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Education leaders see need for improved Native American education in South Dakota

South Dakota educators who were part of a recent statewide panel say a new initiative regarding civics and history education proposed by Gov. Kristi Noem should increase the focus on teaching of Native American history and culture in the K-12 public school system.

In a panel discussion hosted by South Dakota News Watch on Wednesday, April 14, four experienced educators from across the state also said they want the South Dakota Civics and History Initiative to represent the good and the bad of the state’s history and to make social studies relevant to student lives by connecting classroom lessons to real-world examples.

The initiative, supported by $900,000 in state money, will take about two years to create and will be optional for use by school districts. A four-pronged approach aims to offer new teaching methods developed through pilot programs, create a depository of information and resources, review current instructional materials and improve teacher training in social studies. Teachers or schools will be able to choose the materials they use and how it works in their classroom.

A major part of Wednesday’s discussion was whether Native American studies should be a requirement for South Dakota schools, and not an optional part of the curriculum as it is now.

Jace DeCory, a Lakota elder and history professor emeritus at Black Hills State University, said that by the time South Dakota students entered her college classes, most had never had courses focused on American Indian history.

“When you omit a chunk of material like major historical events, (you also omit) philosophical thoughts and inclusion of how this particular minority group thinks about certain kinds of things,” she said. “We’re not invisible. We’re still here. Native people are still on this earth. We still are contributing members of society. That has to be dealt with.”

South Dakota social studies standards currently have the option for schools to teach the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards, which includes content on Native American history, culture, citizenship and land use.

Jacqueline Sly, chair of the South Dakota Board of Education Standards who also serves on the Indian Education Advisory Council, said there’s no way to track how many schools use the materials or how they use them. She suggested some level of tracking may be needed in the future to ensure K-12 students are learning about the state’s largest minority group.

Part of the reason some schools may not focus on Native American history is because some teachers don’t feel comfortable or equipped to do so, both DeCory and Sly said. Part of the initiative is aimed at enhancing teacher preparedness.

“What kind of bridge do we have to help them feel confident in teaching this history?” Sly said. “We have work to do in South Dakota. If we could improve that, we would be worlds and great strides ahead of where we’re at right now.”

DeCory noted that Montana and North Dakota require schools to include Native American education and said those states could provide a model for South Dakota. The North Dakota Legislature this year passed a bill mandating that Native American history be part of the curriculum in all elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools in the state.

Montana was a national leader in 1972 when it added to the state constitution the requirement to teach all students on “the unique cultural heritage of American Indians” and says the state is “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”

The panelists agreed that input on the new teaching materials, educational efforts and training programs should come from diverse voices, accurately represent the state’s history and be functional in the classroom.

Secretary of Education Tiffany Sanderson, a panelist, said the time is right to heighten the focus and enhance the depth of social studies teaching in South Dakota Schools, including on Native American history and issues.

“We need to have open conversations about Native American history and that part of our story in South Dakota to make sure our students understand and appreciate the ins and outs,” Sanderson said. “Within the standards revision process, I’ve tasked the team leading that work to ensure that we have an open conversation about what of our Native American history, how native tribal government works, we talked about sovereignty, citizenship and all those kinds of things. We need to have a conversation about how that shows up in standards, specifically around the Native American context versus generally.”

Sanderson said the federal Nation at Risk initiative in 1983 put a spotlight on measuring student achievement and highlighted math and reading skills “at the expense” of social studies teaching, especially at the elementary level.

When asked how Noem’s suggestion that the siege of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by pro-Trump rioters was due to a lack of civics education, and about how the events could be portrayed in history books, Sanderson noted that other states may have taken out requirements for civics and history education but that South Dakota should use real-world  examples to illustrate history.

Rhoda Bryan, a history teacher in Rapid City, said she didn’t feel the proposed initiative was an attack on educators’ current practices, but will create an opportunity to bring history and social studies back to the forefront of education in the state.

“I saw it as an opportunity,” Bryan said.

The educators were hesitant to support a standardized test for civics that would be required before students graduate. Instead they emphasized that success in civics and government education should be based more on critical thinking skills and the connection students make in the classroom to their real lives rather than just memorizing facts.

“If you think about some of the things you really learned in school, it’s possible it wasn’t something you learned in an exam,” Bryan said. “It was probably an aha moment that you connected for the first time.”

To view a recording of the discussion, click this link.

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About Danielle Ferguson

Danielle Ferguson, Sioux Falls, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. She grew up in Salem, S.D. and previously worked as a watchdog reporter at the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.