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Public education about Native American culture may look a lot different today than in previous generations.

A presentation Thursday by local educators highlighted some of the triumphs and challenges in Native American education. It was part of a running Native American Lecture series that covers topics like poverty, literature and education.

Thursday's presentation was held in front of 20 attendees at the Billings Public Library. It featured Glenda McCarthy, instructional coach who specializes in Indian education for Billings Public Schools, and Reno Charette, director of American Indian Outreach for Montana State University Billings.

McCarthy discussed some of the successes at the high school level. She said that at a basic level, the schools have introduced American Indian activities and programs that value students' cultures and enlightens the student body.

The level of education on these topics is better than they were a generation ago, she said, and a far cry from the days of boarding schools, which operated with the goal assimilation at the turn of the 20th century.

"I feel the legacy of trust in mainstream education is something that still needs to be overcome," she said.

Singular activities, like a cross-curricular medicine circle at Billings Senior, incorporate those cultures in the schools, McCarthy said. Larger institutional programs include teacher-student mentor programs, which help combat a 20-percent gap in graduation rates for American Indian students in Montana.

On the individual level, McCarthy said that she's seen better grades as well for students involved in the program.

"By the end of the year, their failed class rate is cut in half," she said.

She also discussed some challenges in teaching Native American culture to all students. They include a more accurate depiction of history, and the issues that have been carried through generations to the current day.

"I've had successfully graduating students say to me, 'White people don't want to learn my history,'" McCarthy said.

She showed an example of a history textbook that depicted a reservation as a plot of land given to American Indian tribes from the U.S. government rather than as areas reserved after the original territory was overtaken by white settlers.

Other books, McCarthy said, don't cover topics like tribal sovereignty, which teachers must supplement. She said that teaching the full history — the good and the bad — will benefit students most.

Charette spoke about her work at the university level. She said that in addition to programs like student groups, she said the Montana University System has created more Native American studies course offerings. 

To Charette, one of the most important aspects of Native American culture that can be covered at the university level is language. Fluency in the language is one of the most intimate ways to know a culture, she said.

"Only through the tribal language can you truly retain the culture," she said.

Charette said that there are offerings for early-level Native American language courses, but there is a lack of upper-level courses. She said that she'd like to see tribal language as part of a regular curriculum.

What Charette and McCarthy both highlighted is the community vision for Native American education. The topics are central to history, especially locally, and the students are fellow community members.

McCarthy said that those education topics benefit everyone. And for Charette, who said that the biggest challenge is to get more college degrees for Native American students, the focus should go beyond the classroom.

"My point was that we can't do that just on our own," Charette said. "Because it's not just an institutional concern, it's a community concern."

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