In 11th-hour change, SD officials cut Indigenous references from social studies standards

Changes to the proposed recommended standards, which were developed by a working group of over 40 teachers, came at the 11th hour to their release Friday, Aug. 6. The standards will face public hearings beginning this fall.

Members of a dancing group from Sisseton stand during the opening of a traditional round-dance on the state capitol grounds in Pierre, South Dakota on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service)
Forum News Service file photo
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PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota's Department of Education released proposed social studies standards on Friday, Aug. 6, that veered significantly from those submitted by a working group earlier this summer, including multiple cuts to tribal and Indigenous learning objectives, Forum New Service has learned.

The much-anticipated proposed standards, which were overhauled just prior to their release last week by state officials in Pierre, also contains an entirely new preface than the one in the report submitted by nearly 50 teachers, museum experts, and professors on July 25.

It was that draft report , which has been obtained by FNS, that many group members had expected to be released to the public at the end of last week.

Instead, SDDOE overrode the input of educators charged with the routine update to state’s K-12 social studies curriculum standards, making significant, last-minute changes that stripped out most requirements intended to boost South Dakota students' understanding of Native Americans, according to a review of internal documents and interviews by FNS.

While the original report also emphasized assisting students to become "active, engaged citizens," the new preface refers little to students and instead spends three paragraphs extolling the "framers of our nation's constitution" as "great students of history, geography, civics, and economics."


The new preface mirrors language of a political pledge signed by Gov. Kristi Noem , who also championed the overhaul of civic education in her State of the State speech in January.

Some members say they had suspected state officials would make significant changes.

New standards

On Thursday, Aug. 5, members of a nearly 50-person working group were called to a quickly announced Zoom meeting by DOE officials. The move caused concern among multiple members of the group, who spoke to FNS on condition of anonymity, that state officials were going to tweak or alter the recommendations prior to Friday's release.

A day later, the standards were released, albeit with significant alterations and deletions from the draft the working group sent to Pierre

The most glaring omission in the new, roughly 60-page draft compared to the working group's report is the emphasis on Native American history, particularly a point of pride for some group members in build-up to the release of the standards Aug. 6.

"In our textbooks, when you go and look at U.S. history, and even our local regional history, back when Columbus discovered that there were Indigenous people here, they mention [indigenous people] for about a page and a half and after that there's very little mentioned," said Sherry Johnson, a working group participant and head of the Education Department with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, last week.

The new standards were aimed to give a "better portrait of Indigenous history," she told FNS.

But a comparison of the two sets of standards by Forum News Service reveal a diluted focus on Indigenous history, from the removal of references in kindergarten to the Oceti Sakowin — the Sioux Nation tribal communities rooted in the Dakotas and Upper Midwest — to the erasure of a standard in a high school economics classroom urging students to learn about banking in local, state, federal, and tribal communities.


The current standard only reads, "Explain the structure and function of the U.S. banking system."

The proposed standards will undergo four public hearings , beginning on Sept. 20 at a middle school in Aberdeen, South Dakota, and people can submit online comments , as well. Even if the framework is ultimately adopted by the Board of Education Standards, it is merely recommended, not compulsory.

Officials with SDDOE did not respond to a request for comment on the changes. The social studies facilitator with SDDOE, Melinda Johnson, referred all questions to the deputy secretary, Mary Stadick Smith.

Major changes made

The standards are undertaken once every seven years, and had been prefaced this year by calls from Noem to overhaul civics education in the state. Noem also signed a conservative educational treatise coined the " 1776 Pledge ."

Noem had made an overhaul to the state's civics education a signature policy goal of her 2021 legislative session, ultimately winning nearly $1 million in funding for grants and the development of a South Dakota history curriculum.

But the state Legislature stopped short of writing new standards for social studies, or learning objectives for history, geography, and economics. That job, historically, has been up to a nonpartisan group of educators chosen by the Department of Education.

The standards the working group creates then go to an obscure Board of Education Standards — all appointed by the governor — to approve the new recommended standards.

Prior to last week, members of the working group had remarked on the independence from political pressure from the governor's office they'd felt during the eight sessions in June in Fort Pierre. In July, retired Yankton High School world history teacher Paul Harens told FNS he thought the process was "excellent."


"When we began this whole thing, they told us, 'Do not worry what is in the press. Worry about what to do for the children of South Dakota. And that's exactly what we did," Harens said at the time.

The edited document, however, reveals substantial edits from the draft submitted by the working group, especially within the tribal historical importance. In the opening section titled "notable changes," rather than an "incorporation of more diverse perspectives, especially those of Indigenous Native Americans," the new document simply calls for "teaching the positive and negative aspects of our nation's history while instilling pride in being an American."

Whereas an eighth-grade U.S. history standard in the working group's report calls for a classroom to "examine major cultural traits and resiliency of the Oceti Sakowin Oyate throughout history," the new standards for eighth-grade U.S. history remove all references to tribal understandings.

For ninth- to 12th-grade U.S. history standards, the working group urged students to study the "impact South Dakotans, including Oceti Sakowin Oyate and other Indigenous Native Americans, had on U.S. and South Dakota History." But the new standards gloss over tribal distinctions, simply making note of the role of "Indigenous Native Americans."

While the original document made 25 references to "Oceti Sakowin," that phrase only appears thrice in the new report. Similarly, the word "Indigenous" appears 20 times in the originally submitted document and only nine times in the new standards. And whereas the working group made 34 references to the word "tribal," the new document only invokes the word 27 times.

Earlier this summer, a GOP legislator, Rep. Sue Peterson, and a politically conservative Rapid City man left the working group . While Peterson didn't comment on her departure, Richard Meyer, a retired dentist from Rapid City, told the Argus Leader that he had faith in Noem's call for a "quality education system that focuses on what makes America special."

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