Finally, Montana lives up to its word 

After nearly 28 years of debate, state officials have adopted policies to ensure that students and teachers in Montana learn more about American Indian history and culture.

The new policies, approved March 22 by the state Board of Public Education, also call for increasing the number of Indian teachers and expanding native language programs, among other provisions.

“It’s been quite a process,” says Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Salish and Kootenai Education Department and chairwoman of the special committee that developed the standards. “We’ve really come a long way. It’s a culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people over years and years.”

The board action was the result of House Bill 528, which was approved in the 1999 Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning), requires the state to abide by Article X, Section 2 of the 1972 Montana Constitution. The clause says the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Indians, and promises to preserve their cultural integrity through education.

Although numerous efforts have been made over the years to define the clause and develop policies to fit its mandate, past proposals have largely fallen by the wayside because of funding shortfalls and lack of oversight, tribal leaders say.

The new policies require the state school board, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI), the commissioner of higher education and the Montana Board of Regents to create a plan to jump-start programs and to work with tribal governments to determine “appropriate and culturally responsive educational goals.”

Explaining the “history, culture, tribal sovereignty, and current status” of Indians in Montana will be a primary objective, the board decided. OPI, working in conjunction with tribal leaders, will be responsible for developing model curriculums.

At the college level, the board wants Indian history and culture taught in teacher-education programs. It’s also calling for the state’s university system to recruit and retain more Indian students in teacher-training courses. The special committee will remain impaneled to help ensure the policies are carried out.

“We’re quite pleased,” says OPI’s Kathy Bramer. “It’s been a long time coming. It gives us the opportunity to have some very specific planning in how to support school districts in these areas.”

“I think it contains some direction for the leadership to follow,” adds Juneau. “Hopefully, we’ll look back in five years and say we accomplished something here.”

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