It’s the year 1989. The voices of thousands of Native Americans across the state of Wisconsin are finally being heard and signed into law in this year’s biennial budget by Gov. Tommy Thompson at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. This is a hope for the end of systemic racism for Native Americans. This is a dream for a better education for all. This is Act 31: a law that requires Wisconsin public schools to instruct on the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of Wisconsin’s federally recognized tribes, while also guaranteeing all licensed teachers in Wisconsin have had training on those same topics to better equip their students with the knowledge.

The promise of Act 31 is that this would be woven into every Wisconsin student’s education, but the reality almost 30 years later is that, with no real enforcement or direction about how districts are supposed to incorporate it, the goal of the law hasn’t come to fruition. And the fear about losing Native American culture is still there.

How Did We Get Here?

Since the founding of our country, a multitude of treaties have been disbanded and disregarded by the United States government to attain more land and profit at the expense of Native Americans. As years progressed, relations between Native Americans and the government continued to weaken. The removal period began in the 19th century, which resulted in the displacement of Native Americans from their homes to government-created and-enforced reservations. This was followed by the boarding school era in the late 19th to 20th centuries and the adoption era in the mid- to late-20th century.

Native children were later forced by the federal government to attend boarding schools that ignored Native American language, culture and identity. This era ultimately weakened the Native culture for generations.

The adoption era had a similar goal of assimilating Native American children into white culture through the Indian Adoption Project. Authorities claimed that the adoption into white families would allow these children to live better lives.

These patterns affected the education of their children as well, which prompted three Oneida mothers to create an inter-tribal school in 1969, 20 years before Act 31 became law. This school is now known as the Indian Community School. These mothers feared for the safety of their children and their educational needs. They wanted to create a safe space where their Native American culture could thrive, according to the school.

This discrimination was echoed in everyday life in Wisconsin. One of the most high-profile events and catalysts of Act 31 is known as the “Walleye Wars.” In the 1980s, white Americans in northern Wisconsin protested Native Americans who were spearfishing on and off Ojibwe tribal water and land. These protestors believed it was unlawful for Native Americans to spearfish; however, in reality, they lacked the knowledge of the Native Americans’ tribal sovereignty, which allows them those gaming rights on the water.

Laura Hiebing, associate professor of American Indian studies at UW-Madison, says the Walleye Wars confirmed the pre-existing need for Act 31. She says it all boiled down to a lack of knowledge regarding treaties and the sovereignty of tribes. The disagreements and misunderstanding reinforced the idea that Wisconsin citizens were not educated on tribal law and the sovereignty of tribes.

Looking to the Public

Under the state law, public schools are required to include instruction on Native history, culture and tribal sovereignty at least twice in elementary school and once in high school. Often, this is incorporated into social studies lessons, but for some teachers in Wisconsin, social studies is the first lesson they cut out of their schedule if they don’t have enough time, according to Ali Hilsabeck, a non-tribal, fourth grade teacher at Schenk Elementary School.

Hilsabeck says the only enforcement mechanism she knows of is indicating on each student’s report card that they have learned these Native American topics; however, she doesn’t believe there is a larger enforcement mechanism from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The department declined to comment on the enforcement and goals of the law.

J.P. Leary, associate professor of First Nations at UW-Green Bay and author of “The Story of Act 31: How Native History Came to Wisconsin Classrooms,” believes that you can judge how well a school has instructed its students on Native American topics based upon the response from its alumni regarding Native American current events and ways of life. “We can evaluate our educational programs, not based on short-term measures, like test scores, but upon the actions of our alumni,” Leary told Wisconsin Public Television.

Nearly 60 years ago, Elmer L. Davids Sr., a Stockbridge-Munsee tribal member, posed a question at a conference in Chicago. “Is it fair to the Indian to use the textbooks in our public schools that tend to justify the acts of early settlers and make the poor Indian, resisting in proud self-defense, a culprit and a savage?” he asked. Fast forward to today, and public schools are still using similar textbooks that reflect a lack of knowledge regarding treaty rights and sovereignty, according to Hilsabeck.

The exterior of the Indian Community School, located in Franklin, WI, where Pfaller and Zimmerman teach K-8 students Native American languages.

Although the Department of Public Instruction doesn’t appear to be doing much to hold local teachers accountable, Hilsabeck says she understands and values the importance of keeping the culture alive in her classroom. She aims to integrate Native American history, culture and sovereignty into other subjects to ensure at least 12 hours of instruction per year solely on the topic of Native Americans. The official textbook provided for her social studies class does not even mention Native American topics, so she often references a book by former UW-Madison professor Patty Loew, “Indian Nations of Wisconsin,” — a supplementary textbook the district provided.

Where are We Excelling?

What the law was supposed to do is happening at the Indian Community School, a private school in Franklin, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee. It’s 8:30 a.m., and the first thing the 23 students hear in Dr. Renee Pfaller’s Oneida language classroom is the whimsical tones of the Oneida language with long, drifting vowels.

“Shékoli,” Pfaller says, greeting the students with a hello. “Nyaweh,” she adds, thanking the students for being there with her.

In Pfaller’s classroom, her students try to remember their October Oneida vocabulary words. Some students are wriggling in their seats with their hands stretched toward the sun, eagerly waiting to be called on. Other students can’t wait and shout to the sky with the words they remember.

The school is one of a few schools in the state of Wisconsin that passionately pursues keeping Native American languages alive. Michael Zimmerman, an Ojibwe language teacher at the school, says Native American language is nearly nonexistent in other schools, so he believes it is his goal and duty to “perpetuate the language” and keep it alive in his career as a language teacher. Pfaller was inspired by the words of an Elder who told her she can’t keep the language if she doesn’t give it away. She must continue to teach for the children of our children who aren’t born yet.

The language teachers have their students for 25-30 minutes a day, four days a week, and the school teaches children between kindergarten and eighth grade, which means that these teachers have a rather large load of students. The school teaches three Wisconsin Native American languages: Oneida, Ojibwe and Menominee. Every person in the building, from students to staff, is required to learn a language to help preserve it and spread the culture, for it is through the language that the culture finds its roots, Zimmerman says.  

The Indian Community School strives to provide an in-depth education of these Native American topics to promote a learning environment full of critical thinking with indigenous teachings woven throughout. On the walls outside of the classrooms read the words that guide all instruction and interaction within the school: “Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Humility, Honesty and Truth.”

Hopes and Fears for the Future

Not every school in Wisconsin has the knowledge and resources to keep the Native American culture alive within its own unique school culture. In Madison, Hilsabeck hopes for a state with greater appreciation for Native Americans but fears that other subjects will continue to be emphasized over social studies, causing those lessons to be cut from daily classroom schedules. Back in Franklin, Zimmerman hopes for a society that learns to pay homage to the land they are currently occupying by finding a greater appreciation for Native American culture and history, but he fears resistance within Native American communities to continue sharing their language and culture.

“I think Act 31 itself, as a law, is a really needed law, and it’s a really positive thing, and there’s a lot of people doing really great work to promote the law both to educators and to children in schools, but … the [phrase] ‘missed opportunities’ keeps coming to mind,” Hiebing says.

Sabrina Abuzahra

Sabrina Abuzahra

Curb's business director is a senior majoring in strategic communications. Upon graduation, Sabrina will move to Chicago to work in Deloitte's Marketing & Communications Department.