Transcript of the episode “Indigenous erasure: The battle for inclusive state standards in South Dakota”

[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. 

[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Our guest today is Sherry Johnson, tribal education director for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, a federally recognized Oceti Sakowin treaty tribe. Oceti Sakowin translates to the People of the Seven Council Fires. It refers to speakers of Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota who live on land spanning the Dakotas , Nebraska, and Montana and extending into Minnesota and Canada. Ms. Johnson is one of the authors of proposed new South Dakota social studies standards that include the history and culture of the Oceti Sakowin. About one in 10 students in South Dakota is Oceti Sakowin. 

[00:00:56] Sherry J: Well, thank you, Jon. Let me help you a little bit with that Oceti Sakowin. That really is just the Seven Council Fires. I really appreciate that and know that sometimes it’s big feet that I have to step into to represent our Oyate out there. Oyate is simply “the people.” We are located in the Northeast corner of South Dakota. We are Dakota and Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate is our reservation. It is called the Lake Traverse Reservation. I am the education director here. I’ve been here for probably seven years now. From previous to that, I was a superintendent at a tribal school for about 15 years, and spent some more time, another 10 years, working as a teacher in various capacities. Education is my lifelong endeavor here. I guess I just keep on going.

But you introduced me about the social studies standards in South Dakota. Really, I was on the work group for the upgrade or the updating of the social study standards, and there are content standards that our teachers use out there, and they use them to guide their instruction. What happens in that process is that the Department of Education in each state approves or adopts a set of standards. These standards are the guiding force behind all the instruction. All the standards that are adopted go out to all the schools and then it’s the local school boards, in conversations with their educational experts, which are their administration and their teachers, that really make those local decisions of how to teach them and what curriculum to use and what books and materials and how that whole genre of education is going to happen. That’s really the behind the scenes on the social study standards. 

It was nice. Our state, as every state, has a pattern of a real, a circular, well, it goes back, it just repeats the standards revision. Every year, whether it’s English, language arts or communications to mathematical strands, to communications, to CTE, which are technical standards, to PE, all of those play a role. In some years, several committees are working at the same time. 

This past summer, I had an opportunity to work on the South Dakota social studies standards, which included the government and the history and geography were in there. We worked from the old standards, which we started with that as a basis. Then we worked in table groups with grade level teacher groups. What happened was, is they requested participants to submit your name and your expertise and your education, your qualifications to be in the work groups. From there, they picked different groups. There were low level ones, which were kindergarten, first grade, and they’d go all the way up to the high school.

 We had not only teachers, it was open to just about anybody to put your name. We had some legislators there. We had some community people, some retired teachers, retired administrators. They came from all walks of life to come in and help develop and shape these standards.

That kind of gives you a little bit of background on that development itself. And so, as this past summer, we went into developing the standards. It was a pretty intense time. We spent some time ahead of time training and getting on meetings in the evenings and really training and preparing for what our task was going to be this summer. It’s pretty interesting for all of that, and that was my first time I’ve actually been on that type of a team. I do have curriculum development and curriculum in my background, quite a bit of training in there, and worked on a local level, but not much on the state level. It was real interesting to be in those groups and see how powerful. and how well versed our teachers really are at what they’re teaching. It was a pretty good group. I worked in the middle school level, which is what I taught. I taught middle school, primarily science and math, but sometimes it was a self-contained classroom where I taught all levels. 

[00:05:42] Jon M: What happened when the task force panels finished their work? 

[00:05:46] Sherry J: During our work, we identified some blaring topics and things that were missing, and basically it was a lot of the Native American genre, the Native Americans just were not really prevalent. We have nine reservations in the state of South Dakota. As far as the Native region, we are the second largest. We have a predominant population of Native people and we are fast-growing. Yet in the standards, even through the history of the United States, you could see where all of a sudden it was the beginning of when the Mayflower and t hen we dropped off, like we are non-existent for a long period of time. Then all of a sudden there were more different things. In most parts, it was just the conflict. When conflicts occurred, that’s when the Natives would turn up in history. 

We could see the blaring discrepancies in our standards. Then also, when you think about standards, more standards and teaching and education and conversations, help to provide that background for people so they’re not ignorant, they really understand. And that helps with that diversity and acceptance and belonging for Natives. Well, in our standards work group, we identified those, and early on we had some real deep conversations on what was missing and why it was missing. It was decided that maybe we needed to have at least one standard every grade level that dealt specifically with Native American issue, whether it was lifestyles, whether it was any of those things. It wasn’t necessarily just reviewing all the conflict, but those lifeways are very important and would show up quite often, like in environmental science will have a lot of those in there. 

Then we got through with that and we were very confident, and we had to decide on things. What do we call ourselves? Do we say American Indian, Indian, Indigenous, Native American. There are all those different things. We had some deeper conversations. There were just two of us that were Native in that work group. They would ask us, we got to where we were in a very safe environment, and they would ask us. What do you believe? What do you want to be called? Talking about what I’m going to be called. Predominantly Native American, more politically Indigenous Native. Then when you ask a student in South Dakota, they would probably primarily identify themselves by their linguistical, which is their language. A child from our reservation would probably say, ” I am Dakota.” After those conversations, it became a very safe environment to where other teachers would ask questions and we provided some information and it was real open. 

We did get our standards. We did write them. We were very confident, and I felt really good. I felt like we really had a good document to go up to the State. Off it went and we didn’t hear anything for long periods of time. Then we knew it was going to be released, like in December, and it’s supposed to be released at noon. We were all following this ’cause we wanted to see it. Then quite abruptly, the day before it was going to be released, they emailed out a zoom meeting, the Department of Ed. We all got on it and we’re all happy and glad to see our new friends and old friends in our group. All it was was a canned speech by one of the other staffers in the Department of Education. Okay. Thank you. Goodbye. That was my first inclination that there might be trouble brewing. 

[00:10:03] Amy H-L: Sherry, this is December of last year? A couple of months ago? 

[00:10:08] Sherry J: No, the previous December.

[00:10:11] Amy H-L: December of 2020.

[00:10:12] Sherry J: Yes. Then there was a comment period, and then they set some in-person meetings. They set three in-person meetings and the first one was going to be near here, but I had planned to attend all three of them. Then they had an open comment period on the Department of Education’s website. Then comment after comment was being put in there because when the standards came out, there was much changed. It was hard to see the actual verbiage. As a work group, we took a look and compared all of what we submitted up to them to what they actually released. Many Native people call it erasure, erasure of Natives right out of our standards.

Our Department of Education Secretary said, “Oh, but we added more.” Well, yeah, it’s more than it was previous, four years ago, but it really was not the comprehensiveness that we need. And, and it was tough. It was tough to see. They changed, they, they dummied it down and rather than saying directly, teachers will do, teach Native American…. They changed a lot of it and it was just wasn’t the same. The pushback was huge. It was a pushback from all our community across South Dakota. You could see that by the comments that went on. You could go on there and read the comments and put your own up. Our tribal government put some resolutions against that. And so, really reverting. Then just a couple of weeks before the first session was going to happen, they changed the venue and they moved it to a bigger place. I think they realized that they were going to have more people in person. And the week of the first meeting, they canceled it completely.

Then it was just quiet for a while. Now they put out that they want a new work group and they put out that you have to put in your name for it and submit this and answer all the questions and go through the whole thing. To me that was a huge waste of taxpayer dollars. They’re going to redo it all again.

[00:12:47] Jon M: So essentially they erased all of the work that everybody had done, and it’s just, nothing’s there and they’re going to start the whole process all over again, picking presumably another group of people, which they’re going to hand select to come out with the results they want. Was there any reason given for this? 

[00:13:08] Sherry J: They didn’t, they didn’t really say . They just said because there were so many comments. We had a protest. A group of people from the Equity Coalition in South Dakota, petitioned to have a peaceable gathering. There’s a whole process that you have to do to get that permission to assemble. Then they did that in the state capital, which is Pierre. They actually assembled and they had a whole list of speakers that day and many, many students. It was real interesting. Then they broadcasted that. We were able to, even though I wasn’t there and it was pouring rain, people were walking with raincoats or they were just wet. But they did do all of that. I think that helped the governor to realize, and the Education Department, there were some concerns here that if they push through the present censored standards, that was not going to be good for our state. 

[00:14:14] Amy H-L: Was was the conflict only about the Native aspects of the curriculum or were there other issues as well?

[00:14:24] Sherry J: Well, they took out, oh, all the critical thinking. We were cautioned during the writing process, not to say the word “culture,” no matter what, I mean, whether it meant Dakota culture or anything else, it’s just a keyword that would, that people are going to be searching for. Now we have a huge emphasis on critical race.theory. I can’t even get the State to define what they’re saying critical race theory is. It just pushed our racial differences and divides right up there. That’s not good for education. Education works together for everyone. You know, Native people will tell you if they’re not explicitly taught those things, then the teachers don’t do it. While you might not agree with everything, we still teach the Holocaust. There’s a lot of negatives around that, but we still teach it, we teach it so we don’t repeat those mistakes of the past. We provide that education and that’s the way the standards work, so we can make sure that we’re not recreating those same ways. It’s tough being a Native educator in South Dakota. 

[00:15:50] Jon M: The political context of this, if I understand, is that the State Education Department comes under the governor and that the governor, Governor Noem, who proposed that the former president should be on Mount Rushmore, is a big fan of the 1776 concept that American history started, that the key events were 1776, and the whole proposal that the former president made. Is that correct? 

[00:16:19] Sherry J: That is correct. Our governor has signed the 1776 pledge and supports all that theory behind that. You know, one of the things that was always thrown, thrown out, one of the statements that was always thrown out to Native people was why are you making our non-Native children feel bad? That’s not the intent. We don’t want to make anybody feel bad. But you still learn from it. We don’t want to do the same thing as a Holocaust. We don’t want to make Jews or German descent people feel bad about things of the past, but we still teach about it and we teach it with heart and we learn how to move beyond that. We learn that that empathy is there for humanness. 

[00:17:07] Amy H-L: Sherry, is there some denial going on? Does the governor not want to teach that Indigenous people have been exploited, that they are still exploited? Is there is some revisionist history going on?

[00:17:23] Sherry J: Oh, certainly. Not only are we seeing this in the K-12 system in which directly making those decisions for, we’re also seeing it in our higher level, our colleges and our universities that are educating people, educating our teachers. Our teachers are taught to teach well-rounded and teach to everyone. Recently the governor made some moves. There were multicultural centers, Indian centers within the colleges, and now those are all called “opportunities centers.” They’ve lost their, even though the college and universities are built with land grant; they are are land grant universities, land grant institutions of education. It took a long time for me to really figure out what was going on there and why, but we want to teach, we want to not teach our true history. She’s always saying she wants to teach our true history, but round it all off, let’s round off all the rough edges of it. Let’s not teach the real true things, that our history is ugly at times. But we still teach about the the Twin Towers. That wasn’t a good time. We still teach them. If you think about it, even the Japanese camps that were in the United States, those are not pleasant thoughts or pleasant experiences, but it is our history. At the time, the people thought that was the best things for them, for, to keep people. Whether it was, or not, as you know, it’s not for me to make that opinion and it’s not for our teachers to opinionate our students either, but to open their minds that this is what happened, and this is how you educate. And then children make their own opinions. Our Department of Education Secretary was handpicked by our governor. Our state tribal relations director was handpicked by our governor. Then we have our Office of Indian Education director, and it’s all, there’s a pattern.

I just feel alone at some times on these. I’ve spoken out, I’ve been very verbal. I did put my name back in to be on the social study standards group. I really believe that Native Americans need a place in South Dakota standards. 

[00:20:01] Jon M: You mentioned that there was tremendous public protest with a lot of people attending, a lot of students attending, and so on. Has there been positive impact in terms of people coming together to fight back, and has there been an increase in consciousness as a result of this? 

[00:20:18] Sherry J: I think so. I think more South Dakotans are now aware that this is going on. It’s the first time some of them are aware of the purpose of standards and how it works. That brought it into limelight. We have a whole, even our Native American people, a lot of times they will sit back and let others make that decision. But you know, they’re right in the forefront now. This is something worth fighting for, our children, our future, we have to help them analyze what is healthy for them. Even if you’re saying critical race theory is a negative term, you don’t want that to happen. Well, what is it then? Define it. What do you define it as? People throw that around. Like it’s such a negative. 

[00:21:07] Amy H-L: Sherry, is there a partisan element to this? 

[00:21:11] Sherry J: I think there is. I mean, there, it’s definitely both sides here and people can see that there’s a need here. I don’t know what the next coming work groups are going to be like, and I don’t know what they’re going to be told. It will be interesting to see how all of that tailors through. 

When you, you say that, we have a lot of, right now, we’re in the middle of the legislative session. We’ve had a lot of Native American bills go up more than ever than I’ve ever seen. South Dakota has developed Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, which is, it’s not standards, but it’s the closest that they have to standards. It’s out there. It’s out there for teachers to use to guide their instruction. But it’s not mandated. It’s not recommended. It’s not enforced. For the last three years, I’ve been providing proponent testimony that really says this needs to be mandated, that we need to use these. This is the only State developed– and they brought teams and it was a huge amount of work– brought teams together to develop this out. Is it perfect? Does it have everything? No, it doesn’t. But yet it’s the only thing that’s been developed and it’s not being mandated, but that gets shot down every year. Once again, we asked them to promulgate rules and they wouldn’t even do that. Yeah. Life gets interesting on occasion.

[00:22:50] Amy H-L: Yeah. The, the State transferred the Office of Indian Education to the Office of Tribal Affairs. What impact has that had? 

[00:22:58] Sherry J: Well and that’s one thing that we keep bringing up to the legislators and saying that it needs to move back and providing testimony that states it needs to be pulled back and it’s for these reasons. It seems like we have lost when we move out from the Department of Education and move into the tribal state relations. Really the focus of tribal state relations is that relationship between tribe and government to facilitate that. We don’t have the focus on — purely on education. Whereas when the Office of Indian Education was in the Department of Education, focus was purely on education. We had a lot more communication. The Department of Education are pretty good communicators and they meet on a regular basis and update us with what’s going on. We benefited from that and we had a working relationship with the staff in the Department of Education.

That seems to have dissipated. I sit on the South Dakota Indian Education Advisory Council, and a council formed by South Dakota to bridge that distance and provided advisement into the Office of Indian Education which, in the past, was under the DOE. But yeah, even that has been censored lately and their whole focus has been changed. We used to meet and we’d provide a report annually up to the governor and that hasn’t been done for two years now, and the report would cover what our group has been focusing on, what the Office of Indian Education was focused on, and then what our needs were or what our concerns are and just points to consider for future. That was one way that we had for that direct communication in an official report. Now that we’ve had our current governor for three years, anything Indian seems to be eroded right out of legislature and right out of some of the roles that are there, some of the guiding regulations that are there and as a result, that report is also done.

[00:25:18] Jon M: What is the relationship between tribal schools, which if I’m correct, are schools on reservations and non-tribal schools? Do Oceti Sakowin have control over curriculum and professional development in the tribal schools? Is there more control over them or is that all under the State Education Department as well?

[00:25:42] Sherry J: I’ll tell you a little bit about our reservation and then know that it’s about the same on all reservations like this. Our tribe has chartered three tribal schools. We have three tribally chartered tribal schools, and one is the off-reservation boarding school, which is just above. We’re considered a tribe of North and South Dakota.. We have our three tribal schools, but two of them are right here on reservation, which are in huge facilities and stuff. So, as an education department that’s formalized, we work with all of our schools.. We have about maybe 1500 Native children, which is far cry from what the Oglala has in the Pine Ridge area, but this is our base here. Some of our students will go to public schools and some will go to the tribal. It just depends on, that’s family choice. We really do have some school choices. When I say charter or our tribal schools, it means that our tribe has, and they all have, school boards, but they chartered them and there, everything runs through them, our Bureau of Indian Education schools, BIE ones, and that’s where the funding streams come. As a result, they have their school boards and their school boards make those local decisions. But the BIE regulations state that you have to be an agency or by your state. There’s specific language in the regulations that you have to be accredited. When you, when you are accredited by the state of South Dakota, that includes you maintain those high quality teacher levels of education and all their certifications but you also abide by the accreditation rules that they have promulgated. Inside that is standards. You state you will follow the standards of the state in which you reside. So we have more control of what’s instructed in the tribal schools, but in reservation schools, we work with six public school systems. We work with them through Title VII and, and which was, I think, changed to Title VI. Then we work with anyway, the JOM, the Indian education program. We work with all of our area schools, but we also work with our area schools on tribal consultation. 

And when ESSA,which replaced No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, when that was approved, it brought in the tribal consultation. Any school that has 50% more of Native students, or has more than $40,000 in Title funds has to consult with their local tribe. When that came in place, we developed some guidelines for how we’re going to do this and what it looks like for each tribe. Each tribe could set up their own and we work with our local school districts on tribal consultation. They actually meet with our council and then we also work with them. I work with our JOM, the Johnson O’Malley funding, which is a federal funding that comes straight to the tribe. Then we work. We have staff in our school systems providing services to Native children. We have three schools that are more than 50% Native American population. We work with them on things like providing cultural trainings, in service. 

We have one of our Johnson O’Malley staff that are in school, are providing some enrichment. The next couple of Fridays he’s going to do some art lessons with young kids, kindergarten, first grade, and they’re going to be surrounding Native American topics. I’ve suggested him to take the Buffalo Walks, which is our sharing a part of our Lifeways, that we use the buffalo for and the kids get to touch it. They can feel the buffalo, the hide, the bladder, the tools that were made from the buffalo. Then we have developed a Dakota coloring book around the buffalo that has some more information in there. We work with our schools in that way to provide those cultural trainings and support that our public schools need. 

[00:30:06] Amy H-L: Just to delve into an example, when you take, say a historical event, such as Wounded Knee, how would that be taught in say, public schools? How about the schools in which you have an advisory role, and what about the tribal schools?

[00:30:27] Sherry J: Well, I don’t know if I want to have a huge comment on that, but the most prevalent discussion, what I hear, anyway, is that when it’s, when it’s taught in the public school systems, they teach it as Wounded Knee battle, whereas we call it a massacre. We can’t get past that.

[00:30:53] Jon M: Do teacher preparation programs in South Dakota, include material on Oceti Sakowin history and culture? 

[00:31:03] Sherry J: I can’t say that for sure. I know that when teachers are certified through the State of South Dakota, they are required to take a Native American class that really has American Indian topics. There’s some rigor on that. That happens with the teacher certification, so if you’re a teacher that already has a certification moving into South Dakota, then that’s a required course where you’re going to take the Native American, Indigenous class of some sort. Different universities call it different things. 

[00:31:33] Jon M: Why is what’s happening in South Dakota significant beyond South Dakota? 

[00:31:39] Sherry J: Oh, gee. Why is it really significant? Considering. I just did a Newsweek article, and that also really touched a lot on the critical race theory, which is blowing up all over the United States. I think it’s huge. With our governor and all eyes are upon South Dakota to see how this is, how this is going to turn out.. Because I think controversy draws interest, and primarily negative controversy draws interest. All eyes are upon South Dakota to see what, what goes on. I mean our, our present governor traveled with the former president, talked on his behalf at different times. She has a following that people are watching what she does.

She’s very opinionated. That’s okay. She’s a governor. All I’m going to say, but you know, there’s other states that are going through. You know, we have, and if you look, Montana has Indian Education for All. They approved that so all students get a nice well-rounded education for all. It has, that is incorporated through, threaded through, all their education.

North Dakota has approved some mandates where it’s in their course requirements and that’s where they embedded some language in their laws that really said that you need to teach Indian history here. There’s some real proponents out there. Then you look at Washington and Oregon, huge amount of Indian education and legislative and support out there. You can see it by just the documents that they put out. Then there’s South Dakota. We’re here fighting for everything Native there is. All we want to do is have a, have a fair shake of teaching our history and teaching, you know, it’s not always pleasant, but just teaching our history and teaching what are the differences and what are the similarities. We’re people. How is tribal government different? 

We work with a public school system, and it’s a huge one, just seven miles away. Their teachers will take early retirement and then they will work at our tribal schools. They go through orientation and provide them with that background and that history, that local history. They’ll come and they’ll say “I’ve lived here all my life. I never knew.” “All my life. I never knew that.” Seven miles away. There’s some ignorance. 

Here’s my other telling story. As an administrator, I got all the complaints, as the superintendent. This was huge. All of a sudden, I had some parents calling me saying one of your teachers is talking about the hangings at Mankato. Their child was savvy enough and had been to Mankato during the convening that they have every year and knew the history about all of that. He said something about Abraham Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln was the one that signed the proclamation that really did the hanging. And the teacher said, “oh, he wouldn’t do that.” It’s like, oh my God, my teacher didn’t know. There’s an education piece missing. As an administrator, you really need to be cognizant and provide teachers with that well-rounded experience.

[00:35:34] Jon M: Are there any ways specifically that people outside of South Dakota can be supportive?

[00:35:41] Sherry J: I think just reaching out, reaching out when when South Dakota does have comments out there and put those out there to support them. I mean, social media these days is, is huge. You know, and you look at podcasts, we’ve never had podcasts. They’re there now. Reach out to these people and let them know. 

[00:36:03] Amy H-L: Thank you, Sherry Johnson.

[00:36:05] Sherry J: Well, thank you for inviting me here. I know I spoke to the circles around all kinds of things. If you– be anything else that you want to know about, or have some interest in, reach out to me, I’m here just, I’m just one person doing a battle. 

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