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MSU Workshops Help Teachers Incorporate Buffalo Curriculum

Educators who attended weeklong workshops hosted by Fort Peck Community College, Montana State University and community partners say the experience gave them the confidence to incorporate information about the importance of buffalo and cultural revitalization to Indigenous peoples into their classrooms.

Aileen Plant, a kindergarten teacher in Cut Bank, said that she has been able to apply parts of what she learned with the 14 students in her kindergarten classroom this year. Lessons she has incorporated range from helping students learn to draw a bison to sharing background knowledge about bison and helping students label the parts of the animals.

She also worked with a school librarian to pull together both fiction and nonfiction books about bison to share with her students. One particularly memorable book was about a buffalo jump; Plant said her students were able to connect to the text because of the story’s setting, which was familiar to many of them.

“We were able to use that story to help bring a little bit of history to our classroom,” Plant said.

The pair of workshops, which were held in Gardiner and Yellowstone National Park this past August, were part of a new Buffalo Nations Landmarks program led by Fort Peck Community College along with the MSU College of Education, Health and Human Development and the Missoula-based nonprofit Ecology Project International. The workshops prepared two groups of about 36 K-12 educators from across the U.S. to implement curriculum focusing on the history and revitalization of buffalo and putting those lessons into the context of history, geography and contemporary knowledge of Indigenous nations. Since several of the teachers live and work in Montana, the workshops also helped prepare educators to better address the essential understandings of Montana’s Constitutional mandate, Indian Education for All.

Buffalo Nations Landmarks was funded through a grant from a National Endowment for the Humanities program, Landmarks of American History and Culture. During the workshops, Native American presenters discussed the importance of honoring the buffalo treaty, an agreement between various tribes seeking to celebrate their deep-seated relation to the buffalo and restore herds to the lands they used to roam.

According to Roxann Smith, project leader at Fort Peck Community College, the topics were well received by the teachers, including the history of and parallels between the buffalo and Native tribes, including traditional migratory paths and how food sovereignty depended upon the buffalo’s migration.

“Much of the Indian history of colonialism and its effect it had on buffalo and Indian tribes has not been taught in schools,” she said. “Presenters provided a safe and honest space for discussion with educators.”

Plant said she chose to participate because the knowledge the workshop shared is important.

“I thought the class would help give me background knowledge that I could share with my students, because about half of our students are Blackfeet,” Plant said, adding that numerous tribes are represented in the Cut Bank school district. “As neighbors to the Blackfeet Nation, it just felt important to know of the importance of the buffalo. Since I am teaching Blackfeet children, I felt I should have that background knowledge.”

Plant, who is Anishinaabe and is married to a Flathead tribal member, said one strength of the workshop was the diversity of perspectives it covered, including those of tribal elders, scientists and national park administrators.

“There were so many good points and points of views represented,” Plant said.

During the two workshops, participants visited key sites and engaged in activities facilitated by experts, educators and leaders from several Indigenous nations who relied on buffalo as a primary source for food and other everyday needs.

Facilitators shared a mix of resources, including academic texts, videos and films, podcasts, websites, treaties, maps, artwork and other primary source materials. Each day, participants engaged in field-based inquiry, expert presentations, learning community circles and multimedia activities.

Another workshop participant, Theresa Mengerink of Ohio, is a middle school history club adviser and high school social studies educator with more than 35 years of experience teaching at Vantage Career Center in Van Wert Ohio.

“It was also – at least for me – really introducing a whole new way of thinking about things,” she said. “It helped me be a little more aware of my environment and our relationship to our environment and the impact we have.”

After the workshop, Mengerink helped about 10 middle school students in an after- school program complete a winter count – or a pictographic record of historical or memorable events. She explained to her students that winter counts were recorded by American Indian communities as a method of preserving history for future generations.

“They enjoyed the lesson,” she recalled. “They enjoyed working on their count. I described it as a life journal but in pictures. And they had lots of questions. It was really very nice.”

Overall, Mengerink said, the workshop left participants with “new thought processes and a new way of looking at our world.

“It gave us renewed faith in ourselves and in what we do in terms of teaching,” she said.

Plant agreed. She has been a teacher for nearly 20 years and, before that, was an early childhood educator for about four years. Even with that level of experience, she said the workshop helped her in the classroom.

“Learning that background knowledge, learning those stories, learning the historical importance (of bison) to a lot of tribes in Montana gave me the confidence to teach it and teach about the bison,” Plant said.

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