By Gabriel Furshong
But Little Plume has excelled, thanks in part to an innovative set of state educational reforms that integrate the perspectives of Montana's Native cultures into everyday lesson plans, from science to English to history. "It's hard to explain," she says. "It just felt good how interested people were and how many questions they had."
The 1972 Montana Constitution is the only one in the nation that recognizes the "unique cultural heritage of the American Indians" and mandates "the preservation of their cultural integrity through its educational system." In 2005, the state Legislature finally appropriated over $15 million to fulfill that mandate. The result was "Indian Education for All," or IEFA, a program that provides model curriculums, classroom materials and funding to help schools foster a better understanding of American Indians at every grade level. Proponents hope that the program will also help break the cycle of academic failure and unemployment that keeps half of Montana's American Indians below the poverty line.
All students do better in school when they see themselves represented accurately in their educational experience, notes Mandy Smoker-Broaddus, the director of Montana's Indian Education Division and a member of the Assiniboine Tribe. But curriculum changes alone aren't enough to keep Indian students from dropping out. "What matters most to students is relationships," she explains: If American Indians feel truly understood and respected by their teachers and peers, then their desire to learn will increase and the achievement gap will narrow.
While there is little research that directly connects this type of culturally responsive education to minority student achievement, a recent study by University of Montana communications professor Phyllis Ngai suggests that the program has helped foster the more welcoming, supportive environment at Little Plume's elementary school. After two years of research, Ngai concluded that students there demonstrated "impressive gains" in knowledge of Montana tribes. More importantly, she noted that "roughly twice the students at Lewis and Clark would like to have American Indian friends, to have American Indian teachers, and to help American Indians" compared to students at the other school used in the study.
Instead, integrate Indians into every grade level and class. Not only will students gain more knowledge, they'll gain more sympathy and compassion for Indians. They'll start to see things from a Native perspective--as we try to do here. They'll stop believing the stereotypes and start realizing the truth.
Then we won't have situations like mine, where I didn't know anything about the Indian land I grew up on. We won't have so many crybabies fearing ethnic studies and demanding white studies instead. We'll have fewer neo-Nazis telling minorities they should go back where they came from.
I'm trying to do something similar here in Newspaper Rock. Namely, noting the Native influences throughout our popular culture. It's practically a full-time job, because Native influences are everywhere.
In other words, education is the key, and I'm trying to educate people. What some
For more on the Montana program, see MontanaTribes.org and Montana's Multimedia Indian Education. For more on education in general, see Seeing Indians Is Believing and "Hatchets, Feathers, and the Color Red."
Below: The wrong way to teach children about Indians.