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Tribes sue Montana over lack of Native American history taught in public schools

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the stairs of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

(CN) — Montana Native Americans claim their history and cultural heritage is not being preserved by their state’s public schools, according to a new lawsuit brought by five Indian nations and over a dozen students on Thursday.

The 35-page lawsuit filed against, among others, the state’s Office of Public Instruction and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen claims that officials have not kept up with their responsibilities under the state’s Indian Education for All Act (IEFA). Passed over 20 years ago, the law was made to enforce a 1972 amendment to Montana’s Constitution that officially recognized the importance of preserving the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians” in the state, with Montana being the only state in the country to have such a constitutional clause.

But despite its inclusion in the state Constitution, the plaintiffs in Thursday’s suit say officials have dropped the ball in actually enforcing the law and making its goals a reality.

“I feel the law intending Indian Education for All is meant to bring about the empathy, compassion, and sense of responsibility (particularly needing to come from white people) that I experienced organically from being more immersed in Indian culture as a child,” said Jessica Peterson, a mother of a 2nd grader who attends public school in Montana. “I don’t see this education happening in the Helena Public Schools. I think it’s a very invisible curriculum if it exists at all.”

The suit alleges that the state is completely lacking in enforcement tools and metrics to ensure students are receiving a quality education on Native American history. The suit claims the state’s Office of Public Instruction does not require school districts to uniformly report how schools are using funding money that was specifically designated towards providing tribal history education.

The suit also claims that there are no standards in place that can be used to report how schools are cooperating with local tribes to deliver the best education possible.

This lack of oversight has allegedly resulted in blatant misuse of IEFA funds. According to the complaint, at least one elementary school in the state used this money to purchase a book titled “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving,” a book that reportedly aims to teach the holiday from a more Christian evangelical perspective.

The groups say part of the problem lies in the fact that school districts are not incentivized to comply with the law because there appears to be no consequences for failing to do so. The complaint points to the Florence Carlton K-12 schools that, despite not providing any documentation that showed how they used their IEFA money, received complete IEFA funding for the 2021 fiscal year.

The complaint claims schools across the state can’t seem to agree on what compliance under the law would even look like. According to an evaluation on the subject in 2015, some Montana schools believed they would be complying with the law by simple offering a single event in a school year covering Native American history instead of integrating those lessons throughout an entire curriculum.

“Since Montana made this promise to citizens in 1972, thousands of students have graduated from public schools having never received the innovative education promised,” said Samantha Kelty, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. “The State has an obligation to implement and manage this public mandate and must live up to its responsibility to do so.”

The plaintiffs in the case are asking a Montana judge to order state officials to establish new enforceable standards under the IEFA and to ensure that schools work closely with local tribes to provide meaningful instruction to students.

Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction office did not immediately respond to request for comment by press time Thursday afternoon.