By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre Public Schools should be considered the prodigal son when it comes to Indian education. The 1972 Montana Constitution and the 1999 Indian Education for All Act both mandate that Montana educational goals include preservation of Indian culture. The laws have been on the books and gathering dust to little effect.
But as Havre works this school year to develop a plan that would put it in compliance with the law - including establishing the new Indian Education Advisory Council and reviewing social studies curriculum to include better information about Montana's 12 Native American tribes - many consider Havre a leader.
"They are providing a model for other districts," Jack Copps, executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition said in a phone interview Wednesday. A lawsuit by the coalition led this year to a Montana Supreme Court decision that the state does not adequately fund a quality education, or meet the state constitution's requirement regarding Indian education.
"Honestly, and I think this is probably the case for many districts around the state, I hadn't even heard of the law," Havre assistant superintendent Dennis Parman said of the 1999 Indian Education for All Act. "I didn't even know when it was passed."
Parman became aware of the law in the spring of 2003, he said, when the state Office of Public Instruction sent out a memo reminding districts of the law's requirement that schools have policy on the books regarding plans to comply with the law.
Parman began gathering model policies as well as looking for better educational material. This year he is spearheading Havre's effort to come into compliance with the law, but Parman realized he would need help.
The Indian Education for All Act says: "...all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana tribes or those tribes that are in close proximity."
Parman began that process with several public information meetings last spring and the first meeting of the Indian Education Advisory Council this week. Next month, the advisory council will be asked to review work by a committee revising the social studies curriculum. Parman said the council will be crucial in assessing information about Montana tribes.
"I hear good things," Everall Fox, Indian education specialist for OPI, said.
Fox, a native of Hays, named schools in the area he said are in compliance or close to compliance with the law. One, Longfellow Elementary School in Great Falls, has a resource library on Native American culture and has a comprehensive curriculum.
In addition, he said, Harlem High School includes information about Native American tribes, especially the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, wherever relevant in its curriculum, and has a Junior Tribal Council. It runs like a government class and like a club, and meets with the tribal council regularly.
"When it was passed into law, it was left to the schools' own devices," Fox said of the 1999 law, which he considers an unfunded mandate. The problem of schools not complying got attention before the Supreme Court decision, he said. "It got to a point where enough people were asking ... the Montana Indian Education Association comes to mind ... they were asking, is this law being implemented?"
Fox said he sees momentum, and the Indian Education Association recently met and came up with a figure - $23 million over two years - that would provide the support to move schools toward compliance.
"The stars started to align," he said. "Things started to happen at once. ... You had people checking where the state was with the law."
After the first meeting of Havre's advisory council, members are feeling hopeful.
"It was going to be implemented every day and it never came," said member Lloyd Top Sky, a longtime college teacher who lives at Rocky Boy. "I always looked out for it in our area. This is the first meeting I've seen where anything came out in a real positive direction and it looks like it's really going to be done."
Top Sky said he came to listen, and that his impression was that most people did the same.
Parman said he presented information about the law, but he came to listen too.
Among the suggestions Top Sky gave was that the advisory council approach the cultural commissions of different tribes. He is a member of the cultural commission at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.
Other people present said their tribe did not have a cultural commission, and said in their case, the tribal council would be better.
Also, Larry Singer suggested that the advisory council start with information that is similar among Montana's tribes.
"I just thought, 'What insight,'" Darlene Sellers, associate professor of school counseling at Montana State University-Northern, said today.
Top Sky said he had an example in mind. He said tobacco is a plant that is sacred to Montana tribes. He said the Crow tribe performs formal ceremonies during tobacco cultivation, while the Salish-Kootenai are less formal about harvesting the plant.
"One tribe may not do the same thing another tribe does, but in the end ... it is a sacred plant, an element used towards making a ceremony sacred," he said.
Sellers added, "Larry said what defeats racism is defining commonalities. Once you share commonalities, you can address differences."
Racism was addressed during the meeting but, Sellers said, it was not the place to start from.
"If you take out the ugly stick first, people won't come to play," she said.
Sellers added that this area of Montana has been a place that responds well to issues and she sees people coming together now about the process of teaching Native American culture.
"We're kind of the groundbreaking few," Marie Sayers said about the advisory council. She works at Highland Park Early Primary School as a tutor.
Sayers said she came away with something personal from the meeting. Sayers is an enrolled member of the Chippewa Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. She has lived in Havre all of her life and can understand the importance of cultural education for Native Americans who don't live on a reservation. She said she perked up when she learned that Top Sky teaches Ojibway, the language spoken by the Chippewa tribe. She had only known of teachers of the Cree language in the Havre area.
"I just want to make sure that when we do do this, we put forth the effort to make sure it happens not just for Natives, but for non-Natives too," said Sandy Wilson, Title VII specialist for Havre Public Schools.
Parman said his other goal for this year besides forming the advisory council will be gathering data for a study that assess the district's compliance. He will also conduct a survey of students to find out their opinions.