Indian Ed for Some

Indian Ed for Some

More than 50 years later, Montana schools are still learning how to meet the state’s unique constitutional provisions

Story by Alex Mitchell. Photos by Lukas Prinos and Ava Rosvold.

Students entering Poplar Middle School are greeted by an image of the team mascot, the Poplar Indians. The mascot – a Native American man in a full headdress outlined in red and yellow – hangs above the school’s emptied trophy case.

On this day in March, the case is filled with buffalo skulls from the school’s yearly project ending in a buffalo hunt.

Despite the school’s location at the headquarters of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, Indigenous students at Poplar Middle School didn’t know much about their own origins prior to the project. Jacob “Buck” Turcotte was alarmed by the reality, creating the Buffalo Unity Project and innovating a new curriculum alongside it.

“I had asked a couple students in my class ‘What kind of Indian are you?’ and they couldn’t answer that question,” said Turcotte, a middle-school teacher leading the project. “That was absolutely flooring to me. We’re right here in the middle of Fort Peck and we have students that don’t even know what type of Indian they are.”

In 2019, the middle school was one of a handful given a buffalo by the tribal government to use however they saw fit. Turcotte saw it as a chance to address that disconnect and conceived a curriculum for the seventh grade class.


Jacob “Buck” Turcotte puts his hand on a buffalo skull to show how massive the animals are. The skull was preserved from a past hunt from the Buffalo Unity Project. Photo by Ava Rosvold

The project combines woodshop, home economics, math and other curricula into a two-week program. In home economics, students learn traditional ways of cooking buffalo. In woodshop, they construct an 80-foot-wide medicine wheel. In math, they trace a scaled-down buffalo over graph paper. One of the Buffalo Unity Project’s most recent tracings hangs in that trophy case alongside the buffalo skulls.

Turcotte can’t help but beam with pride when describing the impact the project has had. “What went from a buffalo hunt turned into something we never even dreamed of when we started this project,” said Turcotte, a finalist for the 2023 Montana Teacher of the Year.

He said it makes students excited to be in school, putting them in touch with their history and culture as buffalo are reintroduced to the tribes. While the school still struggles with attendance, during the project in early October students’ daily attendance jumps from 86% to 95%.

The project is the middle school’s answer to implementing Indian Education for All, a requirement unique to Montana mandating public schools teach the “distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner.”

Before Turcotte arrived, there wasn’t much, if anything, in the middle school addressing Indian education. And despite legislative efforts funding it in 2007, it still isn’t being taught in many of Montana’s schools. A lawsuit filed against the state is seeking to hold Montana’s public education system accountable for implementing Indian Education for All.


Debra Granbois prepares buffalo meat at the Fort Peck Community College. After cutting the meat, Granbois dries and grinds the meat to make “wasna.” This ceremonial dish is usually made for funerals and consists of dried buffalo, traditional corn, juneberries and honey. Photo by Ava Rosvold

It’s been 52 years since the mandate was written into the Montana Constitution – the first obligation of its kind in the nation – and 25 years since the Legislature reaffirmed the state’s commitment. Still, more than a third of Montana’s 401 school districts aren’t using funding allocated to at least partially support Indian education programming. More often than not, Montana school districts don’t bother with the mandate.

Consequently, what Indian Education for All looks like varies vastly for students. Educators say there is progress, albeit slow progress.

Turcotte, who is Assiniboine and Sioux, said many non-Native teachers feel nervous teaching Indigenous education, making it difficult to get started in many school districts.

Teacher discomfort is also noted by a 2015 study on school districts commissioned by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. It found districts with “very minimal” implementation will continue struggling when there is no foundation and an absence of accountability from state agencies. 

Turcotte views Indian Education for All the same way as if he was required to teach Irish history. “I don’t know crap about it, and I wouldn’t even know who to turn to ask,” he said.


Native American Student Services Department Coordinator Billie Jo Juneau unwraps the scapula of a buffalo. Juneau was hired in the past school year. Photo by Lukas Prinos

But the difference between Irish history and Indian ed is instruction in Native history has been required for decades in Montana schools. The state has tried meeting this requirement by pouring millions in annual funding to schools, workshops, and curricula created by Indigenous people.

Yet the Office of Public Instruction, the state agency responsible for day-to-day public schooling, hasn’t done enough, according to state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, (D-Box Elder). He references the recent document authored by the agency showing schools not using IEFA funding. That reporting was required by his 2023 sponsored bill, wanting to know what, if at all, Montana’s schools are doing to meet mandated programming.

The document included at least three reservation districts not using IEFA funding including the Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet Indian Reservations. The majority were off-reservation schools, while some were next to reservations. One school was the Hardin Intermediate School adjacent to the Crow Indian Reservation where 78% of students are Native American. Teachers there recently reported they knew little about Indian education instruction for four consecutive years, according to public instruction data.

As part of the bill, Windy Boy wanted to see more accountability from state agencies than what past decades have shown. The Office of Public Instruction has responded that the responsibility of Indigenous education lies with the Board of Public Education, although the public instruction office is responsible for creating and authorizing Indian Education for All curricula.

“OPI basically has tried to slither themselves out of their constitutional obligation and shift it back to the Board of Public Education,” Windy Boy said. “At the end of the day, the Board of Public Education doesn’t oversee education over us, the OPI does.”

To put it simply, he wants the agency to “do their job” for all Montana students.

That is echoed by an ongoing lawsuit filed by Montana tribes and Native and non-Native students against the state. The suit alleges Indian education implementation has been inconsistent and deficient statewide.

The 2021 lawsuit states the Office of Public Instruction ignored recommendations from the past study. The state’s schools still operate with nearly nonexistent enforcement. The lawsuit refers to fiscal years 2019 and 2020 where $3.5 million or almost half of allocated Indian education funding was unaccounted for.


The contents of a Buffalo Box are laid out on a table at the Missoula County Public Schools building. Boxes like this one are used to educate students about traditional uses of the different parts of a buffalo. Photo by Lukas Prinos

This was in addition to inappropriate and allegedly, harmful uses. For instance, Bozeman schools used funding to partially pay for librarian salaries, while Deer Creek Elementary used funding for a copy of “Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving.” A summary of the book on Amazon reads: “This entertaining and historical story shows that the actual hero of the Thanksgiving was neither white nor Indian, but God.”

The lawsuit alleges without proper implementation of Indian Education for All, non-Native students don’t build empathy for their Indigenous peers, and those Indigenous students have a reduced sense of belonging. Furthermore, students are harmed daily because of a lack of measurable standards and accountability by the state.

“That actual harm manifests itself in the form of lack of culturally relevant instruction for Plaintiffs and their classmates, resulting in racial and cultural discrimination and a dangerous school environment for Plaintiffs,” a 2021 complaint with the lawsuit stated.

Progress on the lawsuit has paused. Involved parties are considering a settlement, results of which are expected to be determined in July. Meanwhile, schools are still navigating various forms of Indian education on their own.

One such place is at Missoula County Public Schools where several of the student plaintiffs are enrolled. School leaders there say the pendulum is beginning to swing back after a history of disinterested efforts teaching IEFA.

At Franklin Elementary School in Missoula, students kneel on the gym’s floor with arrows in hand. They anticipate IEFA Instructional Coach Sara Ibis rolling a Salish-style wooden dreamcatcher along the floor. As it rolls, students throw their arrows attempting to have them sail through the 18-inch wooden hoop.


Indian Education for All Instructional Coach Sara Ibis helps teachers create lesson plans at a workshop. Ibis taught elementary school in Missoula since 2017 before transitioning into her current position in November of 2023. Photo by Lukas Prinos

The Hoop and Arrow activity was common among the Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes. It’s now part of traditional games instruction led in part by Ibis at Missoula elementary schools. Other games included footbag – where the Northern Cheyenne used buffalo hide for the bag and would juggle it with their feet – and slingbag – a Tewa Puebloan game where students lay on their backs and in a rocking motion throw a bag as far as they can. The activities are funded by Indian education allocations and are part of Montana’s published curricula.

Ibis introduces each game by teaching about the activity and its origins. The Hoop and Arrow game for instance was taught in tribes to prepare youth for the hunting of small animals. And at the end of the hour-long session, Ibis asks third graders lined up what their favorite games were. Each raises their hand with a different answer. She commends students for the variety, and then asks why they might be learning the games.

After a rare moment of silence in the boisterous gym, one student speaks up: “They are super fun, and we can know how other people had fun.”

“Absolutely,” Ibis, who came into the position last November, responds. “It allows us to work on important skills like empathy and compassion. This was a great way for us to practice those skills.”

Most of the games were never played in Missoula schools until this school year, after the Missoula County Public School district added two permanent positions around Indigenous education amid broader budget shortfalls. Traditional games were April’s lesson in monthly programming in eight of the district’s elementary schools.

There are 76 different tribal nations represented in the school district. Much like the rest of Montana, Native Americans are a significant part of the district’s population, constituting 5% of the total population. About 14% of Montana’s K-12 students are Native American, while accounting for 6% of the state’s population.

Despite that, Native American Student Services Coordinator Billie Jo Juneau said representation is still lacking in staff and education for Indigenous students, especially in schools like Missoula’s.

Before coming into her position this year, she worked as the assistant principal at Sentinel High School. Affiliated with the Blackfeet tribe, she was the only Native American on staff at the school. She said many schools in the district have no employed Native Americans leaving Indigenous students without anyone to look to for representation. However, Indian Education for All can help address that issue.

“It’s also allowing our Native students in the schools to be like that movie star for the day,” Juneau said. “And they’re so excited about that. They just brighten up when they’re like: ‘Yes, this is my culture. This is who I am.’ It just allows those students to flourish for the day and to have confidence in their cultural identity.”


Three buffalo stand on the Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The buffalo herd was first reintroduced in 1999 and has since grown to more than 400 head. Photo by Ava Rosvold

Juneau said it’s been an intensive process as the district works to better prioritize Indian Education for All than it has previously. While the Office of Public Instruction might provide curriculum direction in addition to workshops, teacher comfort and knowledge is still a major hurdle.

In the 2015 survey by the public instruction office, more than a fifth of all Montana educators surveyed knew nothing or very little about Native American history and more than a third knew nothing or very little about issues important to Native Americans today.

A former principal at Browning High School at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Juneau said on-reservation language programs from additional funding made Indigenous education easy. Arriving in Missoula has been eye opening for her.

“They have a lot of access to different resources that off-reservation schools don’t,” she said. “And it is important to teach that identity there because it’s their culture. It’s who they are and where they come from.”

That has left Ibis, who is non-Native, teaching teachers how to implement Native education. A former elementary teacher, her new position is similar to positions implemented in large districts like Great Falls and Billings. She started monthly work sessions this school year. The freeform sessions allow teachers to model and discuss with Native instructors and elders on what their lesson plans might look like, all while being paid to attend.

“We’ve had teachers that have been very upfront in saying, ‘I’m afraid to do any of Indian ed for All because I don’t have the knowledge. That it’s not my culture. I didn’t learn any of this in school,’” Ibis said. “And so I’ve been really trying to break down that barrier of perceived lack of knowledge or lack of comfort.”

The curricula teachers and schools create is crucial, forming a foundation teachers can reference in the future. Teachers still have to make up lesson plans in many areas.

At a recent workshop a computer science teacher sought to incorporate Indian Education for All in his classroom. Ibis worked with the teacher at the session, as he tries to correlate coding an animation to a Blackfeet tribal song. He’s advised by Ibis to detail the importance of the song in the lesson, rather than just presenting the song. In the process, it teaches him further about the significance the song has, with him able to proceed with confidence in class.

“What really makes me sad is that if we’re letting teachers take an out because there’s a discomfort, what else are they not teaching?” Ibis said. “Are they not teaching African American history and culture? Are they not teaching Asian American history and culture? Just because there’s discomfort because it’s not their culture, doesn’t mean it can be cut from schooling.”


Teachers work to create lesson plans for their class during an Indian Education for All workshop on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. Teachers came from different schools in Missoula and teach an array of subjects from science to art. Photo by Lukas Prinos

On Jan. 31, 1972, two teenagers from Fort Peck reservation arrived at the Montana Constitutional Convention with a speech that forever left its mark on the state. They told delegates it would benefit everyone to learn about Montana’s various cultural heritages, enriching the quality of life within democratic society. Further, they requested curricula relevant and sensitive to Indigenous peoples to be implemented within the public education system.

“We would like, very simply, our history, our culture, our identity,” their testimony concluded.

The testimony would be referenced by a delegate when she proposed adding a requirement for public schools to teach about the heritage and culture of Indigenous people in Montana. The amendment would pass almost unanimously leading to Montana being the only state to have such a provision enshrined in its constitution.

More than 50 years later, Dianna Lynn Bighorn barely remembers testifying at the convention. She said she’s likely blocked it out from stage fright.

Dianna is 69 now, tutoring students in a secluded classroom in a community college basement at the Fort Peck reservation. She helps students practice for HiSET exams, an equivalent of obtaining a high school degree. It’s an important option for the reservation to have. Native Americans have the lowest traditional graduation rates in Montana.

In 2020, American Indians graduated at a rate of 68.27% compared to an 85.89% state average. Advocates for Indian Education for All point to the mandate as increasing Native American graduation rates by creating a sense of belonging and a more friendly environment.

On her day of testimony, Dianna recalls wandering around the capitol and having fun with her friend Mavis who has since passed. That’s about it. “I don’t remember it as one of the highlights of my life,” she said.

Instead, she refers to her daughter as a highlight.

Her daughter Leslee Bighorn teaches Dakota language at Poplar Elementary School. She entered the classroom two years ago. 


Leslee Bighorn, a language teacher at Poplar Elementary, stacks her students’ projects where they are learning the Dakota words for colors. Bighorn teaches language for K-4th grade and believes in the importance of teaching language to students at a young age. Photo by Ava Rosvold

She’s since placed her native language around it with colorful Dakota letters, phrases and words covering the white walls. Everything on those walls, Leslee created herself.

While the Office of Public Instruction has curricula for world languages, it has little direction for American Indian language teachers. Similar to Indian ed programming, if there’s no foundation existing, teachers must learn their own ways to educate students.

Leslee’s finishing her second year teaching the language she says defines her people. As much as she likes it, the position is the hardest job she’s ever had. She spends hours after students leave figuring out how to continue teaching the language. While she hasn’t resolved how to tell her mom, she plans to take a “break” from teaching next year. 

“There’s not really a curriculum,” Leslee said. “I have units and lessons and ideas from last year, but last year I didn’t even know what I was doing. I have to make up everything.”


Students at Poplar Elementary create arts and craft projects in the Dakota language class. Teacher Leslee Bighorn says that she tries to mix art and language skills to help the students to relate their language to the world around them. Photo by Ava Rosvold

Her class is many students’ first and last introduction to the language in schools. While the Dakota language is taught at the high school, there’s a gap at the middle school where students hunt buffalo through Turcotte’s program.

Dianna was a student when schools began receiving IEFA funding in 2007.

“It’s one of those things where you can tell if a school is implementing it,” Leslee said regarding off-reservation schools. “And so we need more. We’re getting there, and I feel like it’s happening more, but it’s still not as much as it could be. We just need one more good push.”