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Why Wisconsin schools teach Native history: Celebrating 33 years of Act 31

Government Administrative Office

Obtaining historically accurate knowledge about the 11 federally recognized Native tribes in Wisconsin was next to impossible in state public schools until nearly the end of the 20th century. With the help of tribal leaders from across the state, Wisconsin Act 31 was signed into law in 1989 by then-Governor Tommy Thompson. Act 31 was designed to provide students with an accurate, academically appropriate education on tribal histories, cultures, and sovereignty. Now, 33 years later, the Wisconsin Indian Education Association (WIEA) held its annual celebration of the enactment of the law August 18 in Keshena which they titled “Celebrating Act 31: Revitalizing Menominee Ways of Being Through Language.”

“Act 31 stems from spearfishing events that occurred in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Councilwoman Jennifer Webster, who attended the celebration in support of the Oneida Business Committee’s Broad Goals of Education and Culture and Language, said. “People may recall the harassment members of the Lac du Flambeau Tribe endured attempting to exercise their hunting and fishing rights. The harassment at the boat landings, the harassment of children in our schools, there was simply a lot of violence and racism going on in the state.

“My sister lived in Lac du Flambeau and I clearly recall the phone calls we received hearing about the fear that community was living through at the time,” Webster said. “All of those events were very real so it’s nice today to be able to celebrate the accomplishments of Act 31.”

Current Oneida Nation Strategist William Gollnick played an integral part in the statewide development and implementation of Act 31. “I had the privilege of serving as Chairman of the American Indian Language and Culture Education Committee in 1989,” Gollnick said. “We were 15 people nominated by the Wisconsin tribes to advise the Governor and Legislature on issues in Indian Country. The Governor appointed us from the list provided by the tribes.

“At the time, Chippewa spearfishing and hunting rights were under attack, gaming was just beginning, and federal policies were changing,” Gollnick continued. “With so much social unrest and protests occurring across the state, we chose education as our point of intervention. Act 31 required that all schools in the state teach about the history and sovereignty of all Wisconsin tribes, and that teachers in training would have that information as part of their academic preparation.”

Getting Act 31 legislation on the books has proven to be a monumental achievement for tribes statewide, and the Oneida Nation continues to be at the forefront of continued efforts to improve upon the law since its inception. While there have been no updates to Act 31 in recent years, several important proposals have been brought forward.

In 2019 several Assembly Bills (AB) were introduced designed to progressively advance Act 31. The first was AB 105 which would have required the state superintendent to develop model academic standards for American Indian studies. The idea behind this bill was to address historical and contemporary tribal knowledge that pupils are expected to know. At a minimum that knowledge should include significant events, tribal sovereignty, and culture relating to each Nation across the state.

AB 106 called for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) to develop and distribute informational materials related to state school board’s obligations to provide instruction on American Indians to those boards annually.  The bill also would have required those school boards to provide informational materials to board members, district administrators, individuals responsible for curriculum or staff development, principals, and social studies teachers.

AB 107 dealt with teacher licensing requirements. The current law requires teachers to have received instruction in the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the 11 tribes and bands in the state. This bill would have modified current legislation to include contemporary and historically significant events of those Nations.

Another proposal brought forth was AB 108. This bill would have required private schools participating in publicly funded parental choice programs and independent charter schools to provide instruction in the history, culture, and tribal sovereignty of the state’s 11 Nations at least twice in the elementary grades and at least once in high school.

AB 109 proposed that each school board would, as part of its social studies curriculum, provide instruction in the culture, sovereignty, and contemporary and historically significant events of the state’s tribes.

While these key proposals have yet to be acted upon, the Oneida Nation and its tribal relatives continue their endeavors  of expanding upon the significant groundwork of Act 31 put into place more than three decades ago.

Thirty-three years after Act 31 was introduced to the Wisconsin DPI, school-age students in the state are now the recipients of a curriculum that more accurately represents who Native peoples are. “Kids are coming out of high school now having learned something accurate about Wisconsin’s tribes depending on the resources and the teacher, of course,” Webster said. “The ultimate goal of Act 31 was always to educate our children so that nobody has to endure harassment or live through that kind of racism again. What better way to prepare all our children for the future then to let them know we’re here, we’re your neighbors, we’re your friends, and we’re not going away.”

To view Act 31 and to learn more about this historic educational achievement, please visit the Wisconsin DPI’s website at the following link: Resources Related to American Indian Education | Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.