SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — After the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE) revised a draft of the social studies content standard to exclude mentions of Native American culture and history in 2021, Governor Kristi Noem and the DOE threw out the content standards with the promise of starting the process over to include a diverse set of voices.
Dr. Sherry Johnson was one of two Native American voices that were a part of the 44-person workgroup to revise social studies content standards last year. She said she felt disrespected to learn that the Department of Education had removed references to Native American culture and history that she and the group worked to address.
Johnson says that after looking at the new 15-person commission that’s been put together by Gov. Noem and the DOE she’s worried about what this will mean for inclusion compared to the group she was a part of.
“I felt very comfortable, very embraced by the number of educators in there,” Johnson said. “We’re going into a workgroup now where we have, what, three? And they were handpicked.”
In the former social studies content standards workgroup, two members were Native American with 70% of the group certified by the DOE and 13% with lapsed certifications. In the newly formed commission, the Native American representation has increased to three members with only 20% of the group being certified by the DOE.
While Native voices now make up 20% of the much smaller commission, some people have pushed back saying that the representation of Native Americans on the commission is not enough.
In an email sent to KELOLAND News Thursday morning, Governor Noem’s communication director, Ian Fury, said that the three Native Americans selected is more than double the representation that Native Americans have in South Dakota’s population (9%).
“Governor Noem recognized that Native American history and culture is an important part of South Dakota’s history, so she ensured that Native Americans were more than represented with seats at the table,” Fury said.
Joe Circle Bear with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Tamara St. John with the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe, and Stephanie Hiatt with the Florida Seminole tribe were selected by the governor and DOE to sit on the commission.
Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert told KELOLAND News that the inclusion of only two South Dakota Native Americans with an understanding of Oceti Sakowin standards shows a lack of understanding by the governor about Native people in South Dakota.
“The governor has stacked this committee in a way that is not representative of South Dakota,” Heinert said.
Heinert said he believes that the Noem administration does not think the Native experience has a place in education based on previous content standards.
“I think it’s going to be another attempt by this administration to water down or dilute what it means to be Native in this state,” Heinert said.
For Johnson, she’s concerned with the work the former workgroup did to address large gaps in Native American history. For example, she said the group worked to address large gaps of missing history in content standards that jumped from settlers arriving in America in the 1600s to the creation of reservations in 1851.
“There are 200 years of Native American history that are just not mentioned, there’s a huge gap there,” Johnson said.
Both Heinert and Johnson expressed concerns with the governor’s recent executive order banning Critical Race Theory (CRT) from K-12 classrooms and how that action relates to the newly formed commission that she had a hand in selecting.
Johnson pointed to the following passage from the executive order as a point of concern:
“They should be exposed to a diversity of ideas and perspectives, be empowered to think for themselves, and be equipped with the knowledge and context to better understand our history and the world around them…”
“In the standards itself, there are no other perspectives than the settlers,” Johnson said of the current social studies standards.
Johnson added that she believes the governor’s signature on the 1776 Action Pledge is connected to what is happening in South Dakota history education. The pledge states its goal as making “honest, patriotic” education and “correct egregious instances of anti-American indoctrination.”
In her State of the State address, Gov. Noem mentioned the pledge saying that as social studies standards are updated, they “must reflect America’s true and honest history.” She added that Native American history would be a part of that.
“Our tribal culture and heritage are essential to who we are as a state,” Noem said.
Johnson said that learning and understanding Native history is important for resiliency and identity, but she fears that Native American history will be erased in the standards.
“I don’t think that Native American people will be acknowledged, and any part of their history will be included,” Johnson said. “I’m very concerned.”
Heinert expressed similar concerns calling the current commission ’embarrassing.’
“This governor has put political rhetoric ahead of actually trying to improve educational outcomes for all kids,” Heinert said.
Heinert said that the inclusion of Oceti Sakowin understandings and Native American history are a benefit to all students, but he doesn’t have faith in the current commission due to the lack of educators and experience with Native students.
“When we have a better understanding of who our populous is, of Natives in this state, then that’s going to translate into the workforce and how we work with others,” Heinert said. “That’s also going to give Native kids a chance to be who they are.”
The inclusion of events such as assimilation, boarding school, and Indian Relocation are part of Native American and South Dakota history and should be included, Johnson said.
“Good or bad, it’s a part of our history and it still needs to be taught,” Johnson said.