South Dakota governor backs Native American culture schools

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A proposal to start schools in South Dakota that focus on teaching Native American language and culture has gained a key ally in Gov. Kristi Noem.

Noem has found herself at odds with many of the tribes in South Dakota as she pushed revamped laws to punish the “urging” of riots ahead of expected construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The Republican governor is looking for common ground with the tribes on things like law enforcement, meth addiction treatment and education.

After initially opposing the proposal for Oceti Sakowin schools that teach Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota language and culture, Noem’s office helped present a revamped bill to a Senate committee on Tuesday. The schools would attempt to address the low rates of high school graduation and college attendance in some Native American communities in the state.

The governor opposed the proposal when it was presented two weeks ago. Her advisers said at the time that the bill’s language was “fundamentally flawed” and that culturally-relevant curricula would have been possible in the current system. But senators liked the idea enough to give the schools’ proponents and the governor’s office time to rewrite the proposal.

They came back with a compromise: The bill would still allow for the creation of the schools, but they would be administered through school districts and be subject to the same certifications and oversight as other schools. That helped win the governor’s support.

Tiffany Sanderson, the governor’s education policy adviser, said the new proposal “opens an entirely new school option in our state,” allowing for innovation and focusing on students’ needs.

Educators who are trying to open the schools want to model the schools from Native American Community Academy Schools in New Mexico, which focus on students’ identity as Native Americans and encouraging their culture.

The bill would not allow for more than four schools in the state. Educators are hoping to start schools on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations, as well as in Rapid City.

Sen. Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission who introduced the bill, said the proposal allows Native Americans to educate “on our own terms” and create a break from a history of the government implementing curricula that seeks to erase Sioux culture.

Education groups, including lobbyists representing school boards, will likely still oppose the proposal. The bill originally labeled the schools as “charter” schools, but changed the term to “community-based” schools. The state currently does not allow for charter schools.

The bill’s language is still being worked out and the Senate committee decided to wait until Thursday to decide on whether to approve it. They will also hear from opponents then.

Completely rewriting a bill during the Legislative session is unusual. But the governor, lawmakers and Native American educators all agreed that education needs to be improved among Native American students.

“We can’t wait another year,” Heinert said. “We’ve been waiting too long for this.”

Clearing the Senate Education committee would be just the first step for the proposal. It would still face the full Senate and House.

Stephen Groves
Stephen Groves
Stephen covers Congress in Washington.