When the debate over teaching race-related concepts in public schools reached Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart’s home state of South Dakota, she decided she couldn’t in good conscience send her youngest daughter to kindergarten at a local public school.
“I knew that the public school system would not benefit my child without the important and critical history and culture of Indigenous people being taught,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.
Tilsen-Brave Heart worried that her 5-year-old daughter, Pia, would be exposed to even fewer lessons taught through a cultural lens than her older siblings had been, robbing her of an educational experience that would foster a sense of belonging and self-identity. “I want my children to know who they are,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “I want them to know their language, their culture, where they come from—to be proud of their ethnicity and their history and their culture.”
When South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, a Republican, signed an executive order in April 2022 restricting how race and equity can be taught in the classroom, Tilsen-Brave Heart decided to enroll her daughter at Oceti Sakowin Community Academy, a newly opened private school in Rapid City. The school is centered on the culture and language of the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires. The term refers to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota people, also known as the Sioux.
South Dakota, home to nine tribes collectively known as the Great Sioux Nation, is one of dozens of states that have recently adopted or introduced laws or policies that take aim at critical race theory, commonly known as CRT. The concept is a decades-old framework in higher education that examines how racism is embedded in laws, policies, and institutions. Its critics have argued that it sows divisions among young students and unfairly lays blame on white people for past and enduring inequities. Some Republican politicians have used the concept to stir backlash against efforts to promote equity and inclusion more broadly.
The anti-CRT efforts to restrict how race is taught have clashed with initiatives in several states, including South Dakota, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, to teach Native American history—which has often been left out of instruction—more accurately and fully.
In 2018, after a decade-long consultation process, South Dakota adopted new standards designed to expand and improve instruction of Native American studies. In Oklahoma, collaborations such as one between the state Department of Education and the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education have led to more classes on Indigenous languages being offered to students. In New Mexico, the state Public Education Department recently adopted standards to improve the teaching of race and ethnicity, a subject that includes Indigenous history and culture.
About 644,000 Native students attend the nation’s K-12 system, with the vast majority enrolled in public schools, according to the National Congress of American Indians. States with the largest share of the Indigenous student population include Alaska, Oklahoma, Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota.
In South Dakota, critics say the governor’s executive order threatens to undo years-long attempts to enrich lessons about the history of Native Americans, whose culture is at risk of vanishing from the curriculum.
The order restricted “inherently divisive concepts” in K-12 schools and required the state Department of Education to review curriculum training materials for teachers and students to determine if they contain such concepts. In a June 2022 report, the department said it had deleted the term “equity” from the title of a report about equitable access to qualified teachers for low-income and minority students. The former School and Educator Equity Report is now called “Rates of Access to Qualified Teachers.”
The department also concluded that the 2018 Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings may be in violation of the executive order. The standards were developed by a diverse group of tribal educators, historians, and cultural experts in collaboration with the department to provide guidance on Native American instruction. “A few of the suggested approaches to instruction embedded into the standards may not align with the EO [executive order],” the department said in its report, citing as an example instruction to “simulate assimilation experiences, including: conversion of groups to individualism.”
The report recommends that outside experts and stakeholders conduct a review of the standards. Ruth Raveling, a Department of Education spokeswoman, declined to answer specific questions about the report, saying it speaks for itself. In an e-mail, she included an excerpt from the document: “The department is committed to ensuring that all students have educational opportunities that prepare them for college, careers, and life. In alignment with Executive Order 2022-02, the agency operates with the understanding that each South Dakota student is unique, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and should not be subject to discrimination.”
The state’s executive order has caused confusion among teachers who taught Native American history and culture using the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, said Roquel Gorneau, a South Dakota education specialist for the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Sioux Tribes. “A lot of it is social studies, among other subjects, and a lot of it is cultural teachings,” she said. “It’s knowledge about culture and history and traditions in language. But teachers now are unsure how we’re allowed to continue to utilize that without violating the executive order by the South Dakota governor, who has banned speaking of any CRT-related topics. And topics are defined as those meant to make one race feel inferior or superior to another.”
Like other educators, Gorneau emphasized that critical race theory is not being taught in South Dakota schools at the K-12 level. But she said the executive order means that students won’t learn in the classroom about important events that have affected Indigenous communities, such as the Keepseagle settlement that in 2010 awarded $680 million in damages to Native American farmers—like Gorneau’s mother—who were denied low-interest government loans that white farmers were granted.
“We’re basically not allowed to explain that these things have occurred,” Gorneau said. Explanation is needed, she added, “in order to help our students grow into people who become contributing members of society who help prevent these things from occurring again.”
The executive order, she said, “serves as a detriment to positive race relations, to mutual understanding, to reconciliation among Native and non-Native people.”
This year, at least 22 bills introduced in state legislatures would bar any discussion of concepts related to race, ethnicity, color, and national origin from a school’s curriculum. The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting the GOP-led efforts, which it says amount to classroom censorship.
In Oklahoma, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of students, educators, and civil right groups over House Bill 1775, a law approved in 2021 that bans schools from teaching certain concepts related to race and gender. “We knew that this was an attempt to whitewash Oklahoma curricula and to ensure that the perspectives of marginalized communities that had only just started getting more of an emphasis in Oklahoma classrooms was erased from those very critical spaces,” said Megan Lambert, ACLU legal director in the state.
The Oklahoma Department of Education did not respond to inquiries about HB 1775. Lambert said the law violates not only teachers’ First Amendment right to free speech but also students’ right to information. “We also saw an equal protection violation because we know that not seeing yourself or your perspective reflected in your curriculum has detrimental outcomes for students,” the attorney said, adding that the case is working its way through the court system.
Tribal educators say attacks on teaching race and culture hinder longtime efforts to help improve academic outcomes for Native students. Nationwide, high school graduation rates for Native students are lower than those of their white peers and their dropout rates are higher. Research shows that students who are exposed to a supportive, culturally relevant environment perform better in school.
The current environment is yet another hurdle for Native students to overcome in the classroom, said Waquin Preston, a member of the Navajo Nation, the nation’s largest tribe, covering portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. “The curriculum needs to be relevant to our students,” he said.
“When the Native history and the ability to engage culturally in the classroom, when a lot of that is lost, then students don’t have the same interest in schooling because they’re not seeing themselves reflected,” Preston added. “They don’t necessarily see the relevance of it in the community.”
As a tribal state policy associate for the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), Preston provides support to tribes and student advocates collaborating on state education policy. He lives in Arizona, where three pending bills in the state legislature seek to restrict teaching concepts related to race and ethnicity in schools. One of the bills, House Bill 2458, would allow parents and students to file complaints against possible violators, who could be fined up to $5,000.
Preston and his NIEA colleague in Oklahoma, Stephanie Hawk, said the anti-CRT measures have a deterrent effect on teachers, who are uncertain about what is safe to teach. In Oklahoma, which has the country’s third-largest Indigenous population, Hawk said the downgraded accreditation of two school districts—Tulsa and Mustang—accused of violating HB 1775, has essentially halted instruction on the state’s rich Indigenous heritage. In Tulsa Public Schools, a teacher complained about a staff training video on implicit bias, while the incident at Mustang Public Schools involved an anti-bullying activity that reportedly made students feel uncomfortable.
“Educators are very fearful on how to even start that discussion, much less continue to teach it in the classroom,” Hawk said. “And so they just don’t, so there is no Native history being taught.”
Back in South Dakota, Tilsen-Brave Heart recalled that until the executive order, she had been encouraged by efforts of educators, parents, and advocates to expand Indigenous teaching and hoped it would benefit her older children, Payton, 16, and Paloma, 11, who attend public schools.
Over the years, schools have provided limited instruction that at times has portrayed Indigenous people “as though we are like some ancient construct, like dinosaurs, rather than modern Native Indigenous people here who are thriving, owning businesses, becoming doctors, lawyers, and being fully participatory in the community,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart.
The businesswoman and chef (who focuses on Indigenous foods) said she plans to keep her daughter at the Oceti Sakowin Community Academy. Pia is quickly absorbing the Lakota language, her mother said. “She can do a traditional prayer in Lakota. She knows all of her numbers to 20 in Lakota and she can count to 100 in English. She also knows all of her colors in Lakota, and she knows simple phrases.”
Mary Bowman, a Hunkpapa/Oglala Lakota who taught in South Dakota’s public schools for 15 years, was the lead designer of the academy and is now at the helm. The first class of kindergarteners attends class tuition-free at the private school that, so far, has relied on donations, Bowman said. Plans are to seek accreditation and add a grade each year. Interest from families in enrolling their children is high, she said.
Bowman said the academy is culturally responsive, a place where students can feel they belong and where they see themselves represented in the curriculum. She points to research showing that connecting students’ culture and language to their school experience helps them do better academically. “Our hope is that we eventually will help change the way that school districts educate Indigenous kids,” she said.
Tilsen-Brave Heart said doing away with discussions on race and equity in schools is a leap backward. “We should be moving forward,” she said, “and we should recognize everyone’s history and the authentic history of the United States and all that it is.”