Indian Education is a hot topic in Montana as civil rights groups file a lawsuit against the state, alleging it has failed to meet constitutional obligations regarding education about Native American history and culture.

In 1972, Montana embedded in its constitution a commitment to recognize and preserve the history of the state’s vast Native American history. In the 1990s, after a state Supreme Court ruling on the matter, the state added a budget to its Department of Education explicitly to support that commitment, ensuring there would be educational programming and resources for teachers to handle the topic. In 1999, the Indian Education For All Act was passed by Montana’s legislature to ensure that every educational agency in the state work with Montanan tribes to broaden that education.

On July 19, 2021, the ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of five Montana tribal communities and more than 25 students and their parents, saying that despite all of those decisions and laws, the state was still failing broadly to teach about Native history.

Shelly Fyant, chairwoman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, wrote a statement announcing the lawsuit.

“We need state education administrators to create a system of accountability to ensure every educator teaches this subject in a way that preserves American Indians’ cultural integrity and to ensure the money Montanans voted to invest in Indian Education for All benefits every student,“ the statement read. “Now more than ever, this quality education is needed in our state.”

The lawsuit targets poor reporting on how funds earmarked for Indian education have been spent, including several allegations of egregious misuse. The ACLU is seeking class action status for the lawsuit, to represent not only the plaintiff tribes and families but “all current and future students in the Montana public school system.” It seeks for legislature to create minimum compliance standards and some manner of enforcement.

Photo: Beaded shawls and belts seen at a powwow. Credit: Shutterstock