Make no mistake, CRT bans are just the latest euphemisms — and violent tools — for cultural genocide.

On this podcast, we have covered book banning and education censorship a few times before, but the way we see it, bans and revisionist histories thrive in our silence.

Despite the recent attention surrounding the onslaught of CRT bans, the suppression of certain histories isn’t new. Indigenous history and Indigenous issues have long been underreported and even erased, sidelining Indigenous folks and their experiences from the national conversation. This is one of the most active mechanisms of oppression of Indigenous Americans — erasure — erasure of history, culture, and language. Make no mistake, CRT bans are just the latest euphemisms — and violent tools — for cultural genocide.

This story is playing out across the country, especially in South Dakota where the governor and state legislature of South Dakota have introduced multiple bills over the last two years aiming to dramatically dilute Indigenous history and culture in the school curriculum. Today, we will be hearing from Wyatt Hunter, a recent high school graduate from South Dakota and Sarah White, Founder & Executive Director of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition (SDEEC), about the fight for Indigenous education in South Dakota.

Listen to the episode

1. Transcript



Kendall Ciesemier [00:00:01] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I’m Kendall Ciesemier, your host. On this podcast, we have covered book banning and education gag orders a few times before. But the way we see it, these bands and revisionist histories thrive in our silence. Despite the more recent attention surrounding the onslaught of education gag orders, the suppression of certain histories isn’t new. Indigenous history and Indigenous issues have long been underreported and even erased, sidelining Indigenous folks and their experiences from the national conversation. This is actually one of the most active mechanisms of oppression of Indigenous Americans: erasure, erasure of history, culture and language. Make no mistake, the education gag orders are just the latest euphemisms and violent tools for cultural genocide. This story is playing out across the country, especially in South Dakota, where the governor and state legislature have introduced multiple bills over the last two years, aiming to dramatically dilute Indigenous history and culture in the school curriculum.

Wyatt Hunter [00:01:31] Hi, my name is Wyatt Hunter. I am nineteen years old. I am from Kyle, South Dakota, which is on the Oglala Sioux Reservation, and I just recently graduated in 2022.

Kendall [00:01:45] Wyatt Hunter is a member of the Oceti Sakowin Nation. He has been an active voice fighting against education gag orders in South Dakota that would impact how, and if, Indigenous history is taught to students statewide. To Wyatt, all of this hubbub over education is strange. He thought what he learned in school about his history was already underwhelming and insufficient.

Wyatt [00:02:14] I wished I was taught more-–was that—like, how did we get to this point where one of the most impoverished counties and, like, places—on this—in this country, you know, how did that happen, and what caused that? I do know some of the answer—in like—but I didn’t learn it from school. I didn’t learn it from that. I went and sought that out and really self-educated in that-in that category.

Kendall [00:02:41] What would it have meant to learn that in school?

Wyatt [00:02:44] I think it would have really brought a lot more perspective into my life and really looking around in my community because, you know, I’m not going to sit here and say, like, I had it bad off, you know, but I’ve seen everything there is to my community, all the bad, all the good, all the ugly, you know? And, like, I feel like I would have been better equipped to go into my adult life if I really learned about how everything happened and, like, why we are here now, you know?

Kendall [00:03:19] So one of the reasons that the people who are pushing for this kind of legislation to pass across the country, one of the reasons they’ve given for wanting to pass this legislation to ban certain kinds of education is because they don’t want to, in quote, “make white children feel bad.” How do you respond to that? You know that we all are existing on land that we stole from your people.

Wyatt [00:03:43] I don’t know. I feel like-I feel like if they don’t want that their children, their grandchildren to feel bad, they shouldn’t have done it. And now that’s a weight that they’ll have to carry on their shoulders, you know? To look back and be like, my people did this, you know? Like, it’s a hard truth, but it’s a truth that you have to carry. Not every truth is going to be fun. Not every truth is going to be easy to comprehend—and like take—but it’s the truth nonetheless. And it’s really important. We’re still here, and, like, we still deserve a voice, you know? And we still deserve to be-to be talked about. And, like, you can’t hide from us. The what happened, happened, you know? Let’s learn from it. Let’s really let’s learn from it because a society that doesn’t learn from their history is doomed to repeat it. So why are we hiding from what happened? Let’s-let’s take it, and let’s learn from it.

Kendall [00:04:46] Why, indeed. There are so many organizers across the country fighting for the accurate and comprehensive inclusion of Indigenous American history and cultural responsive teaching. I spoke with Sarah White, the executive director of the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, an organization committed to providing inclusive learning environments for Indigenous youth. To learn more about the movement in South Dakota and beyond.

Sarah White [00:05:13] Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s a great honor to share some of our most important work here in South Dakota.

Kendall [00:05:20] Beautiful. So, Sarah, I just want to start our conversation by acknowledging that the American government, and subsequently our culture, have systematically oppressed Indigenous communities for all of American history. So I think let’s start off on that foot. After the racial reckoning of 2020, we saw Critical Race Theory become this boogeyman used by those afraid of the progress in anti-racist and anti-colonist education and how the gains that we were making in those conversations seemed to threaten their status quo. Is this the same time around when you started to see education bans in South Dakota be used as a tool of erasure against your community?

Sarah [00:06:08] Oh, 100% wholeheartedly. I believe that Indigenous education yields a really huge blood stain on the fabric of our country. And so it’s a narrative that we don’t want to shed light on because then we would have to admit some of the wrongdoings we had in advancing colonization as we see today. I think in 2020, we definitely, in South Dakota, felt the effects of this a lot more profoundly, especially in light of the fact that our governor, Kristi Noem, and actually through executive order, her very first executive order in office, in fact, entitled 2019-01, which effectively removed the Office of Indian Education from the South Dakota Department of Ed. and placed it under tribal relations. To many of us on the ground here in South Dakota, that was a blatant act of segregation. It also is a continued evasion of responsibility for the academic success of Indigenous students, and it evaded responsibility for Indigenous education in South Dakota.

Kendall [00:07:16] The proposed bill that gained the most attention in South Dakota in the last couple of years was HB one three three seven or 1337. Like many others introduced in the legislatures across the country, it proposed to protect students from, in quotes, “political indoctrination.” Could you talk to us a little bit about the bill, and what was the governor qualifying as indoctrination?

Sarah [00:07:45] I think that the governor, in her own words, actually classified anything that would make certain demographics of students feel ashamed or feel bad about their history as a divisive concept. She always used the term divisive concept. And so anything that was deemed to be divisive and created guilt, shame, or any other uncomfortable feelings for the White population in South Dakota, then it was deemed to be defensive and not given an opportunity. We also saw most specifically in our post-secondary institutions, a dismantling of agencies and efforts aimed at addressing the unmet needs across cultural areas.

Kendall [00:08:31] So yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, this kind of, like, terminology: divisive concepts. You know, I think when we talk about this, these education gag orders, sometimes people defend them with this argument: well, you can still teach the history of Indigenous people or Black people accurately, just not with the, you know, political bias. And language in one of the drafts of HB 1337 makes so clear why this argument misses the point. At one point, the bill included the clause, in quotes, “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to America’s founding principles of liberty and equality, as stated in the Declaration of Independence.” I mean, very interesting language here. Is it even possible to discuss Native American history without understanding the racist genocidal displacement with which this country was founded upon? Like, that’s just kind of a blatant false premise right there, it seems.

[00:09:41] 110%. I mean, we think about the the very nature of educational prosperity across the country, including in Indigenous communities. I mean, we’re all sitting in spaces that have benefited from the theft of Indigenous land at the forefront and foundational aspect of any development. So even the post-secondary institutions that I benefited from personally were the result of Indigenous land theft. And if we can’t articulate that to students in ways that bring a frame of relevance and local impact to them, then how do we begin to talk about the nature of social studies moving forward?

Kendall [00:10:23] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s so interesting to me that this has become such a topic of conversation, when the amount of Indigenous education that we had, Indigenous history, exposure to Indigenous culture. I went to public school growing up. The amount that-that was even talked about was so, so minimal and so underwhelming and so absent in most of my classes that even having these bands that would prohibit these concepts, it’s like the concepts weren’t even being taught in the first place, right? Did your experience growing up in, you know, K -12 education, secondary education, what was your exposure or experience to-to Indigenous history and culture?

Sarah [00:11:08] Absolutely. I appreciate this question so much because this question actually catalyzed why I went into Indigenous student advocacy. So I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in a small community called Rocky Ford, and so I was afforded the opportunity to attend public school on the reservation and then graduated from high school at a private school also located on the same reservation. And through that experience, I was able to experience a lot of cultural affirmation, a lot of historical affirmation in our cultural identity. But it wasn’t until college where I realized that that is not the shared experience of other Indigenous students across the country. And, in fact, it wasn’t until I entered the teaching profession that I realized just how much our urban Indigenous students are at conflict, not only with their struggling sense of identity development, but also trying to achieve that cultural, historical, and linguistic identity in their classrooms, where it’s often not being affirmed. Not only are they in combat with the affirmation to their non-Indigenous counterparts, but they’re having to do, I guess, more diligence in affirming their identity to the reservation dwelling peers. I think that in mainstream society there is a huge disconnect, and there is an absence of that presence in classroom settings. Fortunately for me, as a reservation student, I was able to have a lot more access, and I think that—my role in that—being an advocate is to be able to share that opportunity with students who don’t have access.

Kendall [00:12:51] Do you feel like your experience being exposed to that made you see what was possible?

Sarah [00:12:57] Yes and no. What I learned through my own personal experience is that I was an expert hoop jumper, so it wasn’t necessarily a game of intellect, but rather a means of me understanding how to navigate a system that has been foreign and just imposed upon the people for generations. And I was able to successfully navigate it. Now we advocate for spaces where our students can be unapologetically who they are, and they don’t have to-they don’t have to succumb to the system. Rather, they can be authentically themselves, show up, and the system will be designed with them in mind first.

Kendall [00:13:36] What does that look like on the ground? Like, is that proposing new legislation? Is that arming parents and students with the ability to go to their school board? Like, what does that look like in the communities of South Dakota?

Sarah [00:13:51] It’s all of the above. When we think about the initial convening of our coalition, we really started convening informally in 2019 and the intention was really to promote school choice in South Dakota. We’re one of five states in the United States that lacks any semblance of school choice. While some would argue that we do have school choice because we do have tax credits available for those accessing private school, those tax credits are—limited—at best limited and not very accessible for our Indigenous communities across the state. So we really championed school choice specific to a network of community based schools for Indigenous students. We also equip and arm parents and families with the proper skill set and tools needed to advocate within their respective communities based on their individual needs. And then finally, we’re also trying to elevate and uplift the voice of our authentic leaders. For instance, the Oceti Sakowin literally translates to the “Seven Council Fires,” representing the nine tribes Indigenous to our state. And so when we think about them, each of our tribes has an education department, and it’s chaired by individuals who have extensive experience in the field of education, understand the landscape and needs of each of their respective tribal communities, and also have, theoretically, operational relationships with our urban centers across the state, specifically Rapid City and Sioux Falls, which are our two largest cities in South Dakota. And really the goal is that those tribal education directors would work in collaboration, in conjunction with the Department of Ed., in our case, with the Department of Tribal Relations. We just haven’t seen that. And so one of the major goals of our coalition, considering the legislation, is to ensure that the-that the priority areas identified by our Tribal Ed. Directors are elevated to the spaces that they need to be. And then we also encourage our local districts to consult with our tribes because that’s also lacking. And so the final step in our work has really been a brand new introduction into youth, civic engagement, and development. And so getting our youth prepared to enter pathways that will get them more civically engaged. And so now is the time to provide that additional education and tools for students to navigate those pathways.

Kendall [00:16:25] And what are you seeing in—the—this next generation of Indigenous students across the state of South Dakota? How have they supported your movement?

Sarah [00:16:35] Oh my goodness, I feel like the greatest source of hope and inspiration definitely comes from the youth in this space. We have seen a lot of youth groups stand up in solidarity to address some of the most oppressive tactics that I believe our Department of Ed. has aimed at our Indigenous students. They have taken upon themselves to write to their appropriate district officials. They have organized walkouts. They have written letters. They have offered public testimony. They have done their diligence, and it makes me extremely hopeful.

Kendall [00:17:07] Yeah, I think that’s so exciting, and it’s something that we’re seeing echoed across the country, where students are actually pushing back against these overreaching education gag orders. It’s been really, really interesting to see the backlash from students and for students to rise up and say, like, actually, you haven’t asked us about what we think. What’s the real fear here of-of young people knowing the truth about their country? Have there been moments where the kind of facade has broken in the state of South Dakota, where it’s become really clear that the intention is really to, like, further marginalize, suppress, or oppress a group of people from? Because like, if hey, if everyone actually knew the truth, then maybe they would lose power. Have there been moments where it’s been just so obvious to you that the intention is protecting their political positions or their-their power structures?

Sarah [00:18:05] I would say that there has been an ongoing struggle. It has been an ongoing struggle to observe who is prioritized by our South Dakota legislator and who is underserved and resourced. I think most specifically we have it. We’re currently undergoing a social studies revision process that is very controversial. And despite having an overwhelming amount of opponents, our opposition to these proposed standards, we’re seeing that there’s still a stronghold for the support coming from our governor’s office. And that’s really troubling. And I feel like there has been an influx in our tribes coming together in solidarity. But it’s also the first time that we’re seeing many cross cultural groups coming together, echoing the same sentiments, which seems to be a rare occasion in South Dakota.

Kendall [00:19:01] Yeah, very interesting. I mean, so in the wake of all of these, I mean, South Dakota is one of many states that is having these kinds of engaged discussions about what should be taught in schools. Florida is another hotbed of activity. We’re seeing it pop up in school districts across the country in small, large ways, in all of the ways. It seems to me that the narrative has been very focused on LGBTQ inclusive education and anti-racist education, not as much of a focus on Indigenous education or how it would impact how Indigenous issues are taught in-in schools. Why do you think that is?

Sarah [00:19:46] I think initially my very first answer is due to the lack of tribal consultation that’s happening. South Dakota is not alone in this. In fact, there are states across the country that do not actively engage authentic tribal representation when they enact policies or legislation that affects all demographics of students. I think that would be the first of many challenges. I also believe that South Dakota and the American public education as a whole believes that the problem with Indigenous education lies exclusively on Indigenous shoulders. And we’re seeing that time and time again throughout history. I think there are, although there are federal reparations, if you will, to offer an increased amount of cultural education, academic support, and language reinforcement, we’re still seeing that burden exclusive to Indigenous communities. And it’s not it’s not viewed in the same way that public ed. for all is viewed, and that’s been a challenge.

Kendall [00:20:53] Yeah, it definitely has a separate it feels like it’s meaningfully separated and purposefully separated perhaps. You know, even in reflecting on preparing for this conversation today, just even thinking that like, well, we still have a national holiday that is built on a false premise of-of history. It feels in some ways—so—such a big mountain to climb if we have just at its very basic level, like we all celebrate a holiday that’s built off of a false history, right? Like, how do you stay hopeful and committed and dedicated in the wake of just knowing, like, culturally what you’re up against?

Sarah [00:21:44] My source of hope and inspiration has really been the resiliency of our people and the reclamation that I’ve seen happen even in my lifetime. But I think about the leaps, bounds, and strides that our communities have made from even my grandparents’ days when they were in the boarding schools until now, the educational experience of myself and then now my children and how they’re in some ways they’re similar. But in a lot of ways there’s a stark contrast. And I think really that—with as—as our sense of cultural safety increases as generations progress, I feel that there is a lot of hope that we are—we’re—still here. We’re still a people proud of our resiliency and we’re still working really hard to reclaim what has been lost. And so I think that’s the greatest source of hope.

Kendall [00:22:38] Hmm. I love that. It’s clear that education is such an important issue to you, to your community, across the country it’s become a really hot button topic. Why do you think education is at the center of a lot of, like, political debate these days, and why is education to you the thing that you wanted to put your weight behind?

Sarah [00:23:02] I think the greatest, I mean, the source of any strong indoctrination comes from our school systems. I mean, unfortunately, the glaring truth is that as children from five to eighteen, the bulk—a majority—of our time is spent in classroom settings across the country. And so we think about that and the indoctrination that happens there. The way to infiltrate thoughts and society and priorities happens theoretically happens at home, but it’s compounded and expanded upon at school. And so the interesting factor for Indigenous communities across the country is they’re able to attempt to dismantle some of our cultural priorities with the contradictory priorities that capitalistic society promotes and imposes upon our people. And so I would say that that has a lot to do with it. And so it’s an easy way to disseminate information to the masses.

Kendall [00:24:02] That’s right on point, I think, Sarah. I want to touch on, really briefly, the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Educations or OSEU for short. These are curriculum recommendations for all South Dakota schools about native history, culture, and traditions, compiled by panels over multiple years. A 2021 survey—found—by the South Dakota Department of Education, found that only 45% of schools were implementing these essential understandings. What was going on here, and what were you seeking to do about it? How has this all played out?

Sarah [00:24:39] Well—I think the interesting—I feel like 41% is a very generous assessment. I also feel like that we don’t have a metric to level or to assess the level of implementation. I believe that Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings, through the eyes of the South Dakota Department of Ed., are an elective set of standards at best. There is no mandate. There were no tools or training to equip districts with full on implementation. And so unless individual districts were taking it upon themselves to create pathways for implementation, it just wasn’t happening. And so I feel like it reinforces the sentiment that there’s this notion that South Dakota is doing enough for the inclusion of Indigenous students, but it remains an elective for those who desire that. And so that’s been really unfortunate. And so our goal has really been to encourage and empower districts to implement them, with hopes that they would see how easily it is to do. And in order for them to be implemented with the fidelity we hope to see them implemented in, we would need to have administrative buy in from each specific district because we know through attempts at previous implementation, that it all starts with that district administrator buy in first, and that sets the culture for teachers to desire to implement as well.

Kendall [00:26:11] I guess I’m curious, looking more nationally at this kind of landscape that we’re all operating in right now when it comes to education, gag orders, CRT, the boogeyman, a boogey people, if you will, that we’re seeing in these political discussions, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be going away any time soon. What do you want listeners to take away from this episode and bring to the conversations that, you know, I think everyone’s talking about in their communities, what do you want people to make sure that they’re considering, and how do you want them to speak about these education gag orders?

Sarah [00:26:55] I think from—through—an Indigenous lens of inclusion, I think I would first encourage listeners to consider whose land they’re-whose land they’re residing on. Whose Indigenous land are you benefiting from? And think about the—those—individual I mean, those individual tribal nations and-and territories, and think about the players that are being given a seat at the table for consultation or for decision making. And then I would also encourage individuals to question their local school districts and ask to what extent is their school district consulting with tribal nations that are most reflected in their school system? Do they have a Tribal Title VI Indian Education Program? Who are the parents, committee members in those spaces?

Kendall [00:27:48] I also think it’s really important to say that, like, even if your school district doesn’t have a large Indigenous population or an Indigenous population at all that they know of, right, like, these issues are still important, right? Like, that-that we all actually need to be learning about Indigenous issues because it is all of our history because as you said, we live on stolen land. Like, we need to be very aware of that. It’s still actually really important for those folks to be fighting for Indigenous education in their schools too, not just to the benefit of Indigenous students, but to the benefit of non-Indigenous students because it is to our benefit for everyone to learn about these issues. I also think that it’s, you know, I love that you say, like, get involved in your local school district because I can tell you that the opposition is absolutely doing that, and we need fiery, passionate people on the side of inclusion, actually promoting better, more inclusive, accurate history being taught in our school. So that’s my little, little nugget to add on top of your beautiful response. And then the last thing I really want to ask is, is about how we can all ensure the protection and safeguarding of Indigenous culture and history in our daily lives, and how do we all make that commitment to continue to learn? If you have any tangible resources for people who are interested, are hearing you, Sarah, and want to know more.

Sarah [00:29:33] My encouragement is to always defer back to your local community and the original peoples of that land. Identify who they are, and reach out to them. Find out from the organizations in your community how to get engaged with your community, how to learn from the original inhabitants, and how to be good relatives and collaborators walking forward. In our own community here in Rapid City, I always say that we know our inherent place here. These are our homelands. This is the territory of the Oceti Sakowin. We have a place here. We just need a place in that collective community circle. And so I would encourage you to be good relatives and include more people into that circle of community.

Kendall [00:30:18] Beautiful. I also think that, you know, today we live in a world where we’re so hyper connected, and everyone has a phone in their hand. And I think what’s been really awesome in my own personal experience and understanding and broadening my cultural responsiveness has been, like, hearing and listening and watching young Indigenous leaders on social media. That’s how I find leaders like you, Sarah, is through-through social media, through other Indigenous leaders. Thank you so much, Sarah, for joining. I really, really appreciate you coming and sharing the work that you’re doing in South Dakota. We’re so grateful for it. I just want you to know that we’re with you.

Sarah [00:31:03] Thank you so much. I appreciate the solidarity, the allyship, and the elevation of the narrative here in South Dakota.

Kendall [00:31:16] For Wyatt, the power is in the hands of students. Native students should feel empowered to learn their history and to demand that it be taught in their classrooms.

Wyatt [00:31:25] Self-educated. If-if the school isn’t going to teach you something, you need to make yourself aware. Native history is American history. You know, we are the Indigenous people. So that is a part of the story of this nation. We need to up the ante in a way and really put pressure on the people to listen and to not silence us.

Kendall [00:31:59] Thanks so much to Wyatt and to Sarah for joining us. And thanks to you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to At Liberty, and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback. Until next week. Stay strong.