Education vs. Ignorance 

Montana’s Native American students are getting lost in the system. What are the lessons our schools could learn?

When a pair of Indian education committees sponsored a hearing for parents on the Flathead Reservation earlier this month, men and women from across the state stood up in the cafeteria of Salish-Kootenai College to speak their minds.

As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the reflected light turning the Mission Mountains shades of gold and orange, one parent after another seemed to be voicing the same concerns—whether they came from Harlem on the Hi Line near the Canadian border, or hundreds of miles south in Lame Deer, where the dusty Montana plains give way to the equally sparse Wyoming landscape.

The testimony began with Dolores Plumage describing a girls basketball team from Malta, some of whose members referred to the visiting Fort Belknap squad as “half-breeds, dirty Indians and squaws.”

“Along the Hi Line, our children are called ‘prairie niggers’ by their classmates,” Plumage said. “I have found it is very hard to get this documented.” She detailed her struggle to convince school district administrators to hold the Malta ball players accountable, a struggle that didn’t end until Ken Toole, director of the Montana Human Rights Network, wrote school officials a letter.

Later in the meeting, Anna Sorrel, a Ronan parent who resigned earlier this year as head of that district’s Indian Education Committee (IEC), also took the floor. As she fought back tears, she explained what happened during her tenure with the IEC and the constant conflict she experienced when dealing with the district’s administrators.

“I won’t go to school board meetings anymore to be ignored and mistreated,” she said. “But we as Indian people have a wonderful opportunity to change things so that when my kids are standing here, they won’t be telling the same story.”

Education in Indian Country, and in urban districts with native student populations, is in distress. School officials charge that parents don’t get involved in their children’s education and are unnecessarily suspicious of the school system. Parents say they are fed up with institutional racism, culturally irrelevant curricula, hostile school boards and an academic world that seems to care little if their children graduate.

Both in Missoula and on the Flathead Reservation, these issues are currently coming to a head. Locally, Indian Peoples Action (IPA) has just begun meetings with the Missoula school board to discuss a report they released in June, which details the district’s need for improvement in disciplinary, parental participation and cultural competency policies to better serve Indian and low-income students.

In Ronan, meanwhile, the IEC says it’s fighting to have its voice heard by a school board without a single tribal member and a superintendent with a pending civil rights complaint against him. Heightening the tension even further, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the Ronan-Pablo district this summer, charging that the area’s voting blocs must be redistricted in order to guarantee tribal representation on the school board.

As education is changing around the nation, often in the form of charter schools and vouchers, Montana is coming around to the realization that it must restructure in order to meet the changing times. And one of the first items on the agenda, it seems, is addressing why native students continue to struggle in our state school system.

Grading the Garden City

Janet Robideau, director of IPA, says that despite today’s relentless politically correct climate, the inherent racism of public schools must be addressed in order for improvements to be made. The solutions aren’t always simple, she suggests, but the problems are usually so interconnected that to begin to solve one will lead to the lessening of others. Generations of bad school experiences are having a disastrous effect, Robideau states, and the time to end that cycle is right now.

When Francine White and her family moved from Miles City to Missoula, she expected her experiences in a comparatively liberal university town to be better than they were in the small Eastern Montana burg.

“In Miles City, there was name calling and I was accosted after school all the time,” she says. “There were only one or two others besides myself who were Indian. I thought Missoula would be different, but nothing changed.”

Now at age 28, White says she can talk about what her school years in Missoula were like because she has nothing to fear and no kids of her own to pay the price for her assertiveness.

White moved to Missoula in seventh grade and attended Roosevelt School. The first two years were the worst, she claims, when bullies followed her around, calling her names and attempting to goad her into fights. One day she wore a new jacket, given to her by her father, with colorful ribbons and an illustration of an eagle on back. She says she was proud of the coat until she arrived at school.

“They pulled my hair and called me names,” White says of her classmates. “They told me to go back to the reservation because I didn’t belong here.”

White didn’t tell her teachers about the harassment because she didn’t feel comfortable. She did speak briefly to a school counselor, who sent the Title IX director, a white man regarded as an expert on Indian issues, but nothing came of her conversations with either of them.

As a result, White says, she became very quiet and stuck to a small group of friends, most of whom were also Native American. The physical harassment stopped by the time she got to Hellgate High School, but the name calling didn’t.

White adds that she had a history teacher who glanced over native contributions to Montana history, pausing occasionally to crack what she felt were offensive jokes. Finally, however, when White was a senior, she had two teachers who befriended her.

“The good teachers made an effort to come over and talk to me and get to know me as a student,” she recalls. “We talked about things like Native American literature and the difference between the tribes in Montana.” The teachers incorporated some of the things she discussed with them in their classroom lessons.

White wishes more teachers would have listened to her or made an effort to get to know her culture, and at the same time considered her an individual instead of just a member of a group. She wishes she had more than one teacher with skin the same color as hers.

“Someday, I’d like to teach history from the perspective of people of color,” she says. “And I’d like to share my experiences as a way of offering strength and hope. Just because I don’t have kids in the school system yet doesn’t mean I don’t care about my fellow human beings.”

Janet Robideau says White’s account of harassment and alienation is far too common among native students attending Missoula schools. In fact, she refers to institutional racism as the “big pink elephant nobody in the room wants to talk about.”

“We need to address the fact that racism underlies behaviors and attitudes against students of color,” she says.

Part of the problem, she suggests, might stem from the demographics within Missoula County Public Schools. Over 99 percent of the teachers working in Missoula are white. One percent of Montana teachers are Indian, while two-thirds of the state’s districts have Indian students. Sixteen percent of the kindergarten population is Indian, but only 6 percent of those students remain in school long enough to be counted in graduating classes. The dropout rate for Native American students in Montana is over 50 percent, and that number remains steady.

The time has come, IPA insists, for Missoula Superintendent Mary Vagner and her school board to make some changes.

In compiling data for the report IPA made for the district this summer, an issue that came up repeatedly was discipline. IPA found that more Indian students are suspended than white students, often as the result of physical altercations that erupt after harassment similar to the kind Francine White experienced, Robideau says.

But IPA also stressed the importance of hiring minority teachers so they can act as role models for all students, especially those of color. White agrees, saying that the lack of Indian teachers in her life resulted in her feeling that being an educator was not an option for her.

For her part, Vagner says IPA’s report is currently being reviewed internally, with a response to be formally presented at a meeting on Oct. 26. Meanwhile, she points out that an extensive review of the district’s social studies curriculum, which she says IPA contributed to, culminated in a new program that was first implemented in the last school year. And Vagner stresses that the district is working on a behavior program that provides clear expectations of what’s acceptable for all young people.

“We are taking a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and intimidation towards any child,” she adds. “We encourage all children to come forward if they’ve had those experiences.”

In the end, while the two parties have not yet found a common ground, the dialogue between them continues apace. An administrative team representing the school district met with IPA last week, three months after the activist group’s report was published. After asking IPA to clarify a few points, the team promised to continue the discussion. As IPA points out, if their suggestions are implemented by Missoula schools, the district could be regarded as a progressive example for similar districts around the nation.

“This is an opportunity for Missoula to set the pace,” Robideau explains. “We can set an example not only for the state, but for the country. It’s a chance for the Missoula school district to be considered a model district.”

Flux on the Flathead

Meanwhile, as it appears IPA is inching towards cooperation with Missoula school officials, the Indian Education Committee for Ronan-Pablo District No. 30 continues to fight its own similar battles, but seemingly without results. At meeting after meeting, the school board listens to the IEC’s concerns: the Indian Education staff is hemorrhaging employees, the curriculum is in dire need of an overhaul, the district should implement the policies drafted by the IEC two years ago. After listening to the IEC’s litany of complaints, the board often chooses to do nothing.

Sitting in her new office in a Pablo, a double-wide trailer at the tribal office complex, Joyce Silverthorne, the recently appointed education director for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, mulls the current state of school districts on the reservation. Not long ago, she says, she attended tribally sponsored development seminars that focused on a number of topics relating to Indian education.

“I think the turnout was wonderful,” Silverthorne muses. “Today more people understand what we’re trying to do than maybe ever. I see more receptiveness than in the past.”

However, all of the open-minded teachers in the world won’t matter much if an entire system is broken, she asserts.

“When my dad retired from the military, I began high school here on the reservation,” Silverthorne says. “I didn’t know the community. There are unwritten rules about the way you get along that nobody talks about. I was always proud of my Indian heritage and I didn’t know there were people who thought different.”

Silverthorne says that the Flathead Nation is much like other reservations in that there exist similar “isms,” like racism and sexism; and yet it’s different from many reservations because, after the land was opened up to homesteading earlier this century, what resulted was a clash of separate legal entities as well as a clash of separate cultures. Silverthorne believes this kind of lasting strife fuels the fire of discrimination.

“Institutional racism is insidious because we don’t know it’s there, when, in fact, it’s oppressive,” she says. “And those who have been oppressed become oppressors. It’s continuous. We have to intentionally break that cycle, but first we have to see and discuss the situation. What institutional racism does is stop that discussion.”

Silverthorne says parental participation is key, but points out that there are a variety of ways to show it, from attending sports events to joining the IEC. But don’t be surprised, she says, when a parent who had a negative school experience sympathizes with a child who quits attending classes for the same reasons.

“This vicious cycle is a very real situation,” she says. “The history of Indian education in this country is terrible. There is no value in Indians as people. There is no value in our culture, language or government. Early education was intended to ‘fix’ Indians, to get rid of our Indianness.”

Silverthorne adds that the public school system is only a few generations in place, and that many people consider it new, especially given the complicated rules and regulations pertaining to federal funding for Indian students that seem to be in constant flux.

One of her goals in her new position as tribal education director is to mentor parents into a greater understanding of how the system works and improve communication between schools, the tribal community and parents.

“Every effort needs to be made for two way communication,” she adds. “When that doesn’t work, we’ll be assertive and stand up for the best education possible for our children. And if we’re prevented from that, we need to be ready to pursue any legal avenue necessary.”

Despite the mounting legal pressure against the Ronan-Pablo school district and the recent decision by the tribal council to support the IEC, parent committee chair Clayton Matt says the board continues to turn a deaf ear to the IEC.

At the conclusion of a meeting held Sept. 13, in which the IEC detailed how the two-year-old policies and procedures plan can be implemented, the board once again said they required more time and scheduled another meeting, coincidentally slated for Oct. 11, Columbus Day.

About the ongoing debate, Ronan Superintendent Donn Livoni says only, “We’ll continue the dialogue.”

The IEC’s struggles, while similar to those happening on other reservations, are drawing more and more attention on their own. “What we’re doing and what the IEC is doing is the same,” IPA’s Janet Robideau says. “We’re trying to be vocal and work towards positive change, but they’re going up against a brick wall.”

Legislating Change?

Silverthorne says she is prepared to stand her ground in the coming months when it comes to changes in Indian education. And at least one development this year has inspired new hope in her and others.

House Bill 528, co-sponsored by State Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning), was passed by the Montana Legislature in April. The bill turns what parents and activists have maintained for years, that native culture is worthy of protection and incorporation into state curricula, into the law of the land.

“It is the constitutionally declared policy of this state to recognize the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and to be committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage,” HB 528 reads. “Every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, is encouraged to learn about the heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.”

Although HB 528 leaves its implementation up to individual districts, it does implore schools to work with Montana tribes in developing multi-cultural curricula and educating teachers in diversity. Essentially, the state appears to have legitimized activists’ long-standing concerns, clearing the way for a revolution in the way school districts teach all children, especially those who are Indian.

Carol Juneau explains that when legislators framed Montana’s constitution in 1972, it was their intention to educate Indians and non-Indians alike, providing academics that were both of the highest quality and the highest equality. They added a provision to the constitution that required teachers in and around reservation school districts to complete a three-credit Native American studies class. But some teachers objected to the new requirement; there are even stories of teachers turning their chairs to the wall during lectures as a form of protest. Two years later, after extensive teacher lobbying, the requirement was repealed. As a result, Juneau says, not much has changed since 1972.

“Many schools have no courses, no curriculum, no training for teachers [in terms of Indian education],” she says. “HB 528 tried to clarify the intent of the legislation. But unlike the previous stipulation, it allows entities like the Board of Regents and the Board of Public Education to manage their own programs.”

In addition, Juneau notes, about 50 percent of Indian students live off reservation in Montana, making it necessary for urban schools to be considered part of the equation as well.

“It’s important that all schools provide some kind of curriculum,” she explains, “and not just at Thanksgiving and during American Indian Awareness Week. It needs to be integrated. Students can study the U.S. Constitution and tribal governments; when studying geography and land, they could talk about reservations. There are lots of ways teachers could utilize the culture.”

HB 528 was supported by all of the major state education agencies, such as the Montana Education Association and the Office of Public Instruction, Juneau says, and she stresses that the bill’s purpose is to lend strength to citizens who want to put the issues of Indian education on the table in their districts.

“The idea is for local people to take the issues to their school boards,” she observes. “That information has to get out. Then if the school board doesn’t respond, there are questions that parents can raise. ... We need a way to figure out how to improve the system. It’s so complex—there are so many issues facing families—there’s a lot of unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and a system that is not responsive to their needs.”

Back in Missoula County, Robideau says HB 528 reinforces what IPA has been asking the Missoula school district to do, but she still has concerns that IPA’s recommendations will be reworded to the point of being almost unrecognizable. She urges the district to stay on track, especially regarding the hiring of minority teachers.

“The law definitely backs us up,” she says. “What we’re saying is now required by law, and if it’s violated, they can get caught.”

For her part, Juneau wonders why anyone who has chosen a career in teaching, a position that undoubtedly influences the worldviews of kids, would want to ignore HB 528’s message of inclusion and integration. Education, in itself a powerful tool, is the way for students to learn at an early age about their own culture and about different cultures—information that inevitably carries over into other areas of their lives. It’s a weapon, she says, against ignorance of all kinds.

“If kids grew up with that kind of knowledge,” she notes, “we’d all be so much better off.”

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