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North Dakota superintendent wants to replicate Montana ‘Indian Education for All’ program

BISMARCK – North Dakota’s top education official wants to copy a Montana program that weaves the history and culture of American Indian tribes into classroom instruction, and the first step was an Indian Education Summit held Tuesday in Bismarck.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said replicating Montana’s “Indian Education for All” program will help prepare North Dakota’s next generation of leaders.

“We really have to … have a common understanding of where we came from in order to have vision for the future,” she said.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau joined Baesler at a press conference Tuesday to describe her state’s program, which she said relies on input from tribal elders and educators to develop truthful versions of the tribes’ stories and counter misinterpretations and inaccuracies sometimes found in textbooks.

“We say our approach is not to blame, shame or guilt. We just want to present facts,” said Juneau, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of western North Dakota and former high school teacher in New Town, N.D., in the 1990s.

The Montana program arose from a constitutional amendment approved by state voters in 1972 and a law passed by the Legislature in 1999. But Juneau said states don’t have to go as far as amending the constitution, noting South Dakota and Wisconsin are moving forward with similar programs.

“What we found was necessary was funding,” she said. “And right now, I know North Dakota’s not lacking in funding.”

Montana lawmakers provided $3.7 million to develop the mandatory program, and school districts receive $23.40 per student to implement it, Juneau said. Baesler didn’t have a cost estimate for a similar North Dakota program, saying planning is still in the early stages.

The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction is working with the State Historical Society to develop “essential understandings” – basics that all students should know about the state’s tribes – and the next step will be professional development for teachers, Baesler said.

“They’re excited about it,” she said.

Juneau said Montana’s program has used treaties to teach students about social studies, books by Native American authors for English lessons, traditional native games for math lessons and native music to teach drumming and singing, to name a few examples. More than 300 lesson plans are available for teachers on the state’s website, she said.

Baesler and Juneau stressed that the program is for all students and teachers, Indian and non-Indian alike. During the last school year, 10.7 percent of North Dakota students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 were American Indian or Alaska native, along with 2.9 percent of the state’s teachers, according to DPI figures.

Sixty educators of Indian students from across North Dakota were registered to attend Tuesday’s summit, which was organized by DPI and the state’s Indian Affairs Commission and touched on issues including as early childhood education, preserving native language and preventing dropouts, Baesler said.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.