Speakers on Friday praised the work of delegates to the 1972 Montana Constitutional Convention, with a special focus on the provision resulting in all students learning about Indians.
Delegates and others came to the Montana House chambers to celebrate the constitution written 40 years ago.
Thirty-one of the 100 delegates are still alive. In many cases, surviving spouses, children and grandchildren answered the roll call for their deceased or elderly relatives.
Both Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Assistant Attorney General Andrew Huff, a Cree Indian, called attention to a provision in the Education and Public Lands Article of the constitution.
It says: “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage.”
A law to implement it didn’t pass until a bill by Rep. Carol Juneau passed in 1999, Huff said, and it took six or seven years and some lawsuits before it was funded. Under the leadership of Juneau’s daughter, Denise, the state superintendent of public instruction, Indian Education for All programs are being put into place at all K-12 schools here.
Huff said he considers it “to be profoundly important and almost revolutionary in many ways.”
Huff said he is an enrolled member of the Rocky Boy Reservation who was raised in Missoula. Because he didn’t look obviously like an Indian or what other people thought an Indian should look like, many people thought Huff was Italian or Mexican or marveled at his apparent easy ability to tan.
“So by the time I had hit high school in Missoula, I’d heard just about it all with regard to Indians — all the Indian slurs, the stereotypes, the racial epithets,” he said. “I’d heard that Indians were drunk, lazy, that we were a defeated people, that we should just blend in, that we should accept our fate and assimilate and that reservations should be done away with.”
Many people in his life — his supportive family, many teachers and his friends — had fought against these stereotypes, Huff said. Many people wanted to help Indian children, but lacked the knowledge to counter the stereotypes, he said.
It took 40 years, but Montana at last is fulfilling the promise of that provision, Huff said.
Montana has a K-12 Indian Education for All curriculum, developed in consultation with Indians and their tribes, he said. Teachers are getting trained on how to teach it and learn about Indians and Indian tribes. And Montana children of all backgrounds are learning about Indians and their history.
“That, to me, is revolutionary,” he said. “I didn’t have that growing up, and my 9-year-old child is going to be in the first generation of people that has that in the history of Montana. And through that and through successive generations, a lot of the ignorance, the misperceptions, the racism, will fall away.”
Schweitzer, who has reached out to Indian people in his administration, noted that Montana’s population is 93 percent white and 7 percent Indian.
“So 50 years ago, we didn’t walk with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers and the Hispanic movement,” he said. “And we didn’t sit down with the Little Rock Nine in front of that school. And none of us, Montanans, metaphorically, or probably individually, made the walk from Selma to Montgomery.”
While the rest of the world has changed, Montana didn’t, he said.
“In Montana, well, you can walk into any restaurant or bar in Montana, any school or business, and it won’t be long before someone, someplace — they might be young and they might be old — they will say something outrageously racist about the people who have lived here the longest,” Schweitzer said. “And it wouldn’t be acceptable in any other race or another place in America, but we still sort of accepted that.”
But when the 2007 Legislature came up with the money to fund Indian Education for All, “we started that journey, like the journey from Selma to Montgomery,” he said.
It might be hard to change the hardened heart of someone who is 40 or 50, Schweitzer said.
“But when you start with a child, whether they’re in kindergarten or eighth grade or a senior in high school, if they learn about Jefferson and Jackson and the greatest president in the history of America, Teddy Roosevelt, if they learned about them, they should also learn about the great leaders who lived here for 400 generations,” the governor said. “They should learn the names of the mountains in Salish. They should know the names of the rivers in Blackfeet. They ought to know about the great leaders like Ronan and Kalispel.”