The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Montana, and the Native American Rights Fund filed a class-action lawsuit today on behalf of five Indian nations and 18 individual plaintiffs challenging the state of Montana’s failure to fulfill its constitutional mandate to teach public school students the history and culture of the first peoples of Montana in consultation with local tribes.
The lawsuit, Yellow Kidney, et al. v. Montana Office of Public Instruction, et al., was filed in Montana District Court in Cascade County by the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Little Shell Tribe, and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and 18 individual student plaintiffs against the agencies and officials responsible for implementing the state’s Indian education provisions: the Montana Office of Public Instruction (MOPI), the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) Elsie Arntzen, the Montana Board of Public Education (MBPE), and Montana Board of Public Education Chair Darlene Schottle.
Since 1972 Montana’s Constitution has required that all public school students receive instruction about the first peoples of their state. Implementation of the constitutional provision was specifically addressed in 1999 when the Montana Legislature passed the Indian Education for All Act. At the direction of the Montana Supreme Court, dedicated annual funding by the legislature for the Indian education provisions began in 2007.
Yet the lawsuit filed today demonstrates there is little evidence of comprehensive, statewide compliance with the provisions being directed by state agencies and officials. MOPI fails to require uniform reporting by school districts of their Indian education or monitor how the schools use Indian education funding. MOPI and MBPE are not monitoring whether Indian education is even being taught. And there is no reporting or monitoring of cooperation with tribes in Indian education. As a result, some schools are using IEFA funds for things that may be harmful to students, including an elementary school that used its funding to purchase “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving,” a book that “approaches the holiday from an evangelical point of view.”