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Survey results indicate nearly two-thirds of South Dakota public school educators are teaching the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, but the number of respondents is lower than the last survey.

The essential understandings are a set of standards approved in 2018 for teaching students about Native American culture and history. “Oceti Sakowin” is the collective term for Lakota, Dakota and Nakota speaking Native Americans, many of whom live in South Dakota. There are nine tribal nations within the state.

[Editor's Note: This article was first published by the South Dakota Searchlight. Used with permission. All rights reserved.)

About 62% of teachers are using the standards, based on a survey conducted by the state Department of Education in 2023 — a “remarkable increase” from 45% in 2021, said Fred Osborn, director of the Office of Indian Education, which is under the supervision of the state Department of Tribal Relations. He presented the survey results to the Indian Education Advisory Council earlier this month.

Use of the standards is optional. The survey is used to understand how the standards are being implemented, and to help state officials encourage statewide adoption.

“The key is there’s improvement,” Osborn said. “It’s not perfect yet. There’s still work to be done, but we’ve come a long way from 45% of teachers. We hope that increases every year.”

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Osborn added that the Office of Indian Education provided 10,000 copies of books on the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings through a Bush Foundation grant since the first survey, and sent out education packets for all grade levels last fall.

Fewer survey responses

Only about 385 educators took part in the 2023 survey, compared to 554 in 2021. 

The 2023 survey also does not list how many public school districts were represented in the survey, whereas 2021’s survey had responses from 125 of the state’s 149 school districts. The school district identification question was changed between 2021 and 2023, said department spokesperson Nancy Van Der Weide. The department does not have any data to determine how many school districts were represented in the latest survey.

Removing the school district identification question allowed participants more anonymity, Van Der Weide told South Dakota Searchlight.

Neither Osborn nor any members of the council addressed the potential impact of fewer responses on the validity of the survey results. The survey was voluntary and available for one month, Van Der Weide said, with a notice placed in a newsletter sent to teachers throughout the state. 

“Those educators who did respond provided informed recommendations,” Van Der Weide said in an emailed statement. “Some of those were educators who already incorporate a lot of OSEUs in their classrooms, while others were those who wanted to make them a part of their instruction and responded with ideas for tools that would help them to incorporate the standards into their classrooms.”

Advisory council member Sherry Johnson, tribal education director for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, helped shaped the standards and is participating in the standards update. She doubts the survey is an accurate representation of how the standards are being used in the state.

“We have pockets of the state that are doing well, but it’s not pervasive. It’s not required,” Johnson said. “If nothing else, there should be direct teacher training and a mandate to have this Indian education for all.”

Megan Deal, a second-grade teacher in Pierre and a member of the advisory council, said her school participated in a pilot program to help create lesson plans for standards at each grade level, but not all teachers incorporated the teachings into their classrooms.

“I don’t think they’re being taught at very many schools around the state at this time,” Deal said.

Council member Brian Wagner, tribal education director with the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, said he is concerned about the lack of “teeth” with the standards. Lawmakers have introduced bills to require use of the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings in classrooms, but those efforts have failed in the Legislature.

“Knowledge is power,” Wagner said. “If people don’t learn about history, then we risk repeating it, and unfortunately the history repeating would be the racism and the discrimination that many tribal members have experienced because people don’t understand tribal sovereignty or the treaties and the treaty rights.”

Impact expected from social studies standards

Though the standards are optional, said Secretary of South Dakota Department of Education Joseph Graves, the new social studies standards that will be implemented by 2025 will include references to the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings. Those will encourage more teachers to use the cultural standards, he said.

“We’re going to find more Native American history and culture being taught in the schools than ever before,” Graves said. “This is actually a move forward, not a move back. I think the social studies standards have gotten an unfair black eye, and I think once you see these in place you’ll find we’re teaching more of it rather than less and, I think, from an enlightened perspective.”

The social studies standards controversy started in 2021 because the department removed more than a dozen references to the Oceti Sakowin from a committee’s draft revision of social studies standards. After Gov. Kristi Noem formed a new work group and ordered the process to start over, the group produced standards that drew criticism for an emphasis on rote memorization over inquiry-based learning.

Graves added that the department plans to provide teachers with weekly materials to help them utilize the social studies standards and encourage them to use the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings.

According to the 2023 survey results, about 84% of educators said they were aware of the standards, and 77% said it is important to implement the standards in every classroom. Only 55% of teachers said they knew the concepts well enough to teach them, but that was an 18 point increase from 2021.

Nearly 40 administrators took part in their administrator survey in 2023, compared to 164 in 2021. The 2023 survey does not list how many public school districts were represented in the administrator survey.

Nearly 80% of administrators said it’s important to implement the standards in every classroom, but two-thirds of administrators indicated a lack of confidence to implement the standards in their schools, while 56% reported an uncertainty about how to integrate the standards and 44% cited a concern for the appropriateness of the content — an increase of 28 points from the 2021 survey.

The survey does not address how using the standards affects Native American student achievement, but Osborn said it would be “interesting to cross analyze” that.

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