Indigenous History and Its Effect on Education Equity in South Dakota

I’ve been following the recent proposed changes to the social studies standards by the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE). These revisions are conducted every five to seven years by a group of educators representing districts across the entire state. While the most recent review resulted in some changes, these revisions have caused some discourse, especially since the South Dakota DOE edited the revisions before releasing the revised standards to public for comment.

Unfortunately, the teaching of South Dakota’s history has never been particularly thorough when it comes to Indigenous studies and the new proposed standards maintain – and even further diminish – those standards. These social studies revisions have placed the state at the center of a debate that brings into question whether education equity is factored into these discussions and decisions.

Education equity implies giving every single student the necessary support to succeed, regardless of race, gender or economic status. However, the revised proposal, titled “South Dakota Social Studies Content Standards: Preparing students to be college, career, and life ready citizens,” feels contradictory in nature. How can we prepare students for college, career and life if we’re omitting basic truths of history? Particularly, the history of many Native students’ ancestors.

As a citizen of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and graduate of the South Dakota education system, I have experienced the state’s teachings first-hand. During my time in the public school system, I felt as though we didn’t substantially cover Indigenous peoples’ history, nor was the history being taught accurate. It took countless family discussions and, ultimately, leaving my home state to seek out an education on these topics on my own to feel well-versed on the subject. This shouldn’t be acceptable, particularly in a state that’s home to nine Indian reservations and rich in Indigenous culture. In fact, my high school has the highest percentage of Native American students of any off-reservation secondary school in the state.

Education equity is meant to create a level playing field for students with fewer resources and yet, we continue to see the same low graduation rates. In South Dakota, Native American students consistently lack the resources to attain a quality education, and the erasure of Indigenous history further contributes to the continuous failures of the state’s public school system. The state reported that 54% of Native American students graduated on-time in 2019, compared with 85% of non-Native students. Where is the equity in these graduation outcomes?

The same is true for Indigenous communities across the country. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit against the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Board of Public Education on behalf of five Montana Indian Tribes, challenging the state to uphold its responsibilities under the Indian Education For All Act of 1999. In North Dakota, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring all elementary and secondary public and non-public schools in the state to include curriculum on Native American history.

Do they leave it to the courts to decide what it means to provide a fair and inclusive education for students of all backgrounds, or will they get there on their own? The question remains for South Dakota.

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