BISMARCK — North Dakota's requirements for school curriculum could soon include instruction about Native Americans because of a bill recently passed by the Senate, but the addition may be solely words on a page after lawmakers quashed the bill's authority.
Senate Bill 2304 underwent an extensive amendment that states the current social studies and U.S. history curricula taught in schools must include instruction about Native Americans. With the amended language, it is unclear how much instruction about Native Americans is adequate or how it would be enforced. Many teachers statewide already include Native American history in their curricula to some degree.
The bill, originally drafted by Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, was drastically changed by an amendment proposed by fellow Democrat Sen. Erin Oban. The Bismarck senator said she wanted the bill to pass but did not believe passing it with the original language would be "workable."
"I'm somebody who tries to find common ground. I think there was common ground in this bill," Oban said. "... I think it's good for everybody — Native and non-Native."
As it was originally written, the bill would have required a four-week-long Native American curriculum at all elementary and secondary public and nonpublic schools in North Dakota. Teachers would have been required to teach students about the "contributions of Native Americans to the sociology of North Dakota," "current tribal relations with the state and the United States," and about tribal history, sovereignty, culture, current events and treaty rights, among other topics, according to the bill.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Richard Marcellias, D-Belcourt, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.
The Senate unanimously passed the weakened amended version on Monday, Feb. 15, in a 47-0 vote. As amended, the bill requires social studies and U.S. history, "including Native American history," to be included in high school graduation requirements, though it is unclear how much teaching about Native American history is required.
Oban said she wanted to provide emphasis on what was already being done in schools, and when asked if the amended version of the bill was mainly a symbolic gesture, she said it could be interpreted that way.
"Adding the language to Century Code adds emphasis to what the state finds important," she said in a statement to The Forum.
Buffalo said the bill the Senate passed was not what supporters originally wanted, but it is a step in the right direction in teaching students about Native Americans. She said she understands that the likelihood of change is low for certain aspects of North Dakota.
Proponents who brought forward the original bill said its intent was to provide students in the state with an accurate history of Native Americans, especially the tribes in North Dakota.
"Native Americans are the original inhabitant of these very lands that we stand on, but often they are an afterthought within their very homelands," Buffalo said earlier this month in support of the bill. "Native Americans are not invisible."
Teaching students about Native Americans allows them to learn about the differences and similarities between the state's Native and non-Native population, said Leander McDonald, president of United Tribes Technical College, at a hearing earlier this month.
"In the long term, I believe (the bill) in education will help dispel stereotypes, decrease racism and discrimination and assist all North Dakotans to move in a positive direction with regard to race relations," McDonald said.
The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction partnered with tribal elders in the state in 2015 to create a curriculum about Native American history. Although the program already exists for teachers to use, the bill's supporters said many teachers were still not using it, and that is why a mandate is needed.
But Oban, a former teacher, said she is against the Legislature requiring educators to teach specific curricula as that decision should be left up to local school boards and the teachers themselves.
Nick Archuleta, president of North Dakota United, said the teachers union is pleased with the bill the Senate passed because curricula should be decided at the local level by schools, and the bill emphasizes the importance of a well-rounded education in the state's history.
Though the bill creates an emphasis on something already present in many schools statewide, Oban said she wanted to pass it because teaching about Native American history and culture is important, especially since there are five federally recognized tribes that share borders with the state itself.
The bill will be forwarded to the House for further consideration.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.