Equal Educational Opportunity for Native American Students in Montana Public Schools

Chapter 3

Public School Student and Staff Perspectives

Many of Montana’s Indian children who attend public schools reside on or near reservations. There are seven Indian reservations in Montana encompassing 10 tribal groups.[1] They are:




Piegan, Blood




Salish & Kootenai, Pend d’Oreilles

Fort Belknap

Assiniboine & Gros Ventre

Fort Peck

Assiniboine & Sioux

Northern Cheyenne

Northern Cheyenne

Rocky Boy’s

Chippewa & Cree

In addition to the seven reservations, Montana is home to (and recognizes) the Little Shell Band of Chippewa, often referred to as “landless Indians.”[2] Many people of the Little Shell Band live in Great Falls.

Those students who live on Indian reservations face unique challenges as they attempt to acquire a public school education. First, although these children usually attend schools on or near a reservation, often there are few Native American teachers, counselors, or administrators to guide them. Second, 1990 census figures show that the Flathead Reservation has more non-Indian than Indian residents, while the remaining six reservations have varying percentages of non-Indian residents. Appendix I indicates population totals for each of the seven reservations, and appendix J shows the locations of the reservations. The Office of Public Instruction for the 1996–97 school year reported 14,820 certified staff, as shown in table 3.1. Certified staff includes superintendents, principals, administrative assistants, librarians, counselors, psychologists, curriculum coordinators, special education directors, program/activity coordinators, and teachers. It does not include paraprofessionals and nonprofessionals. As shown in table 3.1, there were 12,315 white teachers and 261 Indian teachers; 784 white administrators (superintendents, principals, and administrative assistants) and 29 Indian administrators; and 1,323 other certified professional white staff (counselors, coordinators, etc.) and 29 Native Americans in those same positions. The data give an overall picture of the imbalance of Indian versus non-Indian educators.[3]

Because of the vast number of school districts and schools across the state, the Montana Advisory Committee identified elementary and high school districts from select areas to analyze and offer as examples. Major cities such as Great Falls, Billings, Helena, and Missoula were selected as well as schools on or near reservations. Elementary and high school districts may be composed of one or several schools.

Student enrollment, teacher, and administrator figures, supplied by the Office of Public Instruction, are shown in table 3.2, “Elementary Student Enrollment and Staffing in Montana Public Schools, 1998–99” and table 3.3, “High School Student Enrollment and Staffing in Montana Public Schools, 1998–99.” The elementary school districts include kindergarten through eighth grade, and the high school districts include grades nine through 12.


Certified Staff by Race for Montana Public Schools, Fall 1996–97




Other minority


Superintendent, principal, administrative assistant





Librarian, counselor, psychologist





Curriculum coordinator, special education director





Activity coordinator, program coordinator















Note: These counts are head counts, not FTE. Totals for individual position categories are not part of data provided by the Office of Public Instruction.

Source: State of Montana, Office of Public Instruction, April 1997.

Table 3.2 reveals that out of 28 elementary school districts reviewed, 18 had no Native American representation in the administrative ranks. Those districts were Billings, Hardin, Arlee, Kalispell, Missoula, Polson, Ronan, St. Ignatius, Ashland, Colstrip, Cutbank, East Glacier, Harlem, Box Elder, Havre, Frazer, Great Falls, and Helena. Elementary school districts with 50 percent or fewer Native American administrators included Lodge Grass, Heart Butte, Poplar, and Wolf Point. The only elementary districts with more Native American administrators than non-Indian administrators were Lame Deer, Browning, Hays-Lodge Pole, and Rocky Boy’s. Pryor and Brockton were the only two elementary districts employing only Native American administrators. Of the 28 elementary districts, 18 had Native American student enrollment of more than 50 percent. In two school districts, all students were Native American.

Table 3.3 shows similar data at the high school district level. Of 25 high school districts, 18 employed no Native American administrators. They were Billings, Hardin, Arlee, Flathead, Missoula, Polson, Ronan, St. Ignatius, Colstrip, Cutbank, Harlem, Hays-Lodge Pole, Frazer, Poplar, Box Elder, Havre, Helena, and Great Falls. In two high school districts, Heart Butte and Rocky Boy’s, all administrators were Native American. The percentage of Native American teachers employed at the high school level was also low, with the highest percentage (37.5) of teachers found at Hays-Lodge Pole.

Public School Students

During its fact-finding meetings, the Montana Advisory Committee heard perspectives from several public school students. What they said was thought provoking and should cause parents, educators, and legislators to realize that while the same discussions continue and little or no action has been instituted, Indian children fall by the wayside.

Leslie Caye, a 21-year-old student at the Flathead Reservation’s Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, stated during an interview while attending a national youth conference in Washington, D.C., that he not only worries about his own future, but also wants to make sure that other young Native Americans in Montana get the same opportunities.[4] He is one of the small numbers of Indian students fortunate enough to graduate from high school.

During the Advisory Committee’s fact-finding meeting in Billings, Montana, on December 10, 1996, several students from the Fort Peck Indian Reservation shared their opinions on the education they were receiving. The students observed that there are few Native American teachers, and their teaching abilities vary. At the same time, there are non-Indian teachers who also care about equal education for Indian children and those who do not.[5] The students agreed that some teachers encourage success while others do not. Counselors, in general, provide assistance in getting through high school such as suggesting what classes to take, but there is little emphasis on college and career goals. There was no consensus among the students as to qualities that constitute good or excellent teachers and counselors. Students also felt that increasing the number of Indian educators to serve as role models was very important.

Dallas Big Leggins, a former student at Wolf Point High School on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, said she dropped out of high school her sophomore year because “I was too scared to ask the teachers for help, and you know, I didn’t want to ask them, so I just dropped out.”[6] She said that she was afraid to ask questions because she thought teachers would get angry with her if she kept asking the same questions. As an example, Ms. Big Leggins said she realized she had a particularly hard time with math and knew that she would have to ask the same question more than once before she could grasp it. She felt intimidated by her teachers and afraid to ask for help, and eventually she dropped out of school. Ms. Big Leggins said teachers in the alternative class she later attended at the Native American Educational Services College in Wolf Point, Montana, were more approachable and asked students if they needed help.[7]

Sayra Matta, a student at Wolf Point High School, said she had only one Indian teacher who taught Indian studies but learned very little about her culture because of inadequate textbooks. Ms. Matta said, “It’s [historical information on Native Americans] all from a non-Indian perspective, and my culture is not taught.”[8] She also said that it is “easier to relate” to her Indian teacher because “he understands” and “he has probably been through some of the same things” that she has experienced. She said, unfortunately, some of the other teachers are not sensitive to Indian students’ needs.[9] She further explained, “I just think that it [would] be easier to go up and ask . . . an Indian [teacher] for help, because then you feel more comfortable.”[10] Ms. Matta said she does not see many boys graduate from high school because they usually do not make it past the 11th grade.[11] The boys drop out because they feel uncomfortable talking on a one-to-one basis with non-Indian teachers, she said. Further, the only class that she had noticed the boys excel in was Indian studies because there was interaction between the student and the teacher. Indian boys need the teachers to say to them, “Oh, you’re not doing good in this. I can help you. Do you need help? Or ask them if there’s a problem or even to go visit them [at their homes] and get to know them, because there can be a lot of reasons why they’re not doing good, and the teachers just need to be sensitive to our needs.” At Wolf Point High School some teachers encourage the students, but boys try to put on a front, which makes learning harder, she said.[12] Ms. Matta said she knew of people who had graduated and gone on to college, but “none of them come back to be educators.”[13]

Wolf Point High School, on the Fort Peck Reservation, according to Office of Public Instruction 1998–99 staffing figures, had 31 teachers which included two Indian teachers, and three administrators which included one Native American. There were 41 Native American students and 160 white students (see table 3.3).

Michael Bruner, a student at Brockton High School on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, felt that the Indian teachers who were knowledgeable of Native American culture were more effective.[14] She also said Native American students need someone who can relate to them and offer help.[15] Speaking specifically about boys who drop out, once they enter high school, she said, “They are already far behind and feel they cannot catch up and are not going to graduate anyway.”[16] She said few students at Brockton High School graduate and go on to college, and she could only recall one student who had graduated in the past two years.[17] Brockton High School data show three Indian teachers as compared with 10 white teachers. The administrative staff consists of one Indian and one white person.

Shannon Jackson, a student at Frazer High School on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, told the Montana Advisory Committee there is one Native American teacher in her school who teaches Native American studies and tribal government. She said, with regard to boys dropping out of school, “On the reservation you cannot drop out until you are 18. After they turn 18, they leave school and do not come back.” She said, “Like my cousin, my brother, and my sister, they all stay at home and don’t go to school any more.”[18] She also said boys start drinking at an early age because in Frazer there is nothing to do—no cultural center or any facilities for after-school activities.[19] Ms. Jackson could recall only one individual she knew who graduated from high school and said she had only one teacher who took the time to tell her what classes she needed for college.[20]

Program Coordinators and Teachers

Missoula County Public School District

Carole Meyers, Indian education Title IX coordinator for Missoula County Public Schools, works with about 400 Native American students in the district. The numbers fluctuate because of dropouts, transfers, and families returning to the reservation.[21] She said she observes many problems and hears of the many problems students face, including racial comments, within the district. She alleged that comments such as “prairie nigger,” “wagon burner,” and so on are common and make it difficult for a student to go to school and try to be a part of the system.[22] In-service sensitivity training on cultural diversity and cultural awareness was offered on three occasions within the school district, and only five teachers and a counselor signed up. Ms. Meyers commented, “Sometimes you wonder how much interest there really is.”[23]

Starla Klevenberg, bilingual education teacher, Missoula County Public Schools, noted a lack of partnership-building betwwen parents and school personnel.[24]

Polson Partnership Project, Polson School District

Co Carew, Polson Public School District, is program director of Polson Partnership Project, which attempts to foster communication between parents and school district personnel. Ms. Carew, who worked with Cherry Valley Elementary School in Polson, told the Montana Advisory Committee that on the Flathead Reservation, 65 percent of the population are Caucasian and 30 percent are Native American. Problems the Polson Partnership Project has tackled include high absenteeism among Native American students and lack of Native American parental involvement in the schools.[25] To attempt to solve the problems, the project suggested that professional education for the teachers would be helpful as well as parent education and involvement in school activities for parents. Other recommendations included teacher collaboration, student services, and home resource involvement.[26]

Rocky Boy’s Public Schools

Robert J. Swan, federal programs coordinator for Rocky Boy’s Public Schools on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, said the preparation of teachers and the lack of Native American teachers in Indian schools are priorities.[27] He also said, “Of the 40 Indian schools predominantly in the state of Montana, we only have a handful of Indian school administrators.”[28] Dr. Swan alleged that an obstacle (which he felt was a violation of civil rights) is a biased National Teacher Examination (NTE), which teachers in Montana are required to take. Student teachers are required to take this test even while they are enrolled in the teacher preparation program, before entering their senior year in college. He said a number of Native American teachers complete three years of teacher education, take the NTE during their junior year, and do not pass.[29]

Helena Public Schools

Franci Taylor previously worked as a teacher in a middle school in Helena, Montana, and now is involved in education on a volunteer basis. Ms. Taylor explained that she predominantly taught Native American children who were placed in a self-contained classroom.[30] These students had been labeled by the school system as being “emotionally disturbed,” primarily because they were deemed “passive aggressive.”[31] Because mainstream teachers do not have an understanding of Native American culture and tradition, they have inappropriately labeled students. She shared the following examples of cultural behavior: Indian children do not call out answers in the classroom, do not raise their hands (they do not want to bring attention to themselves), and most sit toward the back of the classroom. She said, “One of the worst sins that [Indian students] committed was when a teacher, in their role as the power element in the classroom, would question them one-on-one, up front and close—[students] would drop their eyes.”[32] Although Native American students accounted for more than 12 percent of the student population at Johnson Middle School, the teachers who should have understood that the behavior was cultural did not, and to stare into the face of an authority figure is perceived as disrespectful, she said.[33] Ms. Taylor explained that Native American tradition also dictates that if there is a problem in the Indian community or family concerns, the child is expected to stay home from school until the issues are resolved. As a result, they are passed over (teachers do not make adjustments), fall behind, and eventually drop out of school.[34]

Native American parents generally feel threatened by the school system. Ms. Taylor explained, “My parents felt very uncomfortable in the school system because it became a power structure. It’s almost like a caste system, starting out with the administration and moving down, where at the very bottom of the system is that Indian parent.”[35] Very little understanding and cooperation take place in those types of situations. Another point Ms. Taylor made is that Native American culture values sharing, but “it doesn’t happen in the classroom [because] there has not been, traditionally, that opportunity to share.”[36] Her opinion was that Indian students cannot succeed without some cooperation and understanding. She said, “It’s been ingrained into us from the boarding school on down. We have been taught ‘this is what you deserve.’ We have to break the chain.”[37] She suggested increased funding and the inclusion of Native American teachers as role models in the early grades.

Browning Public Schools

Wilma Mad Plume, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and an elementary school teacher at Vina Chattin School, which is on the reservation, said one area of deficiency in the schools is leadership. Again, there are not enough Native American educators.[38] As an experienced teacher, Ms. Mad Plume said Indian culture can be taught and integrated into any discipline—reading, language arts, science, math—and it is not difficult to accomplish. She acknowledged that she herself is not a fluent speaker of the Blackfeet language but as she attempts to do her job to the best of her ability, she has learned how to integrate the tribe’s cultural values into her classroom.[39]

On the Blackfeet Reservation, there are many Native American elementary school teachers, but few secondary school teachers. At the secondary level—where students drop out of school—is where Native American teachers are needed most.[40] Ms. Mad Plume interviewed a female Indian student who transferred out of Browning public schools to attend a smaller school about 30 miles away. Ms. Mad Plume asked her why she voluntarily changed schools, and the student responded, “I didn’t have [Indian] role models. They didn’t notice me in the classroom.” The high school student is now majoring in English and business administration. She has access to Native American role models—teachers and administrators—and she feels comfortable. Ms. Mad Plume also asked the student who her favorite role model was and she said, “My coach—she is a principal, she is my teacher, and she is my coach. I see her as a mother, as a parent, as a community person.”[41]

There are smart and gifted Indian children with much to offer, but many of them run into obstacles along the way that rob them of their full potential, Ms. Mad Plume said. She has tried to build upon her students’ self-esteem, confidence, and determination. She said she encourages them to speak up and does not experience passive behavior because the students feel comfortable raising their hands and talking to her. More interaction between students and teachers is needed, she said.[42]


Billings Public School District

Jim Kimmet, superintendent of Billings Public Schools, spoke on what he perceived to be the status of Native American students in Montana public schools. Dr. Kimmet explained that the Billings School District had a total enrollment (1996–97 school year) of approximately 16,000 students.[43] There are significant populations of Native American students in nearly every school in the district.[44] Dr. Kimmet said although all students may participate in all regular programs, there are a few programs targeted to Native American students.[45] One is the Title IX program, which offers teachers a set of resource literature designed to support tutors’ monthly thematic units of Native American culture.[46] The budget for the Title IX program declined from $118,000 in 1994 to $90,000 in 1996, which meant fewer students being served as the dollars were earmarked for tutor salaries.[47] He described a second program, limited English proficiency (LEP) services, which largely serves Native American students.[48] The function of the LEP program includes identification of limited-English-proficient students, training and support for regular classroom teachers, and direct services to students whose needs are high.[49] Another program offered, Dr. Kimmet said, is the Title I program, which provides compensatory education programs for economically and educationally disadvantaged children; and many Native American students participate in this program.[50] Dr. Kimmet also said 15.8 percent of minority students in his district receive special education services, compared with a total population service level of 11.9 percent.[51]

Despite these programs, explained Dr. Kimmet, and “the efforts of the highly dedicated core of teachers and administrators,” there are some problems with service to Native American students.[52] He said, “It appears that the proportion of Native American students dropping out of school is higher than we are seeing in our general population.”[53] The school district is probably seeing too high a dropout rate among Native American students, and Dr. Kimmet acknowledged the district had not implemented database systems to determine rates of attendance, participation in certain classes and activities, achievement scores, and discipline occurrences by racial and ethnic background.[54] Although Billings School District officials stated they did not maintain dropout data, table 2.3 provides dropout data at the high school level for the state, statistics that are tabulated by the Office of Public Instruction from data provided by reporting school districts. Native American students had a dropout rate of 19.4 percent for the 1996–97 school year, over three times higher than white students in the state. Dr. Kimmet told the Advisory Committee:

Nearly any time we need to have a race- or gender-based report, we’ve had to hand-generate it. Also in the middle schools, a discipline record system is maintained, which reports by ethnicity, but the data have not been gathered long enough to allow us to make any real conclusions. Lacking this data, it’s difficult to draw many valid conclusions about whether a characteristic is more or less predominant in the Native American population as compared to the population at large. It’s also difficult to determine that the variable is common to a racial or ethnic group or to a socioeconomic group as well. Given this lack of hard data, and yet recognizing that a significant part of our population is Native American, the district has put into place several programs or activities in order to improve our overall ability to meet the needs of Native American students.[55]

Programs consist of staff training on cultural diversity, cultural awareness, and integration of ethnic content into the curriculum, which includes showing 70 new teachers materials on videotape as part of their induction program, to scheduling presentations by people with expertise in Indian education.[56] Dr. Kimmet said another obstacle that the school district has noted, particularly with some of the Indian children from the Crow Reservation, is that sometimes the responsible adult is not necessarily the parent. “We do not understand all of those relationships, so we are working to try to understand those in order to make better contact to facilitate each child’s attendance and final completion,” he said.[57] Other initiatives include a volunteer parent coordinator to work with teachers and staff and Native American parents to build understanding and trust; and “a renewed emphasis on attempting to hire minority employees [Billings School District had only 12 Native American employees out of a work force of 1,889] because of the richness that diversity brings to our students.”[58] Initiatives under consideration included conducting a dropout study; improving and codifying attendance and discipline policies, specifically to make the policies more uniform from school to school; and emphasizing learning opportunities, as opposed to taking a punitive approach. The school district wants to facilitate the attendance of students rather than remove them from school, he said.[59] Dr. Kimmet told the Advisory Committee:

We are working to improve education for our students, maybe a little bit more for our Native American students, on a variety of fronts. We have limited resources, we make mistakes, and we sometimes do the wrong things. I think that to a large extent the Billings Schools are feeling our way in how to bring education in a positive and constructive fashion to our Native American students. I believe there’s more to be done and that we’ll never be entirely successful without a strong commitment from all the players. This includes the educators, the parents, the various community and tribal support systems, and the community as a whole.[60]

Regarding how teachers treat Native American students, Dr. Kimmet said:

I’m not naïve enough to think that we don’t have some teachers on our staff that perhaps don’t fully understand what some of the various ramifications of their actions are for Native American students or for other students, for that matter. We have a population of teachers that was trained quite some time ago, and I think that quite often their hearts are in the right place, but I’m not sure that they necessarily have all the skills or that they’re all—that they’ve changed with the times. I think kids are just like they always were. They’re products of their society, and many of our teachers have failed to keep up with the changes in society as well in their teaching, and I think that possibly spills over into some of their dealings with Native American students as well. I haven’t really been privy to any, what I would consider instances of a teacher just being deliberately unfair or deliberately prejudiced, but I think that there are, you know—just like me, I think we all make mistakes, and sometimes they’re rectifiable, and sometimes they’re long lasting, and that’s the unfortunate part of it.[61]

Great Falls Public School District

Dick Kuntz, assistant superintendent and coordinator of Indian education, Great Falls School District, described the district’s efforts regarding education for Indian students. He said Great Falls Schools has had an Indian education program for 23 years.[62] The district serves an urban Indian population, with more than 5,500 Native American people residing within the Great Falls community.[63] The Great Falls School District has 12,753 students, with about 1,180, or 9 percent, verified as Native American, who are enrolled in the 21 schools throughout the district.[64] Table 3.2 shows that 11 Native American teachers were employed, representing 0.4 percent of staff at the elementary level and 3 percent of staff at the high school level. Great Falls has an Indian education program with two components: the home-school liaison service and a Native American resource library. The home-school liaison service includes home-school coordinators and parent advisory councils that work with 1,180 students.[65] Mr. Kuntz said the home-school coordinator has been the most effective part of the program. He told the Advisory Committee:

The role of these coordinators is to work directly with parents to sometimes smooth rough ground between home and school [which has been caused by] perceptions or actual events that may cause a [cessation] of communication. They are able to actually take the issue into the home and help the parents find ways to solve the problems, rather than the parents always having to come to school for some of those dir[66]

The Native American resource library is supported by part-time staff and is open on a part-time basis. However, Mr. Kuntz said the Great Falls School District has also lost funding for the Indian education program and has had to cut funding for administration, supplies, materials, and staff development.[67] Goals for the Indian education program include (1) increase cultural awareness through activities in the schools, (2) enhance student self-esteem, (3) increase Native American student academic performance by 5 percent over a three-year period, (4) increase the attendance rate of Native American K–12 students by more than 5 percent over a three-year period, (5) provide two cultural sensitivity trainings per school year for district certified staff, and (6) increase parental involvement in school activities.[68] Mr. Kuntz explained that Great Falls “has a very transient Indian population that causes a great amount of concern in tracking our students.” He also said the school district would like to increase communication and coordination with reservations outside the community to better track student enrollment and attendance.[69] When Indian students move to live with relatives, they generally are out of school for extended periods of time. He said, in addition to cultural activities “that are sometimes not fully understood by the white community,” other events such as bereavement, where students will be out of school for up to two weeks at a time participating in bereavement rituals, need to be better understood.[70]

Responding to a question concerning teacher expectations of Native American students, Mr. Kuntz said, “My assessment of the teachers in the Great Falls public school system is . . . that our teachers really respect all students. . . . However, being a human being, I think that prejudices occur everywhere, and some of those perceptions can be, I think, perceived by students based on individual experiences.”[71] To alleviate the perception about the ability of Native American children to learn, the district offers sensitivity training. Mr. Kuntz said, “We also know that, by studying developmental needs of students and the way that students learn, that there are some cultural differences with Native American students that white teachers may not understand, and it is part of our job, or our priority, to make sure that they do understand what some of those differences are.”[72] Mr. Kuntz said:

I’m not really in favor of a state-mandated program whereby every teacher has to go out there and take an education class on Native American studies. We’ve tried that, and they’ve done that. I took one of those classes in the mid-1970s also. I think that we have to look at the overall teaching and strategies that teachers have and their bag of tricks as to how they reach all students.[73]

He said improvements will have to come from each school district, after listening to the Native American community as to what is lacking in the education of Indian students and how the school district needs to respond.[74]

Brockton Public School District

Bernard Lambert, an enrolled member of the Sioux Tribe and superintendent of Brockton Public Schools, which are on the Fort Peck Reservation, said this was his first year as superintendent and that he was educated in that very same district from elementary through high school. He said upon looking at the programs available, in comparison to what he experienced as a student in the Brockton school system, he was disappointed.[75] Superintendent Lambert said he asked members of the May 1996 graduating class for their evaluation of their education. The consensus of the students who graduated was “they weren’t prepared to go on.”[76] Although Brockton has a high percentage of high school graduates, Mr. Lambert said, “Out of the last 10 years, . . . of the people that graduated, no one has ever graduated from a college, which is a great concern.”[77]

The Brockton district has a four-person school board including three Native American members. Teachers total 20, of whom three are Native American (1996–97). All support staff who are noncertified are Native American.[78] A review of data (1998–99) in tables 3.2 and 3.3 illustrates that in the entire Brockton School District (elementary and high school), the Indian student population at the elementary school level totals 152 students, with only four white students. In comparison, there are six certified Native American staff and 20 white staff. The two administrators are Native American. At the high school level, there are 46 Native American students and only two white students, 10 white teachers, and three Native American teachers. There are two administrators, one white and one Native American.

Superintendent Lambert said the district’s main priority is the curriculum. Unfortunately, he said, “We never had a curriculum, a so-called curriculum,” but a tentative outline had recently been developed.[79] During curriculum development, debate often arises because students think teachers are not concerned with course content and what is relevant to them, and ask teachers questions such as, “How do you know? You don’t send your kids here.”[80] Further, there is resentment among staff with regard to the Class 7 certification, with teachers complaining that these staff members were never trained, he said.[81]

Mr. Lambert addressed the issue of teacher apathy. He explained that many teachers (some who have taught in the district for 15 to 25 years) do not live in the district. Therefore, when sports conference play occurs, the students see their teachers on the side of the other schools at these events, because many of Brockton’s teachers live off the reservation and have children who attend rival schools. During sporting events, it is discouraging for students in the Brockton district to see their teachers sitting on the side of rival schools that their own children attend. He also shared an example of racism concerning an incident at a girl’s basketball game: one of the players on the Brockton team was trying to retrieve the basketball and fell in the stands near an elderly woman and her husband. The elderly woman pushed the student back and told her, “Get out of here; you are just a dirty Indian.”[82]

Browning Public School District

Roger Helmer, superintendent of Browning Public Schools, told the Montana Advisory Committee that the Browning School District has the largest Native population of any school district in Montana, with an enrollment of approximately 2,100 students, of whom 97 percent are of Blackfeet ancestry.[83] He said the graduation rate is approximately 55 percent and is difficult to track in Montana because there are different ways of tracking.[84] One way is to track students from kindergarten through graduation from high school, and the other way is from kindergarten to ninth grade. In that regard, he said, “It’s a poor number for us to talk about.”[85]

Mr. Helmer explained that the isolation of Browning (the nearest town is 75 miles round trip) presents many challenges that affect students. And because the community is close-knit, events that occur at school become the focal point of conversation all over town. Further, students have few outlets for leisure time.[86] He said the school district needs to address education but also look at social, economic, and cultural factors. These issues, he said, “translate into some problems for us in the school in terms of what we offer in terms of training, what expectations are, and what we believe children should be learning.”[87]

Mr. Helmer said Browning Public Schools has been looking at a variety of issues, one of which is the expectation level for students. In a 1996 analysis of students who had completed first grade and were going on to second grade, it was found that “approximately one-third did not know their alphabet.”[88] Although Mr. Helmer did not suggest that this was a direct result of low teacher interest, or that curriculum or learning objectives were not met or not in place, he did say that a program was established to address the problem.[89]

Superintendent Helmer explained that the Browning School District requires that before teachers receive tenure (which is their fourth-year contract in Montana), they must take six hours of coursework related to the Blackfeet culture and language.[90] To further illustrate the need for Native American culture courses, Mr. Helmer said in the year he has been with the school district, “we have had three people who we hired as first-year teachers leave. One in November 1996 and two after Christmas vacation, because they could not adapt to working with the student population that we work with, and we encouraged them to leave.”[91] Mr. Helmer said that in addition to a clean, safe environment, students want a “more rigorously demanding curriculum and that their teachers expect more from them.”[92]

The school district requires that all students in Browning schools take a Blackfeet language and culture course, because “we do believe that it’s important that the Blackfeet language and culture be a central part of what we’re trying to do in the Browning School District,” Mr. Helmer said.[93]

Plains Public School District

Ron Rude, superintendent of Plains Public Schools, a small rural district that adjoins the Flathead Reservation, oversees the education of approximately 520 students. Superintendent Rude said:

It’s difficult to get exact figures on racial makeup since we cannot demand such information from individuals. However, through familiarity with some long-term local families, through voluntary registration information, and through voluntary lunch program information, we estimate from 2 to 3 percent of our student population has some Native American lineage.[94]

He said of the approximately 1,600 students enrolled in the district (average of 520 students per school year) over the last three years, with high school graduation classes of approximately 38 to 40, “we graduated zero students (1994), two students (1995), and one student (1996) who probably were Native American.”[95] The Office of Public Instruction recorded the Plains School District as having 572 students for the 1998–99 school year. Of those, 21 were Native American and 536 were white; and there were no Native American teachers.[96] Classes addressing Native American history and culture are not mandatory for students within the Plains School District and are not regularly scheduled, except at the high school level through the American history and senior American government classes.[97] The superintendent said, “Throughout the grades elementary to high school, the amount of time spent on Native American cultural issues varies, depending on the teachers’ interest, of course, but also depending on a particular class.”[98] He added, “When we teach Native American history and culture in the elementary grades, it is as an important part of American and Montana history but not as a separate emphasis of the curriculum.”[99] Plains School District has a staff of 35 teachers, which includes one Native American (1996–97 school year).

Regarding the needs of academically at-risk students, Superintendent Rude said:

Our emphasis does not use race or culture as a factor of selection. And the information provided here is also not to pretend that we have had only success stories, whether with Native American or any other student. In some cases I’m sure we simply do not find the key to what’s needed, and in other cases, we are completely overwhelmed by unhealthy family situations.[100]

Mr. Rude offered two opinions: (1) the school district probably does not adequately understand the issues that are involved with Native American students, and (2) Native American students who have attended Plains schools have been successful in a conventional curriculum, at least to the same degree as any other students.

Crow Agency Public School

Mike Chapman, principal, explained that Crow Agency Public School is a K–6 elementary school, with 253 students, and of that number only one is non-Native American.[101] The school takes a different approach in teaching its students, as classes are small, with an average of 17 students per classroom.[102] Mr. Chapman said several education programs are designed to meet the needs of students, with teaching staff who have received off-site training.[103] Mr. Chapman said more than half of the classroom teachers are Native American. Almost all classified staff members are Native American, and all support staff are non-Indian, making a fair balance.[104] In his opinion, the expectations teachers have of students are extremely high, and there is tremendous effort applied to help those children meet expectations.[105] Mr. Chapman said his school does not utilize the Crow language as part of its instruction because many of the children do not speak Crow, although they may understand the language when it is spoken to them.[106]

Rocky Boy’s Public Schools

Sandra Murie, a Native American and superintendent for the past seven years for Rocky Boy’s Public Schools, addressed the Montana Advisory Committee. The school district had a K–12 population of a little more than 500 Native American students and one non-Native student. The school board, since 1970, has been all Native American. Three of four administrators are Native American, as are about 15 of 45 teachers.[107] She said the school district has a goal of seeing all students graduate. Superintendent Murie estimated that out of the district’s 35 freshmen, 18 would graduate from high school. Historically, she said, about 45 to 55 percent of children who begin high school graduate.[108]

Superintendent Murie explained that the district’s philosophy is “no matter what, you keep kids in school.”[109] She asked, “What additional types of services do those children need to assist them to stay in school?”[110] She said the issue could easily be discussed for a long time. Ms. Murie also explained that she too has experienced negative comments from other educators across the state regarding Native American students and Native Americans in general. She said, “It’s really hard to put your finger on” what causes educators to make such negative comments.[111] She[112]

St. Ignatius Public School District

Superintendent John Matt, who heads a K–12 school district on the Flathead Reservation, provided data on a 1996 graduating class compared with the same group of students when they were in seventh grade. The senior class of 1996 had 32 members, and 15 were Native American. Of 15 students who graduated, only two were Native American.[113] Evaluating that same class, however, as seventh graders, there were 44 members in the incoming class, which included 17 Native American students; however, only 32 students passed to the eighth grade.[114]

Mr. Matt explained the district’s definition of “dropout.” He said a student who drops out is a student who is no longer enrolled in the district and has not had any form of “request for transcripts” to be transferred to another school. Therefore, the district has no record that the student is going to another school or is being home schooled.[115]

The district has a full-time certified Class 7 language instructor at the elementary level, and an aide with reasonable fluency in the language in the high school and middle school. Certified staff totaled 54 teachers, which included eight Native Americans.[116] Superintendent Matt explained that there is considerable need for qualified Native American teachers to serve as role models for students. He said one obstacle to hiring Native American teachers is the screening process:

We can’t have them put on the application their ethnicity, so we may have screened out Native American teachers and don’t know it because we can’t look at a resume or application and tell. We hope that doesn’t happen. We look for qualified individuals and, again, we’ll always hire the most qualified.[117]

He concluded, “I just want to emphasize that we work diligently to meet the needs of all of our students, and I think that is the consensus of all superintendents on our reservation.”[118]

School Board Trustees

Billings Public Schools

James Corson, school board member, Billings Public Schools, said the school board’s mission is “(1) to set the overall tone and also the vision for the district, and (2) to approve the district budgets.”[119] The school board approves curriculum, selects textbooks, and sanctions the general policies and operating guidelines for the district.[120] One of the most important roles of the school board is to provide a forum for the public to be heard on school-related issues.[121] Mr. Corson said there is a lack of Native American teachers as role models in the Billings School District. Out of approximately 1,100 certified teachers, only four are Indian, he said.[122] For support staff, the numbers are not much better (totaling eight), bringing the district total of Native Americans to 12 (1996–97 school year). He said, “So I would say that we probably haven’t done a very good job with that, and I would be the first one to say that.”[123] He added:

Historically, up until recent years, we haven’t had a real push to have a mix in our work force. With the change of the direction of our school board and also the superintendent, I believe that steps are now being taken to work on the issue. Will it happen overnight? The answer is, probably not.[124]

Tables 3.2 and 3.3 provide 1998–99 school year totals. Five Native Americans were employed as teachers at the elementary level, and one Native American was employed at the high school level. Recruitment needs to take place because the district has not gone after the top graduates and asked them to apply. Mr. Corson said the Billings School District central administration does not hire staff, unlike several other districts across the state. Hiring is decentralized down to the school building level, which consequently makes it difficult for the superintendent or the school board to have an influence. Mr. Corson said there are many bright young Native American teachers who may look at Billings and say, “They don’t hire there,” because the district historically has not hired Native Americans.[125]

He also said an issue that needs to be faced is the language background of students. Further, cultural background sometimes leads to special education placement, which has been a problem, although the district is trying to correct inappropriate placements.[126] Another concern is stereotyping students. He explained that a teacher may have had a problematic Indian student in her class 10 or 15 years ago, and as a result stereotypes all Indian students. He added that sometimes educators have lower expectations of nonwhite students.[127] Mr. Corson said these are problems the school district is trying to fix. Another issue is frequent movement of Native American students from rural reservation schools to the Billings School District. He told the Advisory Committee:

As the Billings high schools have a large number of students attending high school, the transition for a Native American student from a rural setting to an urban setting can be tough. Also the academic standards are very high, which means that if a student does not come prepared, they are probably in for some serious trouble, because they have to hit the ground running.[128]

Mr. Corson explained that although the district does an excellent job of nurturing students from K–6 grade, “sometimes that nurturing, that kind of caring, gets lost at the higher grade levels, because those schools tend to be quite large, and it is easy to get lost.”[129] And finally, he asked, “How does an Indian student fit into primarily white schools? Those students need a lot of support from home, peers, and everyone to be able to fit in and to deal with prejudice.”[130]

Hardin Public Schools

Clarice Denny, member of the Hardin School Board, said she is one of two Native Americans who serve on the board. The addition of two Native Americans to the Hardin School Board was the result of a voting rights case and school zone redistricting.[131] Before redistricting, at-large voting was the norm, and there had never been a Native American school board member. Ms. Denny said although her service on the board is important (she is now in her third term), the Native American representatives “have no control,” and sometimes her concerns are not addressed, including the graduation rate of Native American students.[132] Hardin High School student enrollment for the 1995–96 school year was 422, which included 187 Native American and 235 white students. Out of the entire student enrollment, half were failing in one or two subjects.[133] Of the approximately 200 students failing, 90 were Native American.[134] Ms. Denny said she voiced her concerns, and as a result, a task force was established to identify problems that may be causing such a high failure rate.[135] The task force identified external problems and made recommendations, but there was no mention of internal problems and Ms. Denny said she had concerns about that.[136] She noted internal issues such as attitudes of teachers toward Native American students, curriculum matters, and disparate disciplinary action against Native American students.[137] Ms. Denny recalled a visit she made to Hardin High School to ascertain which students were detained in those in-school suspensions, and she said, “There were 10 students in in-school suspensions, and all 10 were Native American students. And at that time I mentioned to the principal that it seems like Indian students spend more time in these in-school suspension situations than they do in a classroom.” The issue was never addressed.[138] Table 3.3 illustrates 1998–99 enrollment figures for Hardin High School. There were 417 students, 211 white and 186 Native American students.

Montana endorses locally controlled school districts and schools, while at the same time encouraging them to support and participate in programs and develop practices to promote Indian education. Previous testimony indicates that many schools and school districts are doing very little to support the statewide effort.

[1] Nate St. Pierre, Center for Native American Studies, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT, letter to Malee V. Craft, civil rights analyst, Rocky Mountain Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Apr. 22, 1997.

[2] The Little Shell Band of Chippewa received federal recognition in May 2000.

[3] Throughout the report, staffing and student comparisons will be made between Native Americans and whites because other minority student, teacher, and administrator figures are very small.

[4] Jennifer Tomshack, “Indians take education concerns to Washington” The Great Falls Tribune, Feb. 11, 1995. Mr. Caye, co-president of United National Indian Youth, a network of 107 youth councils in 28 states, attended a conference on Native American Youth, Washington, D.C., February 1995.

[5] Statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Billings, MT, Dec. 10, 1996, transcript, p. 191 (hereafter cited as Transcript 1).

[6] Dallas Big Leggins, Transcript 1, p. 188. Ms. Big Leggins was attending an alternative class at NAES (Native American Educational Services) College, Wolf Point, MT. The alternative class was established for dropouts or students expelled or suspended from high school and who were ineligible for re-entry. There were approximately 20 students (all Native American) in the alternative class from her community. Ibid., pp. 188–89.

[7] Ibid., pp. 188–90.

[8] Sayra Matta, Transcript 1, p. 185.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 193.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 192–94.

[13] Ibid., p. 206.

[14] Michael Bruner, Transcript 1, p. 184.

[15] Ibid., p. 192.

[16] Ibid., p. 200.

[17] Ibid., p. 205.

[18] Shannon Jackson, Transcript 1, p. 200.

[19] Ibid., p. 202.

[20] Ibid., p. 206.

[21] Carole Meyers, Transcript 1, p. 130.

[22] Ibid., p. 131.

[23] Ibid., p. 145. There are some teachers who are interested and they contact the office to get an evaluation of how they are doing. Ibid., p. 146.

[24] Starla Klevenberg, Transcript 1, p. 139.

[25] Co Carew, statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Missoula, MT, Apr. 24, 1997, transcript, p. 121 (hereafter cited as Transcript 2).

[26] Ibid., p. 122.

[27] Robert Swan, Transcript 2, p. 160. Dr. Swan has worked on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation for 12 years and has previous experience in education with other tribes. Ibid., p. 159.

[28] Ibid., p. 162. Montana has since replaced the NTE with the PPST, a basic skills test.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Franci Taylor, Transcript 2, p. 258.

[31] Ibid., pp. 258–59.

[32] Ibid., p. 259. Tradition teaches Native American children to respect those in authority and not to look the person directly in the eyes.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid., p. 260.

[35] Ibid., p. 261.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Wilma Mad Plume, Transcript 2, p. 267. Ms. Mad Plume is a second-grade teacher and has been teaching for 11 years. She holds a master’s degree in elementary administration.

[39] Ibid., pp. 267–68.

[40] Ibid., p. 268.

[41] Ibid., pp. 268–69. The student interviewed was Ms. Mad Plume’s adopted daughter.

[42] Ibid., p. 269.

[43] Jim Kimmet, Transcript 1, p. 125.

[44] Ibid., p. 126. Dr. Kimmet also noted that significant Native American populations are found in those areas of town usually associated with lower socioeconomic populations. Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid. The goals of the Title IX program are to (1) provide assistance to students with regular curricular work, particularly in those areas in which students are struggling; (2) provide tutoring and study skills; and (3) provide a sense of place for Native American students. Ibid., pp. 126–27. The federal Title IX program promotes equity and excellence for students with special needs. It was originally authorized in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and reauthorized as the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA) in 1994.

[47] Ibid., p. 127.

[48] Ibid. Of 32 students served under this program, only two are non-Native American. Ibid.

[49] Ibid., p. 128.

[50] Ibid. Title I programs were created by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

[51] Ibid., pp. 128–29. He noted that one-half of the district’s minority student population are Native American. Ibid., p. 129.

[52] Ibid., p. 129.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., pp. 129–30.

[55] Ibid., pp. 129–31.

[56] Ibid., p. 131. Teachers new to the Billings School District totaled 70. Presentations scheduled for the future included the state of Montana, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, and the Desegregation Assistance Center, Denver, CO.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid., p. 132.

[59] Ibid., pp. 132–33.

[60] Ibid., pp. 134–35.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Dick Kuntz, Transcript 1, p. 135. The Great Falls Native American student population consists of 45 tribes, including all 10 Montana tribes. Forty-one percent are Chippewa-Cree and approximately 33 percent are Blackfeet. Ibid., pp. 135–36.

[63] Ibid., p. 135.

[64] Ibid., p. 136.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., p. 145.

[67] Ibid., p. 137.

[68] Ibid., pp. 137–39. The average grade point average for Native American students was 2.034, and the average days of nonattendance for Native American students was seven days per year. Ibid., p. 138.

[69] Ibid., p. 139.

[70] Ibid., pp. 139–40.

[71] Ibid., p. 142.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid., p. 153.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Bernard Lambert, Transcript 2, p. 96.

[76] Ibid., p. 97.

[77] Ibid., p. 98.

[78] Ibid., pp. 97–98.

[79] Ibid., p. 105. There are two fluent speakers of the Lakota language in the Native language department. Ibid.

[80] Ibid., p. 118.

[81] Ibid., p. 105.

[82] Ibid., p. 119.

[83] Roger Helmer, Transcript 2, pp. 58–59. Mr. Helmer has over 30 years of experience as an educator working with numerous minority populations, including Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. Ibid., p. 58.

[84] Ibid., p. 59. The 55 percent represents children who were in the school system from kindergarten through graduation. Ibid.

[85] Ibid., p. 60. One reason that tracking is difficult is the high movement of Native American students between kindergarten and ninth grades, with approximately a third of 1,500 students leaving the school district to attend other schools and eventually returning to the district. Ibid., p. 59.

[86] Ibid., pp. 60–61. At the time of Mr. Helmer’s testimony, the city of Browning, population of about 7,500, as an example, did not have a movie theater.

[87] Ibid., p. 62. The unemployment rate fluctuates between 20 and 60 percent of the adult population, and between 10 and 30 percent for adults on the Blackfeet Reservation. Employment opportunities are available mainly in service areas, although the Indian Health Service and the Browning school system are probably the largest employers. Ibid., pp. 61–62.

[88] Ibid., p. 62. Seventy-seven students went from first grade to second grade without knowing the alphabet.

[89] Ibid. A Native American teacher was identified to obtain additional training to return to the school district as a reading trainer and reading supervisor. Ibid., p. 63.

[90] Ibid., pp. 86–87.

[91] Ibid., p. 87.

[92] Ibid., p. 118.

[93] Ibid., pp. 65, 67. Most children do not speak Blackfeet as their primary language, therefore, the district is attempting to build a respect for and knowledge of Blackfeet culture and language.

[94] Ron Rude, Transcript 2, pp. 72–73.

[95] Ibid., p. 73. Out of 1,600 students, Mr. Rude estimated that 36 were Native American.

[96] Office of Public Instruction, 1998–99 Enrollment and School Staffing Report by Ethnicity and Gender for Montana Public Schools and Institutions, pp. 212–13.

[97] Ron Rude, Transcript 2, pp. 73–74. This class examines political and economic issues with a western Montana focus.

[98] Ibid., p. 77. Time spent on Native American issues varied from 5 percent to 25 percent and may include short-term presentations, artifacts, and displays. Ibid., pp. 77–78.

[99] Ibid., p. 76.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Mike Chapman, Transcript 1, p. 140. Because of the school enrollment, there are no specific Indian education programs. Ibid. Crow Agency Public School is part of the Hardin School District.

[102] Ibid., p. 141.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid., pp. 143–44.

[105] Ibid., p. 144.

[106] Ibid., p. 148.

[107] Sandra Murie, Transcript 1, pp. 79–80.

[108] Ibid., p. 81.

[109] Ibid., p. 82. Ms. Murie said expulsions had risen in the last two years as a result of social issues such as drugs and alcohol that result in violence.

[110] Ibid., p. 83. Rocky Boy’s Public Schools had seven teachers who taught the Cree language, and tribal history had been integrated into science, arts, and history curricula.

[111] Ibid., p. 84. Ms. Murie referenced comments made to her by other educators, such as, “Oh, I get so upset at these people. I just don’t even want to be here.” Or after she explains that she is a superintendent of a school district that predominantly serves Indian children, the response has been, “Oh, you are one of those. Oh, you’re in that school.” Ibid.

[112] Ibid.

[113] John Matt, Transcript 1, p. 89. The St. Ignatius School District considers a student classified as Native American if he or she is a descendent of or enrolled with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribe. Ibid.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid., p. 90.

[116] Ibid., pp. 92–93.

[117] Ibid., p. 94. Mr. Matt explained that a four-year teaching degree through the Salish-Kootenai College (located on the Flathead Reservation), with the support of Western Montana College, should produce many qualified teachers for the district. Ibid.

[118] Ibid., pp. 94–95.

[119] James Corson, Transcript 1, pp. 210–12. School board members are elected by their respective communities. Ibid.

[120] Ibid., p. 212.

[121] Ibid. In the Billings School District, parents and interested individuals can contact school board members directly with their questions or concerns. Ibid.

[122] Ibid., p. 214. These numbers are for the 1996–99 school year.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Ibid., pp. 229–30.

[125] Ibid., p. 230.

[126] Ibid., p. 214.

[127] Ibid., pp. 214–15.

[128] Ibid., p. 215.

[129] Ibid., p. 216.

[130] Ibid.

[131] Clarice Denny, Transcript 1, p. 266.

[132] Ibid., pp. 266–67. Hardin School Board members serve three-year terms. Ibid. Ms. Denny also wanted her statements to clarify those of Mr. Chapman, made earlier in the day.

[133] Ibid., p. 266.

[134] Ibid., pp. 266–67.

[135] Ibid.

[136] Ibid., p. 267.

[137] Ibid., p. 273.

[138] Ibid., p. 296. As a Hardin School Board member, Ms. Denny has asked for and received statistics which substantiate that a higher number of Native American students serve in-school suspensions for any kind of offense, sometimes sitting in detention three days out of a five-day school week. Ibid., p. 295.