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News > Equality & Anti-Oppression > Indigenous Foodways Are the Focus in a Growing Number of Classrooms

Indigenous Foodways Are the Focus in a Growing Number of Classrooms

A recent bison harvest in Montana is one example of the work being done in a growing number of state-level curriculum programs that immerse students in sacred ceremony and food traditions.
Several people gather outside in a snowy outdoor surrounding bison skins
Several people gather outside in a snowy outdoor surrounding bison skins

In early December, a group of about 25 high school students from Great Falls, Montana, traveled to a ranch in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front in biting, minus-9 degree temperatures.

After the ranch manager, Chris Bechtold, killed and bled out one of the estimated 700 bison in the herd, the students approached the carcass to participate in the traditional process of breaking down the animal. It was bitter cold out, but the organizer stoked a big bonfire to keep everyone warm.

Dugan Coburn, the director of the district's Indian Education for All (IEFA) program, led a sage-burning ceremony and then a ritual pipe ceremony to clear bad energy and release negativity. “We use it to honor the animal who gave up its life,” said Coburn, a Blackfoot. “We do it so everybody there understands that every life is important and that taking one has to be done with seriousness and respect.”

He talked about how people in the prairie tribes relied on bison for food, clothes, tools, and shelter when 30 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. Then Bechtold described the interactive agricultural cycle in which bison help the prairie recover–boosting the water supply, grass health, and survival rates of mice and other animals.

“I'm asking (the students) to take it in—and remember all these things that we're teaching them,” Coburn told KRTV, a local news station in Great Falls. “One day, I won't be here, and that knowledge needs to be passed on to the next group of kids.”

This kind of Indigenous knowledge transfer is rare within a public school district, but advocates in the state see it as a crucial element for both Native and non-Native students. The Great Falls district enrolls nearly 1,700 students who self-identify as Indian. They hail from at least 60 different Native American communities, which include members of the Chippewa Cree, Assiniboine, Little Shell, and Blackfeet tribes, among others.

Montana's Indian Education For All, a program that employs a director, three full-time Indian education specialists, and others at the district level, including Coburn, is based on policy that has existed since 1999. It stands out in a national landscape in which Native people and their cultures often go unseen. The Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT) project found that 72 percent of Americans rarely encounter information about Native Americans, and 87 percent of state history standards do not mention Native American history after 1900. Montana is one of a handful of states serving as models for others looking to bring Native food traditions and other traditional practices into the classroom.

A Hands-On Harvest

On the ranch, Coburn skinned the bison, allowing students to touch the thick hide, then passed around the organs. Students could hold the large liver, spleen, lungs, and intestines. Coburn held up the animal's shockingly big heart, which he planned to cook and share at school. He also offered students a chance to taste a raw kidney and take a drink of bison blood, which he says historically allowed Native people to take in much-needed iron. “Blood soup was a common dish a thousand years ago,” he added.

“The kids walk up to the bison and feel how big it is,” said Coburn after the fact. “It's still warm . . . the kidneys, intestines, and fat [will be used] for cooking and finishing stonework.”

Similar to a federal surplus program in South Dakota and Nebraska, where tribal, family, and public land grant management continues to help bring bison back from near extinction, the Diamond 4D Ranch in Montana teams with Indian Education leaders to reintroduce bison to their native range in a “perfect ecosystem.” The ranch creates a setting beneficial to both wildlife and agriculture by integrating progressive management practices and natural processes. The goal is to allow bison to “express their innate abilities” while preserving and restoring native prairie ecosystems.

Coburn has been taking students to the ranch regularly over the last three years—even early in the pandemic when student enrollment was down. And Bechtold remains in awe of the ongoing partnership. “It's much more than a cultural class at that point. It's cultural, it's history, it's biology,” he said.

Most of the students on the trip in December—even those from families who keep other traditions alive—had never experienced a bison harvest.

Student Gage St. Germaine spoke with KRTV about celebrating and using the whole animal, in keeping with tradition. He had painted his face with bison blood in the process as a way of showing respect to the animal. “It gave its life for us, it gave us meat and sustenance to survive,” he said. St. Germaine also spoke to the need to reconnect more students with what he called a dying culture. “There are not many people doing it anymore. It's kinda fading away, and we need to show people that we're still here; we still do the things that we used to,” he said.

After the harvest, the group transported the bison meat and organs to a processor in Great Falls, giving the students a chance to observe a mix of traditional and modern techniques, from start to finish.

Back at the student culinary kitchen at Paris Gibson Education Center, a local alternative school, the staff cooked the bison heart and offered samples to students: fried with minced garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and other seasonings. “It tastes like steak,” said Coburn.

Biology teacher Jonathan Logan had prepped for the bison harvest. He teaches and tends the school's aquaponics vegetable and herb gardens, including several kinds of sage for ceremonies, sunflowers, sweetgrass, fruit, and coffee in a multipurpose garden, where students learn hands-on skills and practice ceremonies, complete with a teepee.

“I wanted a place where the students could see sweetgrass growing, lavender, mint, and sage, a place where students could go for healing and peace,” said Curtis Valladolid, a Native instructor who designed the outdoor garden. “At the start of the school year, we harvest the sweetgrass and braid it. I think last year we harvested and braided at least 200 braids . . . and it all started with six bulbs of sweetgrass!”

Biology teacher Amber Lloyd also visited the ranch with the students and took back a wealth of lesson ideas for her classes. She praised the harvest: “So many of our Indigenous students don't have a great connection to their rich culture and heritage (maybe they didn't grow up on the reservation), so it was an amazing way to share that with them and connect with them. It showed them how important honor, respect, and traditions are within their culture.”

Montana Constitution Emphasizes Native Culture

Montana is home to seven reservations, which provide endless opportunities for partnerships and learning about a wide range of traditional foodways. The Billings School District, one of the other large districts in the state that is near a reservation, provides Indigenous family support, powwows, and food events in keeping with IEFA.

Montana's IEFA curriculum stands out because it is the only state in the U.S. that includes a provision in its constitution that says all students, Native and non-Native, should learn about the distinct culture and heritage of American Indians, with a particular emphasis on Montana tribes. And the distinct IEFA policy is an accreditation standard, so local teachers and districts can decide how they want to incorporate it into their lessons in all core subject areas. Traditional food procurement practices are often core to the lessons.

Likewise, the Indian Education Title VI program, a U.S. Department of Education program, works to meet the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Title VI exists to send federal funds to school districts, tribes, organizations, and post-secondary schools in support of those goals. In Montana, it ensures that Indian students, in particular, learn about Native communities, languages, tribal histories, traditions, and cultures. It also ensures that educators and other staff who serve those students can provide culturally appropriate, effective instruction and support.

Other states, like Oregon, offer a basic IEFA curriculum required for specific grade levels to study all state tribes. “Because Montana is a local control state, we don't require a specific curriculum but provide lots of lesson and resource options for districts to choose from,” said Brian O'Leary, spokesperson for Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Teaching all students that tribes differ in traditions is a key component of the content standards.

“We're able to teach lodge etiquette for my staff,” said Coburn, explaining that different tribes follow varying techniques and ceremonies at different stages of the hunting, harvesting, and preparation of assorted food. “A big part of Indian Education for All is that we not generalize, because every tribe is different.”

O'Leary said he has seen an increased focus on food sovereignty and the return to traditional foods to restore cultural practices and improve health. Some Montana tribes highlight gathering food, as in an annual bitterroot harvest on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Harlem High School, located on the Fort Belknap Reservation, also tends a greenhouse ripe with possibilities for growing food and flowers, and the IEFA program offers a food sovereignty unit created to be integrated into family and consumer sciences classes (formerly home economics) and cooking classes.

The Broader IEFA Landscape

Montana's work in this space is part of a complex and evolving national landscape. In 2019, the National Congress of American Indians published a collaborative study called “Becoming Visible” that looked at efforts to provide Native American education throughout the 35 states that include federally recognized tribal nations.

“The erasure of contemporary Native Americans' contributions, innovations, and accomplishments in K-12 education fuels harmful biases in generation after generation of Americans who grow up learning a false, distorted narrative about Native Americans,” wrote the researchers. “Teaching students accurate Native history is not enough to break through the invisibility and stereotypes that feed and perpetuate bias and racism; it is also imperative to teach about contemporary Native issues and the accomplishments of Native peoples today.”

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