Gov. Greg Gianforte signed a flurry of legislation in the past two weeks that includes several high priority bills from the state Legislature’s American Indian Caucus.
Gianforte signed both the Montana Indian Child Welfare Act and a bill revising Indian Education For All laws earlier this week. The first bill secures Indigenous family protections in state law, and the second revises how Native history is taught in schools.
Both bills were sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, who worked throughout the session to ensure that the issues were being addressed at the state level.
Montana is the latest state to codify an Indian Child Welfare Act into state law, after the Wyoming Legislature passed its own bill earlier this year. A main motivation for getting the protections into state law is a pending U.S. Supreme Court Case involving the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, Brackeen v. Haaland, which could change how ICWA works throughout the nation.
Montana ICWA, or MICWA, underwent several amendments during its legislative journey, including one implementing a termination date that was eventually removed. After the bill’s amendments were settled, the act, as signed into law, now gives the state the authority to determine a child’s Native status when that status is pending, instead of following the federal ICWA process by which tribal agencies treat the child as a tribal member during verification.
The bill revising the state’s Indian Education for All program passed through the statehouse with several challenges as well. A proposed amendment tried to change the program’s original mandate from a requirement defined by the state Constitution to a “recommendation.” That amendment was eventually removed and the program’s original language was restored in the final version of the bill.
Now, the newly signed law calls on Montana’s Office of Public Instruction and Board of Public Education to strengthen the reporting requirements that school districts must follow when spending Indian Education For All funds.
Indian Education for All was incorporated into Montana’s Constitution in 1972. Under the statute implementing the program, it is the state’s intention 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,” and that all educational agencies within the state work with tribes to develop and provide curricula.
There is a current lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund against the state Office of Public Instruction and the Board of Public Education after complaints that some school districts are not implementing the education requirement thoroughly enough.
Native American Rights Fund staff attorney Melony McCoy states on the NARF website that “Montana is the first and to date only state to constitutionally require the teaching of Indian education to all students in its public schools. That is a stunning testament to the people of Montana who are not getting what they voted for and what their public money is being allocated for.”
That case is set to go to trial in August 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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