South Dakota Political News guest column: In South Dakota, students need to learn Native American history, and they also need to learn how our tribal communities fit into the state today.

(From The SDWC’s sister site at Enjoy!)

Tony Venhuizen, Sioux Falls, holds a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from South Dakota State University, and a law degree from the University of South Dakota. Venhuizen is a member of the South Dakota Board of Regents, and previously served as chief of staff and education policy advisor in the administrations of Gov. Kristi Noem and Gov. Dennis Daugaard.

South Dakota’s proposed social studies content standards have been in the news recently.  These standards cover history, civics and government, geography, and economics, and are set by the state so that students cover the same high-level topics as they progress through school. Curriculum – that is, what is taught each day and what textbooks and materials are used – is decided locally by school boards, administrators, and teachers. 

The current standards were written in 2015. This summer, a committee of educators prepared a new draft.  The Department of Education revised that draft and released a new proposal a few weeks ago.  Much of the media coverage so far has focused on the changes the Department made to the summer draft, specifically relating to Native American history and culture.

I have reviewed all three versions of the standards and, although I appreciate the summer committee’s work, I can understand why the Department made changes.

The study of American history needs to include Native American history.  In South Dakota, students need to learn this history, and they also need to learn how our tribal communities fit into the state today.

The current 2015 standards make specific mention of Native American topics 6 times, by my count.  That doesn’t seem like enough, although my count doesn’t include standards that likely lead to discussion of Native American topics – for example, when 5th graders are asked to “describe the role of trading in early U.S. History,” it is very likely that the curriculum will include a discussion of trade with the tribal nations. 

The Department’s 2021 proposal improves on the current standards by increasing the number of specific mentions of Native American or tribal topics from 6 to 28, again by my count.

The summer draft standards mention Native American or tribal topics 63 times.  This is far out of proportion to other topics.  For comparison, the summer draft mentions topics relating to the U.S. Constitution 24 times; the American Revolution 8 times; the Declaration of Independence 5 times; the Civil War 5 times; the abolition of slavery 1 time; and the Second World War 4 times.

I will admit that merely counting references to a certain topic is a crude and imprecise way to evaluate the standards.  Having read all three versions of the standards, though, I can say that the summer draft makes Native American and tribal topics the single most prevalent topic in the entirety of K-12 social studies. 

I would offer a more specific example to illustrate the same point.  The summer draft includes only four specific standards for 1st Grade History:  “Demonstrate chronological order using events from students’ own lives,” “Examine historical records and artifacts to learn about family and school life in the past,” “Connect people and events honored in commemorative celebrations and ceremonies,” and “Discuss the Oceti Sakowin Oyate creation story, including correct chronological order of the story.”  The last standard is far more specific than the others, and it seems odd in any case to require that a history class cover the creation story of one particular religious tradition.

This heavy emphasis is hard to understand, given that South Dakota already makes available to every school the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards, a set of specific Native American K-12 standards that were written with tribal involvement and adopted in 2018.

The summer draft has other problems.  It adds a requirement that 8th graders learn about “The Constitution as a living document,” a view of the Constitution that is rejected by many lawyers and judges and should not be taught as settled fact.  The draft also removed specific reference in 3rd Grade history to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, and instead just says that should “compare and contrast historical American figures.”  The Department draft fixed both problems.

The Department’s proposed standards are an improvement.  Compared to the current standards, they increase coverage of U.S. history and government and of South Dakota-specific topics.  They emphasize the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the structure of our federal, state, local, and tribal governments, and key historical events like the Revolution, the Civil War, both World Wars, and the Cold War.  As I already described, they greatly increase coverage of Native American topics, including tribal history and government.

Yet, there is always room to improve.  The Department will be soliciting feedback in the coming months, in writing and during four in-person hearings, starting this week in Aberdeen.  I would encourage you to read each version of the standards for yourself and make your own judgments.  We owe it to our young people to get this right.


Social studies standards, adopted 2015 (“current standards”):

Draft social studies standards prepared by summer 2021 committee (“summer draft”):

Department of Education proposed social studies standards (“Department’s proposed”):

Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards (adopted 2018):

7 thoughts on “South Dakota Political News guest column: In South Dakota, students need to learn Native American history, and they also need to learn how our tribal communities fit into the state today.”

  1. Maybe you could educate governor noem since she treats the Native American community like second-class citizens

    1. Living near a reservation, it’s not the majority of whites who treat them like second-class citizens, it’s the tribe members themselves.

  2. Tony,

    I couldn’t agree more. I grew up on the edge of a reservation so Indian culture and history was in many ways just part of the life because Indians were my friends and I ate and slept in their homes. But, what I learned in school about all of South Dakota history was mostly dates and stuff. Not real history about the people, their motivations, their struggles and yes their battles (political and actual battles) because I think their was a concern about the sensibilities of both the Sioux/Arikara/Ree kids and us German/Scandinavian/Irish/European Mutt kids to touch the issue in any way but the most superficially. Granted, in Jr. High, maybe it wasn’t quite time to talk about the murdering/slaughtering inhumanity because we kinda glossed over the same thing in the Civil War and World Wars.

    But we could have gotten hints instead of crickets. I specifically remember talking about the Verendrye plate and Mrs. Mickelson saying “That was when the French and Indians were friends” and never discussing when it changed to we weren’t friends. And, since the Wounded Knee occupation occurred when I was in Jr. High, it was at least certain we’d open the discussion some (I understand the gruesome aspects of history are best learned by adults)

    Finally, I love history and it is my #1 non-work reading activity (as well as almost all podcasts I listen to are history podcasts). What I’ve come to understand is history is not about dates and similar linear stuff but about people in a particular place and time. What motivated Queen Isabella of Spain to send Columbus west? Who was Columbus? How did George Washington become the man he became including freeing all his slaves up his death? And, on this subject, who were Ely Parker, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, William Jayne how did they become who they became and what was the pressures on them at that time and place that caused them to do what they did? This is the history of what happened and it will give us insight into the cultures of both the Indians and the settlers at that time, how we got reservations, and the impact of the past on the situation today.

    Without knowing the history, 99% of the “solutions” I hear are at best fantasies and at worst delusions but in no case helpful

  3. Interesting that the department cleaned up the syllabus to not let a native critical race theory curriculum develop. Things would look a whole lot different from the tribes!

    1. The answer to the misinformation and misperception about our history from mostly silence and a date-centered South Dakota history isn’t another form of misinformation as this post advocates.

      The DOE deserves credit for starting a process of developing a curriculum that will provide a solid base about our history and end gender a curiousity of life long learning of both our history and understanding of how history impacts our current reality.

  4. I don’t think it is wrong to teach kids that this wasn’t just vacant land before we showed up, lesson’s tend to gloss over that fact. Further, accepting that cultural norms differ from ours would go a long way with teaching tolerance. The red scare forced a big push of pro-capitalism / colonialism that I don’t think is needed as much anymore and has helped create the divide we see today. Live like me, or else you are my enemy!

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