Over my two years as a service member in Montana, I’ve always wanted to do lessons that utilize local Native American tribal knowledge. However, as a white person who is new to this area and who lives near, but not on, a reservation, I’ve always struggled with how to do it accurately and respectfully.
One of my very first lessons was with a fourth grade class during their Native American Studies week. The teachers asked me to do a lesson about Native American foods…something I knew nothing about. I ended up doing almost everything wrong in this lesson, but I most certainly learned from it. With the help of a friend, I collected some chokecherries and, as a class, we talked about pemmican and then practiced mashing up the chokecherries with a mortar and pestle. Unfortunately, other than the fact that mashing anything can be fun, and that chokecherries are sour, I don’t think the students really learned anything. I felt like I perpetuated stereotypes about Native American people such as the perception that all Native American tribes had similar traditions and ate similar things and that they had simplistic traditions and practices. The reality is that there are dozens of different tribes just within Montana and each has its own traditions, foods, practices, ideas and people. Additionally, these traditions, foods, practices, and ideas change and grow over time.
This year, I finally decided to jump back into Native American lessons, but I decided to do it right this time. I dug into Montana’s Office of Public Instruction website and searched through the Indian Education for All materials. In Montana, Indian Education for All (IEFA) is included as a necessary part of the curriculum so all students learn about different aspects of Native American history, culture, and art throughout their public education. As I was searching through the materials, I searched for a lesson that was relevant to gardening and that I could do during a limited time period. Luckily, that particular week I had a double lesson with one of my second-grade classes and I found the perfect lesson, “There is a Season”. Not only was this lesson age- and material-appropriate, it was also geographically accurate. Kalispell, where my students and I live and learn, is a Salish word meaning “flat land above the lake.”
“There is a Season” is an IEFA lesson that examines the seasons with a focus on the Salish seasonal round. It compares what students today do during different seasons with what the Salish did during different seasons and also compares the European calendar to the Salish Seasonal Round as well as to the Salish names for different months.
What did I learn from this lesson? I learned how much knowledge my students already have about each season and what activities they do during different seasons. I learned that there are parallels today between what we do during certain seasons and what the Salish did (and in some cases continue to do) during certain seasons including fishing in the spring and summer, harvesting in the fall and enjoying flowers in the spring and summer. I also learned that many of my students have Native American heritage and that is something they take pride in. It was fun for us to learn from each other about which tribes our family members belong to.
What did my students learn from this lesson? To answer this question, I can only speculate. But from the Salish Seasonal Rounds that they created, I can tell you this: Many of them remembered that the Salish tell “Coyote Stories” in the winter. They also remembered the story of the Bitterroot and that the Bitterroot ceremony and harvest take place in the spring. I know that my students were enchanted by the story of the buffalo hunt and a bit disturbed by the frequent mention of death in the story of the bitterroot which describes a time when the Salish were starving to death but were saved by the bitterroot. I also learned that some of them are a bit confused about the order of the seasons, as some of the rounds go summer, winter, fall spring. We’ll keep working on the order of the seasons….
In the end, I’m glad that I took the time to adequately research and prepare an IEFA lesson so that both my students and I could benefit from Salish knowledge and teachings. I still feel the pull to integrate local native knowledge, culture, and food into my teachings. Throughout the rest of my time here in Kalispell, I will continue to incorporate Indian Education for All lessons into my curriculum for the benefit of my students, myself and our connection to this place we call home.