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Wisconsin Schools Are Not Meeting State Mandate on Native American Education

The American Indian Studies Program exists to assist with curricular requirements on American Indian history

The American Indian Studies Program exists primarily to assist with the implementation of curricular requirements in the areas of American Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty according to Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction. The program is also responsible for American Indian language and culture education. (DPI)

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The Wisconsin Indian Education Association held a celebration of  the state’s commitment to Native American education under Act 31 on Thursday, Aug. 18,  at the Menominee Casino Resort in Keshena, with Native peoples from all over Wisconsin attending.

Act 31 is a remarkable piece of legislation. The law requires that primary and secondary public schools instruct students in the history, culture and treaty rights of Wisconsin’s Native Americans. The legislation was an outgrowth of the protests and conflicts between white fishermen and Native American spearfishers in the late 1980s. White protesters confronted Indians with racist shouts and signs at public boat landings in the late 1980s. But the animosity went much deeper than just fishing.

Legislators were convinced by both Indians and others that just enacting laws to protect treaty rights for Native Americans was not enough. Education was the key. So, in 1989, Act 31 was enacted and signed into law by then-Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Act 31 struggles

The story of the law is well documented by J P Leary in his 2018 book, The History of Act 31.  Leary is an associate professor at UW-Green Bay and was the American Indian studies consultant at Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) from 1990 to 2011.

The law had teeth, according to Leary. DPI would send out officials to inspect at least 10% of all school districts to examine curriculum and compliance with Act 31. The intent was to make contact with all school districts over the space of a few years.

But within three years, writes Leary, “The initial staffing allocation for two full-time education consultants, one education specialist, and one program assistant had dropped to one education consultant and a shared program assistant.” Gone were the inspection teams; gone were reviews of school curriculum.

Today the American Indian studies program at DPI is down to just one person:  David O’Connor. Leary gives high marks to O’Connor for the quality of material he makes available to schools and the workshops he conducts all over Wisconsin. But the number of school districts that are using the DPI materials or trying to meet the mandates is in question.

The National Indian Education Association (NIEA) is headquartered in Washington, DC, but its president is Jason Dropik, principal of Indian Community School in Franklin, just south of Milwaukee.

He is pessimistic that even half the school districts in Wisconsin are implementing Act 31. Just looking at the lack of books and materials on Native Americans in most Wisconsin schools is revealing, says Dropik.

Leary attributes most of the loss in Native American studies to the push for basic skills with No Child Left Behind under the Bush administration. But even before that, Leary points out that Wisconsin’s social studies test questions were more geared to reading comprehension than content base. No one was checking to see whether students were learning anything about Wisconsin tribes.

Growing up Indian in Milwaukee

Dropik reflects on his own experience growing up in Milwaukee. His roots go back to the Bad River tribe near Lake Superior but his family came to the city two generations ago looking for work and a better life.

He remembers his mother stressing to her son, “You have to try to blend in,” not to make too much of his Indian heritage. It was something his mother had to do when she attended school in Milwaukee. Dropik became more sensitive to these issues when he became a teacher and taught in Milwaukee Public Schools, mostly at Fritsche Middle School.

Dropik says that, even when teachers try to instruct students on Native American curriculum, they make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes they put the only Indian student on the spot asking that student to become the “expert” on all Native American  issues, far beyond their knowledge and understanding.

Dropik says it is a myth that there are few Indian students in urban school settings. While Milwaukee lists less than a half percent of students as Native American, other studies show these students are “severely underreported.”

Leary says that the underreporting is often related to a lack of self-reporting. School may come from more blended families with one parent identifying as Indian and another parent Latino. They might get counted as Hispanic rather than Indian. Dropik believes that there may be several more times Native American students than the official count. About 45% of Wisconsin Native Americans live in metropolitan areas.

Minorities under attack

Black students have been forced to cut dreadlocks or remove hair beads in order to participate in athletic events. Native American students have faced similar discrimination targeting boys with braided hair. In 2021, the WIEA passed a resolution in support of protecting expressions of cultural identity such as the wearing of braids or eagle feathers on graduation caps.

Leary gives credit to Tony Evers, then state school superintendent, for instructing school districts to allow such cultural expressions. But Native American students are still bullied by other students especially in schools where little is being taught about Native American identity.

Many school districts are telling teachers not to dwell on the history of slavery, not to teach critical race theory. Similar mandates are being given regarding forced removal from tribal lands and even acts of genocide against Native American villages.

Again in 2021, the NIEA resolved to reject “any legislation or actions that limit the teaching of full and accurate history of the United States, especially as it relates to American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians.” The resolutions states that the NIEA “will take immediate action with state, federal, and Native leaders to ensure educators are able to teach a full and accurate history of the United States, particularly as it relates to American Indians, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians, without threat or punishment.”

In theory, no Wisconsin school board can unilaterally tell a teacher to stop teaching Native American studies because of existing state laws, but that might not stop some districts from trying.

Dropik is finishing up his superintendent license and has been having a dialogue with other prospective superintendents around the state. “School board meetings have become so political and trying to eliminate multiple perspectives even though it is protected in state statutes,” says Dropik.

Carrot or stick

Jim Pete, president of the Wisconsin Indian Education Association, isn’t sure that the Aug. 18 event should be called “Celebrating Act 31” instead of just an acknowledgment of the law’s 30-year anniversary. So much has been on hold for the last couple of years due to COVID, he says, “We are starting to get back into it.” He acknowledges that there has been  some backsliding over the years on enforcement.

Dropik understands the sentiment, but sees signs of hope as well. He points to students who leave his Community School after eighth grade and attend traditional public schools. Often, they face poor understanding of Native American issues. Their schools may not recognize a view of history that doesn’t celebrate Christopher  Columbus as a hero for “discovering’ America. Those former students sometimes come back to Indian Community School and ask for help.

Dropik says often the NIEA has reached out to local public schools, and more often than not, those schools are receptive to the group’s suggestions. “More willing than they were 20 years ago.”

Leary says he didn’t want his book on Act 31 to be all doom and gloom. “I wanted to show it as a victory story. So many folks who were even on the front lines in enacting that policy have become so disillusioned with the implementation. And I wanted to go back to the story of their efforts — the most specific curriculum requirement the state of Wisconsin ever adopted.”

Even though he believes that less than half of Wisconsin school districts are meeting the mandates of the law, he also believes that many more would be willing to do what needs to be done if they were just given the resources to do the job. “In schools we are struggling to deliver instructions of any sorts” during the pandemic. “My approach has always been around capacity-building.”

In 2020, the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) tried to adopt a resolution calling for the removal of all Indian mascots from schools. The resolution went down by a wide margin.

School districts with Indian mascots were vocal in stating that other school boards should not be telling them what to do. “Local control” was their battle cry. Leary has heard it all before. “Local control” is only one step away from Southern states invoking “states’ rights” in order to maintain racial segregation.

A year later, WASB members supporting Native American rights took a softer approach.

They pushed for and adopted a resolution calling for additional funding to increase student competency under the mandates of Act 31 (3.205). These are the kinds of actions more likely to get results along the lines Leary is suggesting.

In April, the Madison School District held a ceremony with the Ho-Chunk Nation acknowledging that its schools sit on land originally inhabited by the Ho-Chunk people. “Government-sanctioned institutions have been responsible for much of the trauma to First Nations families, and that is why MMSD is proud to lead this effort towards healing the wounds of the past, beginning today,” said former state schools superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who now works for MMSD.

At the beginning of each full meeting of the Milwaukee school board, the following statement is read: “We acknowledge that Milwaukee lies on traditional Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk homeland along the southwest shores of Lake Michigan, part of North America’s largest system of freshwater lakes. On this site, the Milwaukee, Menominee, and Kinnickinnic rivers meet, and the people of Wisconsin’s Menominee, Ojibwe, Ho-Chunk, Oneida, and Mohican sovereign nations remain present to this day.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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