Educators Want Noem’s Plan for Civics Class to Be Inclusive

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Gov. Kristi Noem’s successful $900,000 push for educators to create more South Dakota-specific civics and history curriculum is underway now — new materials Noem has said should help explain why the “U.S. is the most special nation in the history of the world.”

But educators and Indigenous people say they want to ensure the curriculum covers the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, which refers collectively to the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people.

Concrete examples of the curriculum have yet to be seen after Noem pushed for the expenditure in her budget address. And while Noem has pushed for increased civics education, she’s also expressed opinions about the nation’s alleged failure “to educate generations of our children about what makes America unique,” and the “left’s indoctrination” of students.

Most recently, Noem said she was concerned about “teaching our children and grandchildren to hate their own country,” and signed on to a “1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools,” which commits to “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.”

Those in charge of the civics initiative have said it will take two years to create instructional materials and classroom resources specific to the state’s history, civics, government, geography and economics, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

The initiative is part of an expansive budget that passed the Legislature in March.

Still, the question remains: What will it take for South Dakota to have a culturally responsive civics and history curriculum?

Initially, reading about the civics initiative posed some red flags for Dyanis Conrad-Popova, she said.

Conrad-Popova, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of South Dakota, said that in her experience with research on educational equity and culturally responsive education, she knows a strong K-12 civics and history curriculum is needed in the state. But the approach should be centered in best practice, not opinion, she said.

A culturally responsive curriculum helps bridge gaps “that are fairly evident within our societies,” she explained. Culturally responsive curriculum should also validate the values, prior experiences and cultural knowledge of students, Conrad-Popova said.

The effort is not about patriotism, indoctrination, radicalized leftist views, or pitting students against each other based on race or sex, Conrad-Popova said.

“It’s about really being honest with ourselves, and being open and honest with the fact that as a country, our history, policies, programs and practices have been rooted in issues of race-based and culture-based oppression and marginalization,” Conrad-Popova said.

For example, textbooks in the past have referred to slavery as the “Atlantic triangular trade,” or refers to Indigenous removal as “Native Americans moved West voluntarily to make room for the new settlers,” Conrad-Popova said.

Teaching such lies, she said, “breeds ignorance and hate.”

A culturally responsive curriculum in South Dakota, Conrad-Popova says, is one that includes Lakota perspectives and those “whose voices have historically been ignored.”

As part of the Sioux Falls School District’s incorporation of South Dakota’s Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, students at Cleveland Elementary created a collaborative art project celebrating the different groups that collectively make up the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, which is the Lakota term for the Sioux Nation. The Oceti Sakowin Essential understandings are a set of educational standards that require students to learn about Lakota perspectives on history, language and culture. The artwork was displayed prominently at the district administration building.

While South Dakota does have curriculum standards on what’s called Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings (OSEUs), which teaches about the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people, officials with the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE) are not sure how broadly these teachings are used in schools.

However, the DOE is trying to get a better understanding of which schools have implemented OSEUs, DOE secretary Tiffany Sanderson said. The major partner in that work is the Office of Indian Education, which Noem moved to the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations in 2019.

“Certainly we need to strengthen training for teachers so everybody has confidence in using (OSEUs) in the classroom,” Sanderson said, adding she guesses OSEUs will be “tucked into” the South Dakota instructional materials the state develops.

Jace DeCory, a Lakota educator, elder and professor emeritus at Black Hills State University, said she believes a state mandate would assist with the goal of including Native American curriculum in the state’s school system. North Dakota recently mandated education on Native American history for K-12 students.

Inclusion of Lakota language, history and culture will better serve all students in the state, and could provide relevance and a positive class environment to Native students, DeCory said. A culturally relevant curriculum could also help improve attendance and graduation rates among Native students, she said.

But at the K-12 level, schools will not be required to use the curriculum the education department will develop. However, state officials “are confident (schools) will find the resources very useful,” said Ruth Raveling, an information specialist at the education department.

And students already learn a variety of history, civics, geography and economics as early as kindergarten in the Sioux Falls School District.

In the Lennox School District, high schoolers have two elective course offerings: South Dakota history, or civics, which Madeline Voegeli teaches.

Voegeli said she covers diversity, what it means to be an American, the history of immigration, citizenship, the duties and responsibilities of citizenship, volunteerism, the organization of political parties, ideology, the voting process and more in her class.

But Voegeli said she’s asked all the time about how she balances teaching about ideological topics in today’s political climate. To avoid bumps in the road or conflict, Voegeli said she creates a culture of understanding and empathy in her classroom.

“While it can be challenging, I feel like it’s my role to tell them how to think, and not what to think,” she said. “That’s always been a really strong component of my belief as a teacher, so my students don’t know where I stand politically.”

Lennox superintendent Chad Conaway said as long as districts are following state standards, they’re avoiding a political agenda, unless that agenda was embedded in the standards.

Stephanie Hageman, vice president of the South Dakota Education Association (SDEA) and a high school teacher in Watertown, said there’s not a lot of balancing between Noem’s goals and teaching the nuts and bolts of civics and history.

“As educators in South Dakota, we are required to teach the standards” the DOE gives to us, she said. “Our district might get to select what curriculum we’re going to use to implement those standards, but it’s already laid out. There’s not a political agenda there that we’re teaching to hate America. We’re following the standards laid out to us and given to us by the (DOE).”

It doesn’t help that the amount of time students learn about social studies at the elementary level has also decreased in the last few decades, Sanderson said.

There is no “one-stop shop” for teachers in South Dakota to find a host of resources specific to teaching the state’s history, geography or government, Sanderson said. Over time, teachers have put together these resources on their own, she said.

“No textbook publisher is going to invest in South Dakota-specific text materials, instructional resources or lesson plans,” Sanderson said. “If we want those available to our teachers, we need to take that on ourselves.”

The state education department aims to fill that gap with input from K-12 educators, higher education faculty, tribal representatives, experts like historians and museum directors, and educational programming from South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Final decisions on curriculum and standards won’t be made for at least another two years, but the state is already laying out how it wants to spend the $900,000:

—$550,000 is set aside for the development of state-specific instructional materials and classroom resources. Work will begin for this by early 2022.

—$200,000 will go toward pilot programs focused on strengthening civics, government and history education for school districts.

—Two expenditures of $75,000 will also provide for professional development and an instructional materials review. Planning for this professional development will begin this summer, and the instructional materials review will start by early 2022.

The new materials also won’t be the subject of a statewide test, said Raveling. There’s currently no statewide assessment in social studies.

By late summer, a call for committee members will go out to experts who wish to give input on the curriculum creation, Sanderson said.

The department will also review South Dakota’s content standards for social studies this summer. Standards reviews are done on a regular basis and separate from the civics initiative, Raveling said.

Yet, lawmakers and Indigenous educators say that isn’t enough, especially in a state that has a history of shooting down proposals to further Indigenous-led education initiatives.

Rep. Shawn Bordeaux, a Democrat from Mission, tried to require OSEUs be taught this spring by way of House Bill 1187, an effort which failed in the Legislature.

Bordeaux said he believed by 2020, teaching of OSEUs would be fully implemented in all schools, but teachers in schools said it’s not being done and it’s an option. He thinks the complication lies in the fact that the Office of Indian Education is no longer under the state education department.

There was an effort by lawmakers to move it back by way of House Bill 1044, but that also died in committee this spring.

Sen. Troy Heinert, a fellow Mission Democrat, also tried to pass Senate Bill 68 that would have provided state funding and organization for the founding of four OSEU community-based schools across the state.

That failed this spring, too.

That forced Indigenous educators and families to take the lead without the help of state funding and develop plans to open an Oceti Sakowin community-based school by fall 2022 in Rapid City.

Mary Bowman, a member of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, is helping lead the effort for the new school.

“It’s just trying to provide a solution for the historical and decades-long problems that Indigenous students have faced in the public school system,” Bowman said.

Still, concerns exist that South Dakota’s Indigenous history won’t be seen in its full context, and won’t include more than settler perspectives.

One of the OSEUs set in statewide standards reads verbatim, “history told from the Oceti Sakowin perspective, through oral tradition and written accounts, frequently conflicts with the stories told by mainstream historians.”

Elise Boxer, an assistant professor and coordinator of Native American Studies at USD, adopted this standard in her classes at the college level as well and tells students “it’s not about saying that there’s only one history, it’s saying what happens to history when we include different perspectives.”

Boxer said some texts refer to the Wounded Knee Massacre as a war or Sioux uprising, which incorrectly implies that “all of a sudden, Dakota people decided to go out and fight settlers.”

What’s missing from that interpretation is that there had been violations of treaties, encroachment onto Dakota lands, theft of Dakota sources like water and more, Boxer said. She teaches students to review newspaper accounts, oral histories and traditional narratives of the event.

“In the context of history, when we include different voices, it changes,” she said.

Other experts say it’s important for South Dakota’s students to realize Lakota people have a presence and legal history with the federal government prior to statehood, and that the issue of culturally responsive education has been a political “whipping post” for decades.

“I don’t see how you can use South Dakota history without teaching about both Wounded Knees, or the destruction of the Great Sioux reservation,” said Michael Mullin, chair and professor of history at Augustana University.

Mullin and his coworkers have started acknowledging in email signatures and in lectures that the university is located on the ancestral territory of the Oceti Sakowin.

Sanderson said while America and South Dakota both have “really rich stories,” they are certainly “not without blemish.”

“We’ve got plenty of times in our history that haven’t gone well, but we’ve been able to learn from that,” she said. “The anecdote that history repeats itself if we don’t understand our past is certainly applicable here.”

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