GREAT FALLS, Mont. - On Tuesday, April 4, 2023, the Montana Eighth Judicial District Court issued a ruling from the bench in Yellow Kidney, et al. v. Montana Office of Public Instruction, et al denying the state's motion to dismiss the case.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Montana, and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), presented oral arguments to the court in a proposed class action lawsuit today on behalf of six Indian tribes and 18 individual plaintiffs challenging Montana’s failure to fulfill its constitutional and statutory mandate to teach public school students the history and culture of the first peoples of Montana in consultation with local tribes.
"In a rare turn of events, the court ruled from the bench, denying the state's request to throw out our case," said Alex Rate, ACLU Montana Legal Director. "This ruling demonstrates that this case has merit, and that Montana’s state educational agencies have a mandatory obligation to include Indian Education in public school curriculum."
Since 1972 Montana’s Constitution has required that all public school students receive instruction about the first peoples of their state. Furthering that mandate, the Montana Legislature passed the Indian Education for All Act (IEFA) in 1999, and the Montana Supreme Court has required the Montana legislature to fund the constitutional and statutory mandates.
“Today’s ruling recognizes that Montana students deserve their day in court to prove their allegations that the State agencies are not abiding by the constitutional and statutory mandates,” said NARF Staff Attorney Melody McCoy. “There is little evidence of comprehensive, statewide compliance with the provisions being directed by state agencies and officials. The Montana Office of Public Instruction fails to require uniform reporting by school districts of their Indian education or monitor how the schools use Indian education funding.”
During today's hearing, Rate argued that "if the State did its job, and required robust reporting, implementation and monitoring, and actually enforced the Indian Education provisions, then we would be looking at a different situation where we could actually identify schools that are not meeting their obligations. But because the State is taking the head in the sand approach, we are not currently at the point where we can do that. If the State actually guaranteed Indian Education, all Montana students would learn about American Indian identity and culture. And that culturally competent curriculum would manifest in the form of increased awareness, tolerance and mutual respect, and would decrease racism, ostracization and discrimination."
“Now more than ever, this quality education is needed in our state,” said Rate. "We are grateful to the court for allowing this case to continue. Montana students deserve education administrators that create a system of accountability to ensure every educator teaches this subject in a way that preserves Indigenous cultural integrity.”
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 the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Fort Belknap Indian Community, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Little Shell Tribe, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and 18 individual student, parent, and guardian plaintiffs against the agencies and officials responsible for implementing the state’s Indian education provisions: the Montana Office of Public Instruction, the Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, the Montana Board of Public Education, and Montana Board of Public Education Chair Darlene Schottle.