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States' legislation on school cultural programs varies

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Thirty-nine states have laws on the books that
encourage, allow or require the teaching of American Indian culture,
language and history in the public schools.

The laws or agreements vary in depth and regulatory powers, and some merely
allow public agencies to cooperate with tribes and tribal schools,
according to Melody McCoy, attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

Even though such laws may be in effect, McCoy admits it is very difficult
to enforce them.

Some state laws require state agencies to recognize tribes as sovereign
governments and deal with them on a government-to-government basis; those
laws would allow school districts and state education departments to enter
into partnerships with tribes to create curricula. There is no federal law
requiring that procedure.

Nebraska, for example, allows cooperation between tribal governments and
public agencies which opens the door for schools to cooperate with tribes
to establish curricula or policy procedures.

New Mexico has an Indian Affairs Department, and the resulting contracts
between tribes and public agencies have led to the incorporation of
American Indian studies courses into the curricula of most schools.

"Sixteen states provide for teaching of language, five states mandate the
teaching of sovereignty and three states, in their laws, recognize that
tribes have education departments," McCoy said while speaking to the annual
gathering of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Rapid City.

McCoy compiled a book of state laws in 1997. Since that time, more states
have recognized the necessity of such laws causing McCoy to reissue the
book this October.

She pointed out that in the state of Maine, home to five federally
recognized tribes, teaching the ethnic heritage of the state is mandatory.
The law specifically states that Maine's tribes, their political systems
and their relationships with local, state and national governments must be
part of the Maine studies curriculum.

"That's new since 1997 and is really progressive," McCoy said.

In Idaho, the law states: "It is the policy to preserve, protect and
promote the rights of Indian tribes to use, practice and develop their
native languages."

Under Idaho law, the tribes are allowed to establish their own systems of
designation for individuals qualified to teach their languages. The tribe
will develop an oral and written qualification test.

Nebraska law recognizes the necessity of the language in the education of
American Indian children, allowing school districts and post-secondary
institutions to employ approved American Indian language teachers. If the
teacher does not have a state teacher's certificate, the law restricts that
teacher from teaching anything other than the language.

"These are not necessarily statements by an advocate for tribal sovereignty
and for teaching Native American culture; these are your legislators'
words, adopted, enacted and implemented," McCoy said. "It's there; it's in
the laws."

Some states have Indian affairs committees; some have education departments
devoted to American Indian education.

"While we have 250 state-tribal compacts on Indian gaming, 20 state-tribal
compacts dealing with natural resource and countless state-tribal compacts
on law enforcement, children protection and social services, we don't have
many state-tribal compacts on Indian education: or do we? What are these
laws, other than partnerships?

"Are the states' public schools compatible to tribal sovereignty, which is
a huge question? One can only imagine if a state turned around and told a
tribe, 'We are going to take over management of your land, your water, your
minerals, your grazing' -- that just wouldn't happen, because of
sovereignty. That's not the same with education. The challenge in this area
is to do the partnerships," McCoy said.

McCoy's book listing all state laws on education is available at