DNC Speaker Denise Juneau Leads Montana's Public Schools with an Emphasis on Indian Education for All
Editor's Note: Denise Juneau won re-election as head of Montana's public schools on November 6, 2012. This profile about her originally appeared in the online forum Native American Netroots. -Elisa Batista, MomsRising.org
For six minutes between the speeches last week at the Democratic National Convention of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a far less known Democrat stood at the podium in the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was Denise Juneau (Hidatsa-Mandan). One of 161 American Indian delegates at the convention, Juneau is also State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana, the first Native woman ever elected to statewide office in the United States. She won that four-year post in 2008 and is running this year against Sandy Welch, a Republican who says she will bring a business approach to the job. Here is Juneau's campaign website.
She was raised on the Blackfeet reservation, took a bachelor's degree in English at Montana State University, a master's at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a law degree at the University of Montana. For a while she taught English on the Fort Berthold Reservation in central-west North Dakota, home of the Three Affiliated Tribes, (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara). She served as a Montana Supreme Court judicial clerk, worked briefly for a national law firm and became Director of Indian Education at Montana's Office of Public Instruction before she was elected as superintendent four years ago.
The post makes her a voting member of the Montana State Land Board, which has considerable influence on economic development. Her opponent has received the endorsement of the Montana Chamber of Commerce based on support for opening up more state-owned Montana land to "resource development," something Juneau has opposed. She also opposes packing more kids into classrooms, something Welch proposes to sneak under the door by decentralizing state decisions in such matters.
You can watch Juneau's speech to the convention in the video below (or read the transcript I've included at the end of this piece).
Juneau's shout-out to her mom in Charlotte was more than just the obligatory public hug. Carol Juneau is a Montana state senator and before that, from 1998-2007, served as a state representative. In her first term of office, in 1999, she got language of intent incorporated into the state's policy of Indian Education For All. That policy had been written as part of an article into the new Montana Constitution in 1972 and then pretty much forgotten.
It says, “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage.”
Turning those words into something concrete took the prodigious efforts of Carol Juneau to shepherd House Bill 528—the Indian Education for All Act—through the legislature. And it took several more years of lawsuits to get it funded, according to Montana Assistant Attorney General Andrew Huff (Cree-Rocky Boy Reservation). As part of a 2004 decision in theColumbia Falls Public Schools v. State, a district court ruling later upheld by the Montana Supreme Court found that Montana had shown "no commitment in its educational goals to preservation of American Indian cultural identity." Consequently, additional funding was provided to public schools to meet this and other commitments.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Denise Juneau discussed the law's implementation:
Can you explain Carol Juneau, your mother’s, connection and involvement in IEFA?[A]s a state representative she was the one in 1999 who got the intent behind the constitutional language put in the statute, and that’s where a lot of the [Columbia Falls] lawsuit came from. There were three things the constitutional language meant: all personnel have an understanding of American Indians; every Montanan be encouraged to learn about American Indians; and where there are areas that need IEFA implementation, we constantly strive to improve it. She was the one who was able to move that forward, work it through a Republican governor and a lot of Republicans in the legislature, and really bring it to the forefront and get it passed.
What do you tell teachers to convince them of the importance of IEFA?
I used to be the director of Indian Education so I worked with a lot of teachers personally. We always had a philosophy we used since the beginning. There would be no blame, shame, or guilt in any of our training. People can’t help if they don’t know about American Indians when they weren’t taught it in school, or just know how the media portrays Indians. It’s not their fault, and we don’t want to walk in a room and wave fingers at them. We really want to take the philosophy that when we move forward, we do it in a very positive way. We need to take teachers and adult learners from where they are and build from their current knowledge and strengths. We look beyond “blame, shame, and guilt,” and say, “These are the facts, this is the way our country and Indian history is,” then lay it out and have discussions.
One of the speakers was Assistant Attorney General Huff:
Because he didn’t look obviously like an Indian or what other people thought an Indian should look like, many people thought Huff was Italian or Mexican or marveled at his apparent easy ability to tan.“So by the time I had hit high school in Missoula, I’d heard just about it all with regard to Indians—all the Indian slurs, the stereotypes, the racial epithets,” he said. “I’d heard that Indians were drunk, lazy, that we were a defeated people, that we should just blend in, that we should accept our fate and assimilate and that reservations should be done away with.”
Many people in his life—his supportive family, many teachers and his friends—had fought against these stereotypes, Huff said. Many people wanted to help Indian children, but lacked the knowledge to counter the stereotypes, he said.
It took 40 years, but Montana at last is fulfilling the promise of that provision, Huff said.
Montana has a K-12 Indian Education for All curriculum, developed in consultation with Indians and their tribes, he said. Teachers are getting trained on how to teach it and learn about Indians and Indian tribes. And Montana children of all backgrounds are learning about Indians and their history.
IEFA is making a difference not just in informing all students about Indians but providing an education that gives Indian students from Montana's 12 tribes dignity in the classroom. That, educators hope, will improve the ghastly Indian dropout rate. Although about 11 percent of public school students in grades 7 to 12 in Montana are Indian, in the past five years Indians comprised 48.6 percent of dropouts in grades 7 to 8, and 23.8 percent of all high school dropouts. Only 59.3 percent of Indian students graduated. The bigger the school, the worse the dropout rate.
IEFA has already improved the morale of Indian students, according to a number of educators:
Thanks to the curriculum funded by IEFA, those Indian students now feel less alienated. School counselor Marcia Beaumont [Blackfeet] spent 22 years working in rural reservation schools before moving to a Billings middle school 10 years ago. She says about IEFA’s impact: “For kids who have a real solid identity with their tribe, they’re happy about it because they’re like, ‘Finally I’m sitting in a class and a teacher acknowledges I exist, and I’m unique and that I’m Native American and not like every other kid in the class.’ ”
Says Juneau: “Knowing that every tribe’s cultural practices and histories are different, what could be common things tribes want people to know about them? [We] were able to create an ‘essential understandings’ [document] that still forms the basis of everything we do.”
Mike Jetty (Spirit Lake Dakota Nation) is the Indian education specialist for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. He says the hope is that the implementation of IEFA will promote better understanding. "We can’t let these goofy divisions keep us apart. Students from across the state will understand what tribal sovereignty is, and the government-to-government relationship with tribes. I think the future leaders of Montana are going to have a better understanding of Indian-white relations, and we can move forward together.”
Here is the transcript of Juneau's convention speech:
Wow! It is such an honor to be here tonight all the way from Big Sky Country. I am proud to be here as a Montanan, as an educator, as a Democrat, and as a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes. And I'm proud to be the first Native American woman in history to win a statewide election.My parents told me that education was the path to success—and they showed me, taking me to Head Start while they were pursuing their own college degrees. My mom is here tonight as a Montana delegate. Thank you, Mom.
Essential to my success were the teachers who invested their time and talent in me so I could go from high school on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to Montana State University, Harvard Graduate School, and law school at the University of Montana. Teachers do the noble work of educating our children. And we can't thank them enough for the hard work they put in every day to ensure a bright future for all of us. Thank you, educators.
As a teacher, I was an advocate for my students and their success. Now, as Superintendent of Public Instruction in Montana, I have the honor to be the top advocate for the education of all of our state's children.
As Democrats, we believe that every child—regardless of background or ability—is entitled to an excellent education. Our determination to strengthen our schools to provide a 21st century education for every child compels us to work to re-elect President Barack Obama. Our commitment to create jobs for the American people and to grow our economy from the middle out drives our determination to re-elect the president.
President Obama knows that education is the best investment an individual can make in themselves, that a family can make in its children, and that a nation can make in its people. That's why he has made historic investments in higher education, making college more affordable—from community colleges to Pell Grant scholarships and student loans.
President Obama knows that the value of education is not just in the equations our students memorize or the books they read. For some students, school is the only place where they get a hot meal and a warm hug. Teachers are sometimes the only ones who tell our children they can go from an Indian reservation to the Ivy League, from the home of a struggling single mom to the White House.
Our schools are where we pass down our stories and our history. And in my family, that American history goes back centuries—back to the first residents: Native Americans.
President Obama understands that the Native American story includes both painful chapters and hopeful ones. He knows that the Native American story is part of America's story and that we deserve to be part of the American dream. That is why he welcomed the tribal nations to the White House and joined them at the table. He signed the Cobell Settlement to correct a long-standing injustice that the late Elouise Cobell—a warrior woman—spent 15 long years fighting for. He's made investments to prevent violence against women in Native communities and to increase opportunities for our youth and veterans. And when he brought health care to all Americans, he helped build hospitals, train nurses, and ensure healthy moms and healthy babies in tribal communities.
It was a proud day in Montana when President Obama visited the Crow Nation and became an adopted Crow tribal member. In fact, I think there are a few of his Crow relatives here tonight. He was given a Crow name that day—it translates to "one who helps people throughout the land." That is more than an adopted name; that is at the core of who he is. It is his mission. And that's why, this November, we will re-elect President Barack Obama!