Joe Anderson’s eyes get big when he talks about Indian Education for All.
A Helena High School English teacher and a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, Anderson has been teaching American Indian stories in his classroom for more than 30 years. But now, as an Indian education coach for the district, he is helping other teachers integrate American Indian culture into their classrooms and comply with a state law.
“The idea is not to somehow show Indian people in isolation, but to show them as part of the big circle of life,” Anderson says.
Indian Education for All is a state law passed in 1999 that requires Montana schools to teach all students about the state’s American Indian tribes and reservations. It expanded upon a 1972 provision in the Montana Constitution recognizing the cultural heritage of the state’s Indian tribes and committing the state to educational goals designed to preserve their identity.
Despite the state law and constitutional provision, the Legislature did not fund the requirement until a special session in 2005. Schools are just now starting to receive the money about $7 million in one-time funds and $3 million in ongoing funds, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch said.
In Helena, Anderson is working with other literature teachers to develop a “First Peoples, First Stories” class unit for high school juniors.
Students are reading stories by American Indian authors and studying tribes as part of the class. State money has been used to buy new books and materials for the class.
Jordyn Pillatzke and Katrina Schweitzer, both juniors, say the class is their first specific exposure in school to American Indian culture and history.
“There have been a few things here and there, but this is the first actual course I’ve taken,” Pillatzke says.
Luke Dutton, also a junior, says learning about the tribes has been interesting. He’s discovered that the tribes are significantly different from one another.
“Back before we started this, I kind of thought they were the same,” Dutton says. “But there are a lot of differences that you don’t even know about until you start looking at it.”
Literature is just one area in which Helena High School is integrating American Indian culture this year, Anderson says. Freshman social studies classes will study the different cultures of Montana’s tribes. Sophomore biology classes will study plants used for medicinal purposes by the tribes. Senior government classes will look into modern issues such as tribal sovereignty and treaty law.
McCulloch says schools throughout the state are jumping into implementing the law with the same vigor as Helena High School.
“We’re hearing a lot of excitement from the schools,” McCulloch says.
Some districts primarily those close to or on reservations started implementing the law before the Legislature decided to fund it. Because of that, schools are at different points in their implementation plans.
In Havre, assistant superintendent Dennis Parman says the struggle with implementing the law has been to make sure American Indian culture and history are integrated into all the district’s curriculum, not just something that is discussed once a year or in one class.
To try to solve that problem, the district hosted a conference in August where representatives of each of the nearby reservations Fort Belknap, Blackfeet and Rocky Boy’s attended.
Teachers talked with the representatives about their culture, history, family, and education. The idea was to have teachers improve their knowledge by connecting with the representatives on a personal level, Parman says.
“What we’re hoping for is for that personal knowledge gained to play itself out in math and science classes, not just in social science and reading,” Parman says.
Havre history teacher Jim Magera has had his students interview tribal elders in the area with plans to share those recordings statewide. Smaller schools in eastern Montana have pooled their funding to put on a lecture series where teachers can learn more about incorporating American Indian culture into their classrooms.
Shane Doyle, a Native American Studies doctoral student at Montana State University, is working with the Bozeman school district and three smaller districts in the Gallatin Valley on curriculum.
Doyle, a member of the Crow Tribe who used to teach on the nearby reservation, says if teachers wanted to include information about American Indians in their lessons in the past, they had to do extra research because it was not incorporated into curriculums or textbooks. That took time most teachers didn’t have, he says.
Doyle is working to develop lessons that include information about American Indians.
“We’re just one group of many who are working on this,” Doyle says. “In the next year or two there are going to be a lot of different resources to start implementing Indian Education for All.
“There really won’t be any excuse for it not to be included anymore,” Doyle says. And he says that could make Montana, and the United States, a better place.
“I think it’s going to have a tremendous impact for our state and for our nation,” Doyle says. “What it represents is our mainstream society really embracing diversity. I think the positive effects will be seen at every level.”
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