Two indigenous tribes in Montana are asking the federal government to investigate what they say is systemic racism and discrimination in a public school district on their reservation.
The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana filed a complaint Wednesday with the Justice Department and the Education Department saying that the Wolf Point School District discriminates against native students and “deprives them of basic rights to which they are entitled in school.”
The complaint adds that “the unequal treatment of Native students is detrimental to their development and education and violates federal law.” According to the 46-page document, the discrimination in the school district, which is state-run and governed by a local school board, is longstanding and includes bullying, racial slurs, discriminatory hiring practices, intolerance of tribal practices and beliefs, disproportionate discipline of nonwhite students and denial of equal educational opportunities, guidance and college counseling to native students.
“We live and reside in the United States,” said Roxanne Gourneau, a member of the reservation’s tribal executive board, which filed the complaint. “We’re not asking for something more. We’re asking for equity.”
In reply to a request for comment, the law firm representing the Wolf Point School District said it could not respond to specific allegations because it was still reviewing the complaint. But in a statement it said:
“The Wolf Point Public School District is keenly aware of the challenges facing our students and in particular our Native American students. We recognize our students’ rights under Montana law and federal law to equal educational opportunity, and we strive diligently to meet our obligations under the law. We take claims of discrimination seriously and will cooperate with the federal agencies completely and promptly.”
The 2.1-million-acre Fort Peck reservation is the ninth largest in the United States, and two thirds of its 10,000 residents are tribe members. But as with many large reservations, much of the land does not belong to the tribes or their members. A vast number of parcels are owned by the state or by non-natives. That is part of the reason the Wolf Point School District is not under tribal control.
Wolf Point, the largest town on the reservation and its business center, has a population of 2,600 and is 57 percent Native American. Despite their majority status in the community, the complaint alleges that tribe members have been excluded from making major decisions when it comes to education and that the three native representatives on the six-member school board are assigned to lesser committees and overruled on issues that affect native students.
“Non-Native domination of the District has created a culturally unwelcoming school environment for Native students,” the complaint reads. “It undermines Native students’ sense that they can be future teachers and school leaders, further perpetuating their under-representation.”
The complaint also alleges mistreatment of native athletes by high school coaches, disciplinary policies aimed only at native students, preferential hiring of nonnative teachers and staff and an overall failure to connect with native students and their families.
Melina Healey, a lawyer for the tribes, said there are clear areas where the school district is lacking, including hiring sufficient numbers of native teachers and staff and providing cultural competency training to employees.
“The tribal members are looking for reconciliation,” Healey said. “They are looking to have Education and Justice come into the community and the schools and repair some of the broken relationships that have resulted from this discrimination.”
There is a lot of work to be done, says Louella Douglas-Contreras, a member of the Fort Peck Sioux, whose children attended Wolf Point schools and whose grandchildren are in the schools now.
“This has been going on for a long time, even when I was in high school,” she said. “I don’t know if things can be changed until the teachers in the system change. I feel like it’s their own personal prejudice and I don’t know if they can change that. But the school system has to be accountable for what they have done. The tribe knows what they’ve done to the kids.”