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Montana Incorporates Tribal History in Education for All

For many years, the U.S. government used education as a tool to wipe out Indian culture. Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their indigenous languages or practice traditional ceremonies. But in 1972, the western state of Montana started to make amends… it passed a new constitution that committed its schools to preserving the cultural integrity of its tribes. Now, 33 years later, the state may finally make good on that promise.

You can see how it's starting to do that at Missoula's Hellgate High School, where, this morning, Native American Studies teacher Nancy Larum is reviewing the answers to a pop quiz. One of the questions asks if American Indian people who are enrolled tribal members are exempt from federal income taxes. "I love this one!" she tells the class, joking "'Oh, you guys are Native Americans, you don't have to pay federal income tax!!' It's false. I'm glad you know that, but a lot of people in our society don't."

Ms. Larum's class is aimed at Hellgate's Indian students. As the bell rings, and they spill out into the hallway, they're swallowed up in a sea of white faces… faces that Rocky Momberg thinks would look a lot friendlier if they belonged to students who also were taught about his heritage. "It would be good so they wouldn't tease us or they would really know what we're like and hang out with us more and then they would just know who we were like. We're the same kind of race, we're just different color."

Rocky, who's a Blackfeet Indian, would have gotten his wish years ago, if Montana had complied with a state law requiring that all students -- Indian and non-Indian -- be taught about the state's tribes. That law underscores a unique provision in the state constitution, which pledges to use education to preserve the cultural integrity of Native Americans.

According to Carol Juneau, Chair of the , "It's time that the state step up and meet their promise that they made 33 years ago." Ms. Juneau, who also serves in the Montana legislature, has been calling for the state to live up to its obligation to implement Indian Education for All for years.

She believes it would improve the abysmal academic performance of Montana's 16,000 Indian students, only about half of whom graduate from high school. "I think it would develop a sense of ownership and belonging, for those kids, Indian kids in the schools if they see themselves reflected in the curriculum. If they open a book or they're having a lesson, and they're a Blackfeet student and all of a sudden the teacher's talking about some Blackfeet history or some Blackfeet culture as a normal part of the curriculum, I think they're going to feel a sense of pride."

Based on her own experience, Native American Studies teacher Nancy Larum thinks so, too. She's seen Hellgate's Native American dropout rate decrease substantially since she began offering the class here 9 years ago. And Ms. Larum says her Indian students have become more confident and engaged -- and not just in her classroom.

She points to American history classes. "If there's something that's being discussed that we've also studied, a particular issue, say, Thanksgiving Day, or the issue of Columbus or even the Wounded Knee Massacre, if it's presented in the history book incorrectly or inaccurately, the students are much more willing to stand up and say, 'No this is the way it really occurred, or this is how native Americans view it.'"

But not many schools offer anything like Nancy Larum's class, and even if they did, that still wouldn't be enough to fully comply with the law, according to State Superintendent of Schools Linda McCulloch. "We don't want the teacher to say, 'Okay, now we're going to stop and do our Indian Education For All lesson.' " Ms. McCulloch says it's not a separate subject. "We want Indian Education For All to be integrated into math and science and social studies and all the areas: music, PE, everything in our school districts."

But developing the materials and resources to do that requires money. And that's what has been missing… until now. In their latest budget, legislators set aside $3.4 million over the next 2 years for Indian Education for All. Some Indian leaders have complained that the amount's not enough, especially given their long wait. But Linda McCulloch says it's better than nothing… and better late than never.