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Montana’s Indian Education for All – Primer and Best Practices

August 02, 2021


By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick takeaway: OPI distributes about $3.5 million a year to school districts for Indian Education for All. (IEFA). Under state law, that money can only be used for Indian education curriculum, materials or training. Keep track of IEFA funding and consult legal counsel if you have questions about how the funding can or cannot be used.

What happened: On July 20, 2021, the ACLU sued the Montana Office of Public Instruction alleging Indian education shortcomings. The filing, brought on behalf of five Montana tribal communities and more than two dozen Indian and non-Indian students and parents, requests that a Cascade County District Court judge immediately direct OPI to establish standards for schools to comply with Indian Education for All and cooperate with tribal communities to provide educational instruction. While this case is pending, we decided to provide a quick refresher on the Indian Education for All Act and what it means for educators in Montana.

The Indian Education for All (IEFA) Act in Montana is a state constitutional mandate requiring educators to integrate American Indian content in all instruction. The Montana Legislature passed the Indian Education for All Act in 1999 to ensure every state citizen had the opportunity to gain a basic understanding of local history and information about Native peoples in Montana.

  • The mandate that Montana’s K-12 school system commit to the recognition and preservation of Native American heritage was embedded in the state Constitution in 1972. In response to a 1990 Montana Supreme Court ruling stating that public school funding methods failed to address Indian education, the Legislature established a flow of state money explicitly designed to meet that mandate, directing millions each year to Montana schools to support educational programming and resources on tribal culture and heritage.

“Every educational agency and all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana tribes or those tribes that are in close proximity, when providing instruction or when implementing an educational goal or adopting a rule related to the education of each Montana citizen, to include information specific to the cultural heritage and contemporary contributions of American Indians, with particular emphasis on Montana Indian tribal groups and governments” (MCA 20-1-501, 1999).

What are the 7 understandings? In the early 2000s, the Montana Office of Public Instruction convened educators from each tribal nation to collaborate with regard to the subjects that should be addressed in the curricula of state educational institutions. Together, they explicated the foundation of the implementation of IEFA in the seven Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians. All of the efforts of the state of Montana in developing school curricula designed for the implementation of IEFA are based on the understanding expounded in that work. (“And Still the Waters Flow: The Legacy of Indian Education in Montana.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 88, no. 3, 2006, p. 195)

These seven understandings are, in summary, as follows:

  1. there are twelve tribal nations in Montana, each one of whom possesses a diversity of language, culture, history and government, in addition to a unique cultural heritage that contributes to contemporary Montana;
  2. American Indians, as individuals, are unique and lie on a continuum of identity, from assimilated to traditional;
  3. the traditional systems of Indian spirituality persist to the present time, are practiced by American Indians, and are integrated into the manner of their management of affairs;
  4. reservations are lands that have been acquired by Indian tribes for their own use through treaties, statutes, and executive orders;
  5. there have been many federal policies throughout American history which have affected Indian people, and much of American Indian history can be understood from these phases;
  6. history as told from an Indian perspective often conflicts with the accounts of mainstream historians;
  7. Indian tribes, under the legal system of the United States, possess sovereign powers, which are independent of the federal and state governments, the total extent of which, however, differs for each tribe

Best practices: Carefully document how and when Indian Education for All (IEFA) funds are used.  If your school receives a small amount of funding, think about collaborating with other schools in the area to carry out this responsibility. Work with educators who have successfully implemented Indian content into their classrooms. Collaborate with tribal education departments and Indian educators. If your school is fortunate to receive a large amount of funding, it is paramount to develop a sequential plan for IEFA in your district that includes integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum in addition to ongoing, job-embedded professional development for your staff.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.



Kaleva Law

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