Making the Grade 

Teachers debate how to improve Montana’s Indian education

Participants at the recent Montana Indian Education Association conference in Great Falls wrestled with a host of issues they say are keeping many Native American students from achieving academic excellence. From a lack of cultural sensitivity in the classroom to chaotic home situations, inadequate funding for programs, and testing that’s primarily geared to the non-Indian population, conferees agreed there’s ample room for more progress in nearly every area.

They also agreed that the goals of expanding educational opportunities and attaining equality in the classroom can be reached if parents bind together and demand change. One such vehicle, they say, is the newly formed Voices of Indian Communities for Education. VOICE, which hopes to form chapters all across the state, dedicates itself to getting more Indian parents involved in school issues and having their concerns addressed by education leaders.

Group co-organizer Rae Peppers said high drop-out rates and low achievement among Indian students can be attributed, among other factors, to drug and alcohol abuse, racism, “dysfunctional family issues,” and a lack of cultural understanding at many schools. To move forward, she says, Indian parents can no longer remain in the background while important decisions are being made about their children’s future.

“The buck does not stop with the school board,” Peppers proclaimed. “The buck stops with the parents.”

“We want to be on a level playing field,” added Delores Plumage of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. “We want our statistics to get better. We want to be treated with respect.”

“Sometimes it seems like we’re saying the same things again and again,” Salish and Kootenai Education Director Joyce Silverthorne added during a keynote address.

Silverthorne noted that more than 10 percent of the state’s public school students are Indian, while only about 2 percent of the state’s teachers are. While acknowledging that substantial advancements have been made, she also said many of the methods used to teach and test Indian students are culturally inappropriate. The proof that things are not well is reflected in the Indian drop-out rate, which is four times greater than for non-Indian students in Montana, she said.

Robin Butterfield, another national leader in the Indian education field, told participants that in too many cases, Indian youths “have lost that feeling of where hope really comes from” because they’re no longer tied to their traditional ways. She challenged fellow educators to help boost self-esteem among Indian students, push for more bilingual programs, and promote cultural awareness wherever they can.

From calling Indians “savages,” to rewriting history to fit the non-Indian mold, cultural bias is still alive and unwell in the classroom, Office of Public Instruction specialist Mike Jetty told the group. And when teachers and school administrators aren’t properly educated about tribal history and cultural matter, all students suffer, he said. When he asks non-Indians to draw pictures of American Indians, he explained, many still revert to stick drawings of drunks or warriors with fancy headdresses standing next to a tipi. While Native Americans have made solid educational advancements over the years, little of that progress is recognized by the general public, he maintains. Jetty said the root problem is hegemony—the influences and controls that dominant classes and groups exercise over society’s institutions, including the public schools. In textbooks and other classroom materials, hegemony surfaces when important facts about Indian people are omitted or written only from a non-Indian viewpoint.

As an example, Jetty displayed the latest textbook being used to teach Montana middle school students about the state’s history. In one chapter, it says, “The death of the American Indian culture took less than 30 years after its 9,000 years of building.” The book also calls the Blackfeet Indians “rogues of the West,” and says an 1855 treaty “gave sovereignty and citizenship to the American Indian.”

Conference participants noted that traditional Indian culture is not dead, and in fact the culture and traditions took more than 9,000 years to build. They also said no one “gave” sovereignty to Indian people and that U.S. citizenship was not granted to Indians until 1924. While one Blackfeet man said his tribe may indeed include a few “rogues,” the stereotypical reference to all tribal members being that way was inaccurate, as well as offensive.

Tom Thayer, a Billings author who wrote the chapter, told the group that in retrospect, the entries were wrong. He added, however, that he tried unsuccessfully to get Native Americans to help with the edition before it was published last fall. “I did my best to have Indians really sit down with me on this,” he said. “We didn’t get a very good response.” Thayer also urged participants to take the time to work on such projects “because otherwise we’re just repeating what’s already out there.” Julie Cajune, Indian education coordinator for the Ronan-Pablo School District, said she believes textbook authors have a “great responsibility” to be sure the information they’re presenting to students is correct, and that extra care must be taken to ensure that wrong or misleading data doesn’t make it into final drafts.

“You have an obligation of scholarship, especially when it’s for children,” Cajune said to Thayer, who apologized for the misrepresentations and promised they won’t appear again.

Jetty noted that recent Montana Board of Public Education approval of House Bill 528, which helps define the state’s constitutional mandate to preserve Indian cultural heritage, will help combat cultural discrimination. Thayer agreed.

“House Bill 528, we feel, is very important,” he said. “We’re not so boisterous as to think we can speak for you.”

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