Little Bighorn Battlefield | photo by Karen Martinez via Unsplash

The Inclusion of Indian Education

October 8, 2021

by katie jones backer

As a former World, U.S., and Montana History teacher, I know many of the ways Indian Education is included in Social Studies content. I was able to work closely with the Billings Public Schools Office of Indian Education to take two of my Senior High Montana History groups on a field trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Many of the students, even having grown up in the area, had never been! It was a wonderfully organized field trip, and the kids left with a lot more information than they’d simply get from a history textbook; a truly unforgettable, and immersive lesson. I was also able to use the “Boarding Schools” Gallery Walk trunk that is available in School District #2 and invited my Crow colleague to share her family’s connection with the heavy boarding school past. It was a powerful lesson, and there weren’t many dry eyes at the end of it. These are just a couple of things I have done personally. I know there are many other compelling lessons being taught across the community which include Indian Education (for all age levels and content areas).

I sat down to chat with Jacie Jeffers, American Indian Education Instructional Coach 6-12 for School District #2, to learn more about lessons and experiences that are taking place around town.

But first, here’s a little of the background and the why behind Indian Education for All from the BPS Office of Indian Education website page before we dive in with Jacie:

In 1999, the Montana Legislature passed House Bill 528 into law, which codified the constitutional intent as MCA 20-1-501. This law is known as Indian Education for All and states,“… every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner; and ... every educational agency and all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana Tribes … when providing instruction and implementing an educational goal…. It is also the intent of this part, predicated on the belief that all school personnel should have an understanding and awareness of American Indian tribes to help them relate effectively with American Indian students and parents, that educational personnel provide means by which school personnel will gain an understanding of and appreciation for the American Indian people.”

With this in mind (and continuing on their webpage), its explained that, “Indian Education for All is achieved through professional developments; classroom coaching; providing equitable and accessible funding to BPS schools; and through local partnerships.

Jumping in with Jacie, she shared, “When you have classes that tie themselves to the culture… it’s fantastic.” For example, the Battlefield Field Trip I mentioned, is now a part of all three high schools. Also 8th Graders participate in a field trip to Plenty Coups Park each year, after reading Chief Plenty Coups, and get to play double-ball and see Plenty Coups’ house. And our 6th Graders get to visit the Audubon Center as do high school Environmental Science students. “This, for instance, gives them a chance to experience the land as it was before,” Jacie explained. “Tribal Elders are even invited to share with the high schoolers and discuss topics such as Botany and wildlife. This year, Riverside Middle School will have a Teepee and Sweat Lodge set up in honor of Native American Day (September 24).” And while field trips are awesome, those aren’t the only lessons taking place.

Many district teachers utilize various writings, literature, games, and guest speakers to enhance lessons… even in P.E., Science, and/or Math classes!

Jacie, having taught and now worked in her present role in the district for 20 years, is also a member of the Little Shell Chippewa-Cree Tribe of Montana (Anishinabe). She is extremely passionate about sharing with students and teachers. Having more inclusive lessons and diving into American Indian culture, Jacie explained, “expels stereotypes, allows for greater understanding, and promotes history… and it’s not only for American Indians. Many teachers encourage looking into everyone’s heritage within the class, and creating an educational environment that builds up cultural awareness and appreciation.”

Jacie recognizes that not all teachers know everything there is to know about our various Montana Tribes, for example. That is why she helps teachers to feel more comfortable. She works with them closely to develop lessons. Oftentimes in high school settings, she'll lead students through the material for at least one hour to model it for the teacher. Then, she can team-teach, and by the afternoon periods, the teacher is able to lead the activity on their own. Jacie explained that for the students to see their teachers learning and becoming more interested in the content is extremely inspiring as well.

Carolyn Rusche is the K-5 Indian Education Curriculum leader in the district, and with 25 years in education and as a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine (Nakoda) & Sioux (Dakota) Tribes, she works very closely with Jacie.

Both ladies learned the importance of education from their grandfathers. Carolyn shared, “when I was a kid, my grandpa would always tell us that through education is how we’ll make it. We had to do the best we could in school.” This is something she’s held onto and propels her to share with more students. “My passion,” Carolyn continued, “is to see American Indian history included in our students’ education. I want to see it taught the right way [in Social Studies classes, for example].”

The fact of the matter is Indian Education hasn’t always been celebrated and included in previous generations’ educational experiences. That said, as an experienced History teacher myself, I can honestly say that it is highlighted much more in our curriculum today—as it should be, being a big part of our American and Montana History. Though, I’ll admit I do not personally remember learning anything about Native American heritage while in primary or secondary school, I know for a fact that this generation (my daughter and my students) have benefited from our deeper, diversified lessons.

As Jacie put it, “Indian education is NOT about shame and blame. It’s about inclusion and understanding,” and it allows for a greater perspective and builds community with those around us.

And, in case you missed it, check out these darling Crow language children’s books at the Billings Public Library. There has been a revival in various tribal communities to teach their native languages to the younger generations so they’re not lost. Seeing kids with these books will most definitely make their grandparents smile.

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