Federal Policy And Tribal Sovereignty

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Jordann Lankford-Forster. an educator and an IEFA instructional coach for Great Falls Public Schools in Great Falls, Montana. Jordann is A’aniiih and Anishinaabe, and her A’aniiih name is Bright Trail Woman. Other posts in this series can be found here.

American Indian Federal policy has historically played a significant role in tribal sovereignty. This is always a difficult subject to explain because it is so multifaceted. Prior to colonization, tribal sovereignty was exercised absolutely, with tribes interacting on a government-to-government basis, and under total self-sufficiency. Today, major contributing factors to achieving total sovereignty include location, access to resources, and relationship status with the Federal Government. It is important to remember that tribal sovereignty—or the ability to remain separate and independent—looks different for every tribe. As (the 574) tribes and individual American Indians navigate their future, the Constitution is continually referenced as a means to gain a strong foothold within the country that we now know as the United States of America. 

I teach in a small district in Great Falls, Montana. Our student population is 16.5 percent American Indian and 44 different tribes are represented within our school system. My district is considered “urban” because it is in a city rather than located on a reservation. In 1972 the Montana Constitution was revised to recognize the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians”  and to be “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” And, as a district, we are continually trying to ensure we honor that. At times, it is difficult for my students because they do not always feel like they have a sense of identity within this country.

Mixed Messages

Now more than ever students are bombarded with information on social media platforms and watch political leaders and their parents alike argue over various social issues. The need for a strong foundation is vital for student success and when everyone around you seems to be divided, it is difficult to know where to turn. The goal of an educator should never be, “I want to teach my students to think exactly as I do.” The goal should always be, “I want my students to evaluate information and think critically for themselves.” The primary source document we know as the Constitution does exactly that. It is more than teaching them right from wrong. I want my students to know the Constitution and apply it when they find themselves buried, without a sense of direction. 

Teaching our students the Constitution is essentially teaching them justice, and if you know your rights have been infringed upon, you will understand how to take the proper steps to correct your circumstance. I have a simplified version of all 27 Amendments on my classroom wall, which we review daily. 

Every morning I ask my excited learners to locate a credible news source and report on a “current event.” After they read and summarize their article, we talk about how they feel about it. We refer to the Amendments often, and discuss how some of them may apply. The big takeaway here is that they are listening to each others’ opinions, and finding solid ground on their own. 

Timeline Activity 

The most effective way to incite learning is to disrupt the learner’s schema. In other words, take what they believe to be true and present information that startles world views, usually leading to amazing conversations. An exercise I do with my students and the educators I instructionally coach is what I call the “timeline activity.”

  • First, I make a list of significant events (not including dates) concerning American Indian Federal policy and cut each one into its own strip of paper. 
  • Second, I mix them up and divide the students into groups.
  • Then I ask the groups to discuss and place the strips of paper containing a significant event in the order that they believe the events occurred. 
  • It is important to put identifying makers among the events so that students have some frame of reference. (for example, Lewis and Clark Expedition, World War I, World War 2, etc.).
  • After the groups believe they have the correct order, or have tried their best, read them the correct order of events.

This is where it gets interesting. Students and staff alike are shocked to understand the historical timeline of Federal Indian Policy within the United States. For instance, when they learn that American Indians officially became citizens in 1924 under the Snider Act but did not receive the freedom of religion until 1978, a new perspective is introduced. I always find myself asking, “Is this Constitutional?”

We the People

The purpose of the previous activity is not to incite blame, shame, or guilt. The purpose of this activity is to remind others that not all Americans have experienced the same rights guaranteed by the Constitution and, thus, may not have experienced all of the same success that we see in the mainstream today. As soon as we come to that realization we can better understand each other, and ourselves. The standard that has been set by the false Facebook “warrior” culture could potentially be a distant memory when we stop trying to be right, and begin to actually listen.

The Constitution is a very freeing document and once students are acquainted with it, they understand their personal rights, and their self worth as an American.  The Constitution has not been applied perfectly in the past but, I believe we are moving in the right direction when it comes to tribal sovereignty. This document, when taken into account, provides personal autonomy and self-actualization.  It all begins with understanding your rights and how the Constitution can be used to serve your people. I want my students to be able to walk anywhere, and fear nothing.

Additional Reading Materials

Lopach, J.J., Brown, M.J., & Clow, R.L. (1990). Tribal Government Today. (2nd ed.). Boulder: University of Press Colorado.

Montana Office of Public Instruction. (2021). “Indian Education For All.”  https://opi.mt.gov/Educators/Teaching-Learning/Indian-Education-for-All

Prucha, F.P. (2000). Documents of United Sates Indian Policy. (3rd ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska. 

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