips and curriculum materials. 

“For fulfilling that constitutional promise,” she said. “That benefit our students’ future and education in line with the auditing that schools already undertake.”

Before the committee voted on the new amendment, O’Brien spoke on the bill as a whole.

“I just want to say since I did present the original amendment that’s at issue here that I think that this program, that Indian Education For All is amazing,” she said. “We need to keep it and we need to elevate it and our students and our communities deserve to know the history, and our tribal nations deserve to have their stories included and their voices heard in our classrooms.”

The bill now goes back to the Senate and House to be reheard and voted on.

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.


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.