Speaking at the 37th Annual Montana Indian Education Conference at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center last week, Reno Charette envisioned a future where all Native American students are so educated they’ll continually challenge college professors with their viewpoints.
“When our kids walk through that classroom door, I want college professors to shake in their boots, unnerved by the challenge that our kids are beyond the average learner,” she said.
Charette, the keynote speaker and director of American Indian Outreach for Montana State University Billings, addressed attendees sponsored by the Montana Post-Secondary Educational Opportunities Council. Educators who teach students from pre-school to college attended the three-day conference, the theme of which was “Educational Sovereignty.”
“Our kids will demand a new standard of excellence of education that means they will unleash their intelligence of an interconnected universe managed by harmonious relationships as stewards of the environment, who make decisions with the Seventh Generation in mind,” Charette said.
(Decisions made today with the foresight of acknowledging the impact on future generations is known as the “Seventh Generation” philosophy.)
“Unfortunately, that day isn’t here,” Charette acknowledged. “Instead our kids are measured by their deficits against the mainstream educational system. We are portrayed in grant proposals as problems, categorized by gaps in academic achievements, and calculated as the group least likely to graduate.”
According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, after five years of steady increases, Native American graduation rates remained the lowest, dropping from 67.3 percent to 66 percent in 2016. During that time, white students held a steady 88.7 percent graduation rate, and non-Native students in general 88.4 percent.
“I’ve had enough of ‘deficit thinking.’ It’s a pit of a despair that isn’t getting us anywhere fast,” Charette said. “I’m all for thinking Indian. ‘Think Indian.’ What does that mean? To me it means as sovereign nations, we can do education the way we want.”
Charette noted that educational sovereignty and tribal independence are subjects a lot of U.S. policymakers would prefer to ignore, given their propensity to whitewash history.
After much destruction of Native peoples through disease, wars, outright genocide and the near extinction of food sources like the bison, their remaining culture was effectively outlawed. Native children who dared speak the languages first heard across North America were beaten and tortured for doing so in boarding schools they were forced to attend far from their homelands.
“Kill the Indian, save the man,” was a phrase coined by Richard Henry Pratt of the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. It became a de facto motto for all Indian boarding schools, where tribal children were taught to be ashamed of who they were.
“The United states of America set forth a political mission to target the destruction of our culture,” Charette says. “It was a war most savagely waged against our children. It was a war of forced assimilation disguised as education. A war in which children were brutalized physically, sexually, emotionally, and many died from the wait within this war.”
“Let all that is Indian within you die!” the Rev. J.A. Lippincott said during a Carlisle commencement address. The students were told they could never be “truly American … until the Indian within you is dead.”
Charette says as devastating as it was for Native peoples to see their way of life essentially banned, “We as a people are not so easily beaten.”
She cited the Crow Chief Plenty Coups, who once said, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education you are the white man’s equal; without education you are his victim.”
Within that context, Plenty Coups didn’t mean for Natives to abandon their ways, but to become educated so as to not be taken advantage of.
“What if our tribal ancestors had been able to choose how they might adopt, adapt or reject what Western education had to offer?” Charette said. “Our cultural evolution from first contact with the colonizers to now would have taken a very careful journey of selection.”
In drafting a new state constitution in 1972, Montana pioneered the importance of acknowledging American Indian culture. Article 10, Section 1 of the Montana Constitution says, “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.”
However, it took almost 30 years for this commitment to Indian education to fully reverberate among Montana teachers and students. During that time, it was left up to individual teachers to incorporate Indian education into their lesson plans, and most teachers simply didn’t have the training, expertise or will to tackle Montana Indian issues.
In 1999, House Bill 528, the Indian Education for All Act, was sponsored by then-state Rep. Carol Juneau to bring to the forefront the lack of implementation of Indian education as written in the state’s constitution. (Carol’s daughter, Denise Juneau, was the Montana state superintendent of public instruction from 2008 to 2016, and was recently selected to lead Seattle Public Schools.)
A lawsuit in 2004 finally pushed the state to put money behind the implementation of Indian Education for All.
Charette spoke of how this generation of Native college students, who grew up in an era of IEFA, have grown frustrated by some of their own tribal leaders’ reluctance to embrace progress via education. A woman with advanced degrees from a top university said she tried to come back to help her tribe, but said it was like banging her head against the wall.
However, Charette sees hope in educated up-and-coming generations.
“Our tribal millennials will be the voters that expect higher standards,” she said. “They are losing patience with the snail pace of tribal politics. They desire greater prosperity for their tribal communities and believe that higher education is the tool of a brighter future.”
She believes that having a college degree will be considered a strong prerequisite for being a tribal representative in the future.
Although tribal communities are plagued by addictions, suicide and poverty, the consensus was that an antidote will involve going back to traditional ways, ways that preceded the rise of those problems.
“Knowing our tribal culture — living our tribal culture — is the best defense against the cruelest of social ills that plague our tribal culture,” Charette said. “Why wouldn’t our tribes want to mandate it for all our youth, or all of our tribal members for that matter?”