You may not have learned it in Minnesota public schools, but this state's history and identity are interwoven with and influenced by the culture and experiences of Indigenous tribes.
"Here we are in Mni Sota, right? It's a Dakota word," said Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the force behind a push by Gov. Tim Walz's administration to improve how state schools teach Indigenous history and to improve the school experience for students from tribal backgrounds.
Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, one among a group of Great Lakes-area tribes that collectively make up the Anishinaabeg. And as Flanagan notes, another tribe with long historical roots to the south gave the state its name: "Minnesota" is derived from the Dakota phrase Mni Sota Makoce, which means "lands where the waters reflect the clouds."
"We have Indigenous place names all over the state," Flanagan said. "Our young people should know the background of where they live, whose land this is."
The Indigenous-focused initiatives include money for culturally relevant prekindergarten learning for American Indian children, scholarships for American Indian students pursuing teaching careers and a new program to provide tribal relations training for school administrators. It's one part of a raft of education proposals from the Walz administration aimed at improving racial equity and reducing gaps in school performance between students of color and white students.
In moving schools toward what the administration describes as an "accurate history of Minnesota's Indigenous people," Flanagan also wants to influence the development of a new social studies curriculum in public schools, currently up for cyclical review.
These new initiatives make up $8.9 million in proposed new spending over the next two years. That's a small amount compared to total state education spending, and key Republican lawmakers signaled they are open to the pitch.
"I welcome more voices to the table, we always have more to learn," said Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, chairman of the Senate Education Finance and Policy Committee. But he gave a nod to the kind of cultural flash points that can arise in debates over identity-based curriculum: "I would not want to lose other historical events though."
Tribal educators have long seen a need for state schools to provide a more fully developed picture of Minnesota's Indigenous history and culture.
"Public schools are built on the white lifestyle. That's the first thing people need to understand," said Gerald White, the Indian Education Coordinator at the Deer River Independent School District, which overlaps with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation.
Deer River schools are divided about half and half between white students and Ojibwe students, said Superintendent Jeff Pesta.
"As a district, either we're going to be responsive to the cultural needs of those families or they're going to go somewhere else," Pesta said.
The district offers Ojibwe language instruction, despite what Pesta said is difficulty finding qualified teachers. It also includes things like art, music, beading, dress work, Native drumming and dance classes.
"Over time, more and more of the Anglo community has enrolled in our cultural courses," Pesta said.
The demographics in Deer River compelled more inclusive options. School districts with minimal enrollment of tribal members aren't likely to go that deep, but tribal educators like White believe all students in every corner of Minnesota need a more nuanced history of Indigenous people.
Right now, Minnesota sixth-graders have a Native history unit. "But it's got no teeth to it, and most teachers will hardly go at all into the true history and Native culture," White said. Many steer away for fear of being seen as choosing sides in thorny cultural debates, he said.
Tribes in Minnesota and their leaders, frustrated by what they see lacking in school curricula, are undertaking their own efforts to shape perceptions.
"There's an invisibility of Native people in modern culture, here in Minnesota and across the nation," said Rebecca Crooks-Stratton, secretary/treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.
At the end of 2019, the tribe launched an educational and philanthropic campaign, "Understand Native Minnesota," and is hoping to partner with schools, foundations and other groups to "shed light on Indigenous contributions past, present and future, to help people understand tribal sovereignty, and tribal contributions to local economies."
In calling for an "accurate history" of Minnesota's Indigenous history, the Walz administration proposed an initial round of $1.3 million in competitive grants for curriculum development, a separate grant to the Tribal Nations Education Committee and two new positions in the Department of Education's Academic Standards Division.
The goal is to "hear, learn and understand the contributions of our tribal nations, and to make sure we're doing that not just for our Indigenous students but also our entire school population," said Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller.
State Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, is a retired social studies teacher who has published a trilogy of historical novels about the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He said he thinks there's room to improve how Minnesota schools teach Indigenous history.
"A lot of what you see doesn't get past the cowboys and Indians stage. When I taught, I tried to give, I think, a fuller picture of the culture," Urdahl said. But he said students, parents, teachers and school leaders would have to be prepared to grapple with a history "that's not all roses for everybody."
"If you tell the full story of the history of Indigenous people and of the white settlers that encountered them, there's good and bad things on both sides that should be part of the full telling of the story," Urdahl said.
Within the broader context of the Walz administration's push to reduce Minnesota's achievement gap, critics will be watching to see if changes proposed to better serve Indigenous and other students of color will bring measurable improvements in test scores and graduation rates.
"The plan makes no mention of student outcomes. We're always ensuring this and ensuring that," said Bill Walsh, communications director for the Center for the American Experiment, which supports broader school choice options. "Ensuring students receive an accurate history of Indigenous people, that's an input. That's not going to lower an achievement gap on its face."
Flanagan said she believes a school experience that better represents a diversity of student backgrounds will deliver a measurable impact. A product of St. Louis Park public schools, Flanagan said she got a good education but that "it definitely came from one side, one perspective."
It wasn't until her sophomore year at the University of Minnesota, she said, that she finally experienced teachers and curriculum that reflected her own identity. That should happen earlier for more students, Flanagan said: "That changed everything for me. I threw myself into my studies. It really made a difference. My story's not unique."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413