Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, never learned her own history and culture in schools. She spoke with Sahan Journal about her work to fund Indigenous education and ethnic studies for all Minnesota students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | MPR News

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Peggy Flanagan never learned her own history and culture when she was growing up in St. Louis Park in the 1980s and 1990s.

“When you don’t see yourself reflected in your teachers or curriculum, there is an impact,” she told Sahan Journal. “To be really candid, it made me feel like I was invisible in my own classroom.”

But soon, the old Eurocentric approach, with its absence of Indigenous voices, will be history. Under new proposed Minnesota social studies standards, kindergarteners will learn about Indigenous communities’ relationships to land and water; sixth-graders will study how the Anishinaabe and Dakota practice tribal rights today; and high school students will learn Indigenous perspectives on settlers’ westward expansion alongside the theory of “manifest destiny.” In addition to learning Indigenous perspectives on history, students will study contemporary Indigenous communities.

Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and Minnesota’s lieutenant governor, has played an instrumental role in the campaign for more accurate Indigenous history in Minnesota schools. It’s an integral piece of the larger push, years in the making, to diversify both the state’s teacher workforce and its curriculum. And this year, with Minnesota at the epicenter of a national racial reckoning, those efforts are bearing fruit.

In June, the Minnesota legislature tripled funding for programs to increase the state’s teachers of color. That legislation included an increase in funding for the Minnesota Indian Teacher Training Program, and greater flexibility so that more of those students can receive more college aid. When the ongoing social studies standards revision process concludes, Minnesota is poised to introduce ethnic studies as a core discipline statewide.

And through the Minnesota Department of Education operating budget, the state committed $1.3 million over two years for Indigenous education. Those operating budget funds will translate into curriculum resources and expert staff to help teachers and districts improve their lessons.

That sum includes: 

  • $450,000 for development of curricular resources on Indigenous history and contemporary knowledge 
  • $150,000 annually to the Tribal Nations Education Committee to consult with state officials on standards, curriculum, and professional development
  • Two full-time expert staff to help districts implement Indigenous education standards and oversee curricular resources. 

The department also funded a full-time staff member to implement ethnic studies as part of the social studies standards. 

Then, through American Rescue Plan funding, Governor Tim Walz’s administration allocated $250,000 annually for tribal relations training for superintendents and charter school leaders. This professional development program aims to improve school leaders’ interactions with American Indian students and families, and better incorporate cultural perspectives into curriculum and family engagement activities.

Flanagan hopes these initiatives will help future generations of students see themselves and each other reflected in their schooling. It’s a step forward, Flanagan told Sahan Journal, in making sure “the full history of Minnesota is reflected in our schools, curriculum, and in our teaching workforce.” 

Ahead of Indigenous Peoples Day, Sahan Journal called Flanagan about the efforts to improve Indigenous education and ethnic studies for all Minnesota students.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

One barrier to implementing new standards can be that many teachers never learned ethnic studies or Indigenous education in their own schooling. And that can make it hard for them to teach it. How will the curricular resources and professional development line items in this budget address that?

This policy came about because we had countless conversations with tribal leaders in Minnesota, and this was the number one thing that they asked for. Just to speak to that for a moment, as Native people oftentimes we have to start a conversation. There’s a 10 to 15 minute preamble: the history of Mni Sota Makoce, before Minnesota was Minnesota. The fact that we are still here and contemporary people. 

And honestly, these are conversations that I had when I was in the legislature: that Native people are still here, that we still exist. And as you can imagine, that has implications for the kind of policies that are passed generally in the state and the kind of conversations that we can have. So I just wanted to name that as a thing that’s important. 

It is not lost on me that we need to do a better job preparing our teachers for the students who are in their classroom. I certainly get asked on the regular for students who are going into teaching at the college level, to talk to them about American Indian Studies and education. 

I always recommend to students before I talk to them to read Boarding School Seasons by Dr. Brenda Child. That is a really important foundational text so that folks can understand if there’s distrust between Native families and public schools, there’s a reason for that. School is not a safe place for folks. For our family it’s one generation removed. 

That’s where the new tribal relations training for school leaders is really critical. Being able to build that out and offer that to more districts and educators I think will help, and to also create space where folks can say I don’t know. Googling something is not always the best option. We can give real resources to teachers across the state.

Going back to what you were saying about distrust, a recent survey from APM Research Lab showed that Indigenous Minnesotans have lower levels of trust in the state’s K–12 schools than any other ethnic group. What are some of the reasons for that? And do you think that providing ethnic studies and Indigenous education can help mend a history of distrust?

I certainly hope so. And that’s why these policies are so important. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that Native folks have the most distrust of the educational system when our children were literally stolen out of the arms of their parents and placed in boarding schools. We are just finally having public conversations about the impact of boarding schools on just every aspect of how we exist in this world. It’s deep and it’s traumatic. And as I mentioned, that’s one generation removed for my family. It’s so recent. 

My first job out of college was to help to bridge that gap between home and school for Native kids and their families, and it continues to be part of my vocation.

Growing up, I was one of a handful of Native students in St. Louis Park. Fortunately for my daughter, that has changed tremendously, and there are so many more Native students in her school and in her classroom. But the history of my family and our culture wasn’t represented in our curriculum or in our lessons.

When you don’t see yourself reflected in your teachers or curriculum, there is an impact. There is an emotional impact. To be really candid, it made me feel like I was invisible in my own classroom. 

When you don’t see yourself reflected in your teachers or curriculum, there is an impact. There is an emotional impact. To be really candid, it made me feel like I was invisible in my own classroom.

peggy flanagan

It wasn’t until I got to the University of Minnesota and was a sophomore that I walked into the classroom and saw a teacher, Dr. Brenda Child, who looked like me, and who was teaching about Ojibwe culture and history. Who we are as Indigenous people historically, but also who we are as contemporary people. That changed everything for me. And you shouldn’t have to wait until you’re 19 years old to really feel like you’re getting a robust educational experience. 

That is what we are working to change so that pre-K students through 12 really get the full picture of who we are. 

I think that will change. I think making sure that our Black, Indigenous, and students of color see themselves reflected in their curriculum, and that it is taught in a way that also makes them feel valued, is a game changer. I think many of us just know that instinctually. 

But now we have the data and we can work to change it. Making sure curriculum reflects the students in the classroom. That teachers are prepared to teach about it. And that our teachers reflect the students in their classroom and have a deep knowledge and understanding of the backgrounds of the students in that classroom.

As we are approaching Indigenous Peoples Day, this is yet again an opportunity for us to recommit to telling our young people the truth, because they can handle it, and they deserve to know it.

peggy flanagan

As a recovering school board member, these are some of the same conversations that we were having many years ago and have been building on. As we are approaching Indigenous Peoples Day, this is yet again an opportunity for us to recommit to telling our young people the truth, because they can handle it, and they deserve to know it. 

Simply, it is who we are as Minnesotans and we shouldn’t shy away from that. 

The push for Indigenous education through the social studies standards has been getting some pushback from the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment. Their email template to the department of education specifically complained about the centering of Indigenous voices and asks, “Why are Indigenous voices given this special treatment?” 

Knowing the history of Mni Sota Makoce is incredibly important for all students. We are on the traditional homelands of Dakota and Anishnaabe people, and we have always been here. We’re still here and we’ll continue to be here into the future. That’s important for folks to know. And I think it’s an opportunity for people of color and Indigenous folks to also have their voices heard, because for a very long time we have heard one perspective on our culture and history in this country. 

As we’re approaching Indigenous Peoples Day on the 11th, it is up to all of us to tell the full true history of our state so that our Indigenous children, including my own daughter, across Minnesota can grow up in a society where they’re seen, heard and valued. All students in Minnesota will benefit from that. 

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.