Dave Beck called it his "Welcome to Montana moment."
It was the week of Thanksgiving 2000, when his daughter brought home a note asking all the kids to dress up like pilgrims and Indians the day before the holiday.
"What happens when the teacher points to someone with a paper vest and turkey feathers and says, 'You look like a real Indian?' " Beck asked. "My daughter dresses up like an Indian every day."
Beck teaches Native American studies at the University of Montana. His wife, Rosalyn LaPier, is a Blackfeet tribal member. After they told their concerns to the school principal, another note came home, announcing the holiday party no longer needed costumes.
"For a while," Beck said, "we were known in the neighborhood as the family that ruined Thanksgiving."
It's fairly easy to say what an Indian is not. But defining Montana's tribal nations and their people presents a bigger challenge. Beck's personal library has 36 3-foot-wide bookshelves, filling an entire wall with books about North American Indian history, culture and literature. One of those shelves - about 35 books - holds his collection of Montana Indian material.
He's going to need another shelf.
This fall, all seven of Montana's tribal nations have published histories of their reservations. The books, DVDs, posters and recordings will go to all the public schools in the state.
"We haven't had a lot of time to celebrate, because we've been so busy," Julie Cajune told Montana legislators in August. "Sometimes in the process of writing history, we don't realize we're making history. No other state has a constitution that recognizes Native American people, guarantees their culture and intends that everyone should learn about it."
Cajune supervised production of Salish Kootenai College's tribal history project. She's also working for the state Office of Public Instruction to transform all seven tribal history collections into lesson plans ready for
"This is not just about Indian people or to address an injustice against Indian people," Cajune said. "Everybody in the state has a right to know about their neighbors. It makes us all more literate and informed."
Article 10 of the Montana Constitution addresses education. Its third sentence reads: "The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity."
That constitution was written in 1972, and the American Indian heritage clause exemplifies the progressive nature of its drafting. Not one of the 100 delegates was a tribal member, but that oversight may have heightened their sensitivity.
"Through the years, we have given the Indian a great many things that didn't prove to be too good for the Indians," delegate Chet Blaylock, a Laurel schoolteacher, said at the time. "We gave them treaties which we later broke. We gave them smallpox-infected blankets so we could reduce their surplus population. We gave them alcohol. We gave them a religion which we didn't live up to ourselves and we gave them massacres. They were here first, they owned it, and we took it all from them. And I think this is the least we can do."
"Are we to tell the Indian people that their history has no place in our schools?" added delegate Richard Champoux, a professor from Kalispell. "That their ways, their governments were wrong and that they must accept ours, because ours are better? Or, will we help them to retain their ethnic identity and make their adaptations as Americans? If there is ever to be a solution to the Indian problem in this county, it will come about when our educational system provides the knowledge which is needed to understand and respect the cultural differences between us, and the state helps to preserve and protect their cultural integrity."
But as Stone Child Tribal College "elder on campus" Sam Vernon Windy Boy put it, "That's where the step-off began."
"So now, lo and behold, you've got Indian education for all," Windy Boy said. "But there's no history available."
Windy Boy is 65 years old, and has spent 47 of them as a "spiritual nourishment provider" on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and in Washington, D.C. He helps students with personal problems, leads naming ceremonies and develops computer programs that help Indians research their identities.
Over a lunch of grilled Spam sandwiches in the Stone Child cafeteria (he'd left his teeth at home), Windy Boy talked of the traditional Cree values he teaches at Stone Child College. But his bigger goal is to repair the broken relationship between Indian society and the larger world.
"It's like being in a sweat lodge," Windy Boy explained. "At the beginning, there's an undefined reason for coming together. Someone has to explain why we're here. Then we set out the reasons for getting together and we pray for purpose. It goes from the groping to the grasping. Only then can development take place. I see the history project doing that."
Windy Boy put down his sandwich, intensity in his eyes.
"But how do we use it? Do we just plug it into different grade levels? The only way they'll understand is by shared experience. It's like the sweat lodge. They have to share the mutual experience. It develops the communication skills, so you can say how you feel about something. You can express your feelings. You're empowered by personal choice. That's what I did with my children, and it worked."
In Montana's far southeastern corner, Mina Seminole and Joan Hantz still revel in their experience digging up Northern Cheyenne history.
The Northern Cheyenne have the ironic status of too much history. Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse may be one of the best-known Indian characters in popular culture, although few can recall any facts of his life beyond the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the movies, Dustin Hoffman lived with the Cheyenne and John Wayne fought them. An Episcopal priest, the Rev. Peter Powell, spent a quarter-century visiting the reservation and compiling masterful books of stories and artwork.
Seminole was not an author or historian when Dull Knife College President Richard Little Bear asked her to take on the history project. She was taking classes at the college after losing her accountant's job for the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council in an administration change. A fluent Cheyenne speaker, Seminole once helped the U.S. Forest Service by leading tours of Cheyenne elders through Custer National Forest lands, identifying important sites and landmarks.
Hantz directs the college's John Woodenlegs Library in Lame Deer, the main town of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Little Bear sent the duo to the Bureau of Indian Affairs repository in Denver for research. He told them to think of kids in Eureka or Yaak, and help them understand who the Cheyenne are today.
Hantz and Seminole spent a week there, realizing too late they needed a month. They needed special passes to enter the document rooms, had to wear gloves and leave all pens behind, even though they were only handling copies of originals. Archive staff would take their requests and use a cherry-picker lift to reach files 20 feet off the ground.
"My career took off in a whole new direction," Seminole said. "I learned a lot about my own history. In the archives, it was always: 'Hey - that's my grandma!' "
Every teacher knows that textbooks don't magically produce lessons any more than refrigerators produce dinner. A lot of reading and unpacking and tinkering must take place before Windy Boy's advice on rites of passage can be delivered as an afternoon social studies class.
Part of that job has fallen to Heather Bruce, a UM English professor and curriculum developer. She's spending the next three years working with K-12 teachers to make writing lessons out of the history projects. To prepare, she also visited the tribal historians and authors.
"Ever since I moved here, I've been told Browning is a scary place," Bruce said of the Blackfeet Reservation's main town. "And the first time I went up there, I was afraid. But I never experienced anything that would frighten me. I never experienced anything but warm welcomes, kindness and generosity. Things like that help us realize the borders of the reservations aren't places we shouldn't cross."
But they are places hidden in the curtain folds of mainstream Montana life. During a visit to Browning with some other teachers, Bruce was studying a map of land allotments on the Blackfeet Reservation. If there's a generalization that can fairly be made about all seven tribal nations in Montana, it's that the federal policy of chopping up reservations into family-owned land parcels had devastating effects.
"We were looking at the map and putting names to the allotments," Bruce recalled, "and one teacher had an epiphany. She looked at the name of a family she knew, and where the family was allotted land to live, and suddenly understood why that family had such great difficulty. Their allotment was in the middle of nowhere, with no resources. And it dawned on her what generational difficulties occur as a result of divvying up land."
"That wouldn't be something you'd turn into a lesson plan in class, but for a teacher that could make a difference," Bruce said. "It becomes a reason to understand and be more compassionate with students and where they were coming from."
For years, this kind of history has been cooped up in tribal archives and libraries. Teachers who lived in or near a reservation might learn about it, or persuade a tribal member to visit their classrooms.
Now these stories are making their way to every teacher and classroom in Montana.
"In this global age, we need that capacity of understanding ways that are different from our own," Bruce said. "Besides, it's the constitutionally correct thing to do."
About this series:
Montana is the only state in the nation with a constitution commanding respect for its American Indian heritage in its public schools.
Yet for decades after that goal was drafted, little was done to introduce the state's tribal nations to its mainstream culture. That changed two years ago, when education leaders launched the Montana Tribal History Project.
After years of reporting on Indian education in Missoula schools, reporter Rob Chaney received a fellowship from Columbia University's Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media to explore the issue on a statewide level. He traveled more than 3,000 miles, visiting all seven of Montana's Indian reservations and their tribal colleges. He met with community elders, historians, students and teachers to learn about a groundbreaking tribal history project that will be coming to the state's public schools next year.
These tribes made history by gathering history. In collecting their stories and archives and interviews, the tribal historians changed the way their communities viewed themselves. They've also opened a window for the rest of Montana to confront its own legacy of white-Indian relations. For seven days beginning Sunday, the Missoulian will investigate how these tribal histories came to be and how they'll affect everyone in Montana.
Sunday: Indian stories carpet the Montana landscape like wildflowers in prairie grass. But mainstream Montanans have overlooked them since statehood. Yet those stories, or more accurately, collective ignorance of them, triggered the biggest change to the state's public education system in generations.
Monday: Before the tribes could present their history to Montana's schools, they first had to define themselves.
Tuesday: After two years of work, the Tribal History Project has borne fruit. But just as there's no typical "Montana Indian," no tribal college delivered the same kind of history to the state Office of Public Instruction.
Wednesday: None of the tribal community colleges that produced these histories had tackled such a project before. The experience left them stronger in ways that will benefit their people for years to come.
Thursday: Some tales can only be told in winter. Some only at night. Some people might die before their stories are told. How do we preserve American Indian knowledge without turning it into museum exhibits?
Friday: How we share stories says a lot about who we are. A Crow historian and a newspaper reporter ponder the credibility of talking animals.
Saturday: What is an Indian? In researching their past, many tribal historians found solutions to current problems and threats to the survival of their cultures.