The North Dakota Department of Public Instruction plans to integrate Native American culture and history into classroom instruction as part of a project that compiled interviews of Native American elders in the state. In addition, culturally relevant lesson plans and other curriculum were developed for teachers to use.

DPI launched its Native American Essential Understanding Project in 2015, which is a mirror of Montana's Indian Education For All program and the WoLakota project in South Dakota, according to Lucy Fredericks, director of DPI's office of Indian and multicultural education.

The first half of the project included interviews of elders from four federally recognized tribes in North Dakota: the Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain, Spirit Lake and Standing Rock reservations. These elders identified seven "essential understandings" that all students, Native and non-Native, across the state should know about the tribes.

“I think it’s been something that we’ve needed to have,” Fredericks said. "There have been pockets here and there, like teachers teaching about Native Americans in North Dakota, but it’s usually only during Native American month or during a unit. But what we would like to see is for it to be included in all content areas, all grade levels.”

On Tuesday, DPI held its second two-day training session for teachers and administrators at the Comfort Inn in Bismarck. Fifty-two people signed up for Tuesday's training, Fredericks said.

The next steps with the project will be to do professional development for teachers and implement lesson plans and curriculum into all schools in North Dakota, Fredericks said.

“We have almost a 10 percent Native American (student) population in North Dakota … so, why not develop culturally relevant curriculum or awareness for all schools in North Dakota?" Fredericks said.

North Dakota held its first Indian Education Summit in Bismarck in 2014. At that time, Denise Juneau, the Montana superintendent of public instruction, shared details about her state's program. In 1972, Montana voters approved a constitutional amendment, adding language to preserve Native American culture in the state. The Montana Indian Education for All Act passed in 1999, and, in 2005, lawmakers tied money to the program.

“The idea was borrowed from Montana to say that we needed essential understandings, that all citizens in the state of North Dakota need to have a better understanding of the origin of our state so we could all become better, more informed citizens," said State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler.

The goal of the project also is to boost graduation rates of Native American students, Baesler said.

“Our belief is that there’s a link," Baesler said. "When we are able to become more culturally sensitive and have our teachers have a better understanding of what our Native American students have experienced, or what their culture and beliefs are, that they’ll be better able to teach them."

Baesler said she held recent tribal consultation meetings at the four reservations in the state, and a recurring theme she heard from tribal leaders — and school district officials living near reservations — was a desire for students across North Dakota to have more knowledge and understanding of Native American language, culture and history.

The third annual Indian Education Summit will be held in Bismarck in July, when there will be another opportunity to provide the training, Baesler said.

Funding for the next phase of the project, including professional development for teachers, will be incorporated into DPI's existing budget for the next two years, according to Baesler, who said no new funding will be allocated for the training.

“We have a lot of hopes, and we’re very optimistic about it," Baesler said of the project.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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