Equal Educational Opportunity for Native American Students in Montana Public Schools
Perspectives of Organizations and Institutions Concerned with Indian Education
Montana Indian Education Association
Theodora Weatherwax, president of the Montana Indian Education Association (MIEA), addressed the Montana Advisory Committee during its second fact-finding meeting in Missoula. She said Native American students are not getting the guidance needed from educators—teachers, counselors, and administrators—to help them plan for the future. She also confirmed what many others had already stated, that the public education system in Montana, in order to truly assist Native American students, must include more Native American administrators, teachers, and school board members.
Teacher preparation is a concern of many, and Ms. Weatherwax said teachers must be better prepared, and those who have taken a serious interest in Indian education need support from their school boards and administrators. And finally, a better system needs to be put in place to immediately follow-up on students who do not show up for school.
Montana Association for Bilingual Education
Nora Bird, president of the Montana Association for Bilingual Education (MABE), said bilingual programs have shrunk from 25 programs two years ago down to nine. Ms. Bird said bilingual education programs are necessary because the school system has failed to provide equal education for Indian people or an environment conducive to learning. She reflected on her years in public schools and said the material was presented in a language foreign to Indian students, and the materials and instruction were irrelevant. “Had it been relevant, I [think it] would have promoted success compared to the high dropout rate, [and] poor academic progress which is still going on right now,” she said. Ms. Bird said a disservice has been done to many Indian children because their needs have not been met. There are children who are not proficient in English or the Crow language. As a result, they have difficulty conceptualizing some ideas, which contributes to their very poor academic success; and because Native Americans are the largest minority in the state, bilingual education should be an integral part of curricula.
Ms. Bird provided an example of how bilingual education is addressed in Montana. She said lesson plans are developed, one in English and the other in a Native language, such as the Crow language. Therefore, both languages are taught at the same time, accomplishing dual proficiency. She further explained that schools need to ensure proficiency in the primary language in order for students to succeed in English, and that academic problems are more prevalent among Native American students because the language issue has not been properly addressed on the reservations.
Indian School Board Caucus, Montana School Boards Association
Robert Fox, chairman of the Montana Indian School Board Caucus, said the caucus is in its initial stages of organizing and has three members. He said one thing is certain, “all school board members concerned with addressing the unique needs and concerns of Indian children in the public school system must first organize themselves and then reach out and develop coalitions in order to effect positive change.”
Native American Studies Program, University of Montana
Patrick Weasel Head, associate director of the Native American Studies Program at the University of Montana, Missoula, spoke before the Montana Advisory Committee about Native American student retention and dropout issues at the post-high school level. He said that in addition to the University of Montana’s Native American Studies Program assisting Indian students in higher education, “one of the things we’re looking at in the state is a level of cooperation and coordination with all institutions of higher education, including the seven tribal colleges.” Dr. Weasel Head explained that collaboratively, the institutions also consider how students make a successful transition from high school to either a tribal college or a four-year institution. He said:
We have learned a long time before that if a student has a bridge program in their junior and senior year, they are more successful once they get into postsecondary. So we are promoting bridge programs either to tribal colleges or to mainstream institutions, so in fact, these students have a better success rate.
A second goal is to develop a comprehensive approach from Head Start to graduate school, which means, said Dr. Weasel Head, that there will need to be ample partnerships (among schools, school districts, educators, etc.) with participants collaborating with Indian students.
Dr. Weasel Head said there are several strategies to keep Native American students in school, and one he promotes is a long-term working relationship with the 26 to 28 high schools on or near reservations, including urban schools with many Native American students. He said it is important to establish a long-term working relationship so that academic success and programs can be continuously promoted, and there needs to be a tracking mechanism to determine if the emphasis on a comprehensive approach to educating Native American students does indeed make a difference. Finally, Dr. Weasel Head said the vision, priorities, and goals for Indian education must come from tribal governments.
Rocky Mountain College
Susan McDaniel, Rocky Mountain College, explained that the institution she represents tries to help Native American students achieve two- and four-year college degrees and go on beyond that, if they wish, to graduate studies. Ms. McDaniel said that due to her college’s efforts and the efforts of the presidents of three tribal colleges (Salish-Kootenai, Fort Peck, and Little Big Horn) in three to four years Rocky Mountain College has been able to increase the presence of Native Americans to six students. Ms. McDaniel said Rocky Mountain College, a private institution, has hired a full-time Native American counselor, which has made a major difference in terms of the experience for students. “Rocky Mountain College is involved in teacher education exchanges with Fort Peck Community College with goals to enlarge the teacher education program and to include our other tribal college partners and other tribal colleges in Montana,” she said.
Ms. McDaniel said Rocky Mountain College’s teacher education programs are vital to improving Indian education in Montana. “When we empower members of the tribe to teach and to go back to their own location, their own families and cultures, they then impart in a different way than someone who does not know those cultures,” she said.
Clara Beth Johnson, Rocky Mountain College, acts as a liaison and coordinator between four colleges in Montana. The purpose of her efforts is to increase the numbers of Native American students in math and science fields and to introduce a cultural component to learning. As an example, Ms. Johnson said:
The teacher education program at Rocky Mountain College, [for] the elementary teacher, is now involving Indian stories in the teaching methods for students. We’re learning sensitivity in ways that we had never perceived before. We took it for granted. We are learning things, techniques, and we are trying to involve an equal partnership between our American Indian, Anglo, Hispanic, and black populations.
In closing she said, “We need to understand how a student learns and provide him that opportunity, and many times we miss that opportunity.”
Ms. Johnson said that in 1994 there were only 2,004 Native Americans nationally who received bachelor’s degrees in math and science.
Crow Education Committee
Carolyn Pease-Lopez told the Montana Advisory Committee that she wears three hats: advisor of American Indian Student Services at Rocky Mountain College, member of the Crow Education Committee, and parent of children who have faced a hostile environment in Montana public schools. Ms. Pease-Lopez said the Crow Education Committee is looking at ways to make more of an impact on Indian education. Some of the local school districts think “it’s optional to address our students in the language that they are accustomed to,” she said. Ms. Pease-Lopez said she has seen first hand the “miracles” that can occur when students are exposed to their own languages. She added, “A student can’t learn unless they feel safe, and they can’t feel safe unless they feel accepted. And if they’re not accepted, they will not be affirmed.” Ms. Pease-Lopez provided an example of her own knowledge of hostile school environments. She said, “Some of our students that were excelling in our schools, they’re questioned, because surely an Indian student can’t excel and can’t express themselves at this level, and they’re scrutinized and thought to be a plagiarist—so [teachers] have forced a number of students to go to the back of the room and to act like the negative characters that they’re perceived as.” She continued:
We must begin to address major issues in Montana that have been long standing and unchallenged. . . . There are a number of Indian organizations devoted to the matters of education, but what we don’t have is broad-based support from the community, and that’s what we need. Unless we have that [support], then in turn, [progress] will not be reflected in our State Legislature . . . The policies that have been formed will not be adhered to or [will] not even [be] promoted. They will die.
Indian People’s Action
Janet Robideau of Indian People’s Action explained that the organization consists of urban Indians who reside in Missoula. Members of the group, 252 strong, are persons who have chosen to live off the reservation to allow their children educational opportunity. She said Indian People’s Action believes strongly that racism and discrimination still exist against Native American children within Montana’s schools. Ms. Robideau told the Montana Advisory Committee that Indian People’s Action has received several complaints concerning the labeling of Indian children as slow learners and developmentally disabled and complaints of Indian children being automatically placed in special education classes when they enter the Missoula school system.
There are instances of unfair and unequal treatment of students in the school system, and many times the Indian child will be expelled from school for getting into an altercation with a non-Indian student, and that non-Indian student will not be expelled, she said. Another concern involves curriculum and outdated books containing derogatory statements. A common reference to Native American women is the term “squaw,” which is pejorative in Indian culture, yet in the school system the term is allowed. As a product of government and Catholic boarding schools, Ms. Robideau said she still vividly remembers and carries the pain today of being called a heathen and savage, and it saddens her to see some 30 to 40 years later the same things happening to her children. She asked that the information and testimony be taken seriously because the futures of Indian children are at stake, and that Indian people be allowed to be a part of the entire educational process.
Yellowstone County Christian Coalition
Bryan Johnson, a member of the Yellowstone County Christian Coalition, said, “We need to build relationships with children, and it should be the number one priority in education.” Mr. Johnson said Native American students deserve an equal education and can benefit from multicultural education. He said educational standards should not be compromised to accommodate minority students, because it is “setting children up to fail.” He described “multiculturalism” as respecting people’s histories, having compassion, recognizing all types of minorities, and he said teachers have the responsibility to ask questions and become familiar with histories. Mr. Johnson said he did not oppose a requirement that teachers who are going to be working in districts with Native American children take Native American classes to deal with this student population more effectively.
Theodora Weatherwax, statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Missoula, MT, Apr.
24, 1997, transcript, p. 169 (hereafter
cited as Transcript 2).
Ibid., p. 171.
Ibid., p. 172.
Ibid., p. 176.
Nora Bird, statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S.
Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Billings, MT, Dec. 10,
1996, transcript, p. 49 (hereafter
cited as Transcript 1). Bilingual programs come under Title VII.
Ibid., pp. 49–50.
Ibid., p. 50.
Ibid. Crow is the language spoken by members of the Crow Tribe.
Ibid., p. 51.
Ibid., p. 66.
Ibid., pp. 66–67.
Robert Fox, Transcript 2, p. 177.
The other two members were Burt Corcoran from Rocky Boy’s and Wanda Glaze
of Browning. The School Board Caucus was created to promote the interests
and address the concerns of school board members who are entrusted with
providing educational opportunities for Montana’s Indian children. Ibid.
Patrick Weasel Head, Transcript 2, p. 248. Dr. Weasel Head has been involved
in student services and higher education administration for the past 15 years.
Ibid., p. 249. The seven tribal colleges are the Blackfeet Community College
on the Blackfeet Reservation, Little Big Horn Community College on the Crow
Reservation, Salish-Kootenai College on the Flathead Reservation, Fort
Belknap Community College on the Fort Belknap Reservation, Fort Peck
Community College on the Fort Peck Reservation, Dull Knife Community College
on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, and Stone Child Community College on
the Rocky Boy’s Reservation.
Ibid., p. 250.
Ibid. The collaborative approach means that all players in the effort have
equal standing. Ibid.
Ibid., p. 251.
Ibid. Dr. Weasel Head also addressed strengthening relationships among the
seven tribal colleges in Montana, which includes articulation agreements,
back-and-forth flow and sharing of information with regard to financial aid
restrictions, and 120-hour semester capping (maximum number of hours
allowed) policies. Ibid.
Ibid., p. 253.
Susan McDaniel, Transcript 1, p.
98. Rocky Mountain College is the oldest college in Montana, with a student
population of 755. Its minority enrollment is the highest per capita in the
state at approximately 11 students. Of that number, six are Native American.
The enrollment numbers were achieved only within the past 10 years through
agreements with Native American tribal colleges. The college is part of the
Montana Consortium, which is a partnership among Salish-Kootenai, Fort Peck
Community, and Little Big Horn colleges. Ibid., pp. 98–99.
Ibid., p. 99.
Ibid., p. 100.
Clara Beth Johnson, Transcript 1, p. 108.
Ibid., p. 109.
Ibid., p. 106.
Carolyn Pease-Lopez, Transcript 1, p. 101.
Ibid., p. 103.
Ibid., p. 104.
Ibid., pp. 104–05.
Ibid., p. 105.
Janet Robideau, Transcript 2, p. 273. Indian People’s Action, established in
January 1997, is a community, grassroots organization and a chapter of
Montana People’s Action, which is a statewide organization. Ibid.
Ibid., pp. 274–75.
Ibid., p. 275.
Ibid., p. 276. The term “squaw” was handed down through the migration of
Europeans to the West. It is an Iroquois word meaning “vagina.” Early
mountain men and settlers began calling Indian women the name, and it became
commonly accepted. In Montana, many geographical names use the word squaw,
and old photos in museums and western books refer to Indian women as squaws.
During the 1997 Montana Legislative Session, an effort was made to ban the
word squaw from public names and places throughout the state; however, the
proposed legislation never made it out of committee. Joe McDonald, Transcript
2, pp. 16–17.
Janet Robideau, Transcript 2, p. 277.
Bryan Johnson, Transcript 1, p. 218.
Ibid., p. 219.
Ibid., p. 228.
Ibid., pp. 227–28.
 Ibid., p. 228.