PABLO — Ely Goklish is studying to be a teacher. At Salish Kootenai College, that means learning to make cord from dogbane plant.

Native Americans have used the fiber inside this plant's stalks for thousands of years. Working it into usable strands is “really tedious,” said Goklish, a sophomore at SKC, but she’s gotten the hang of it, as evidenced by a tight, corded bracelet she wore on her wrist Wednesday while she twisted more fiber. “That’s what this is going to turn into.”

Goklish learned these and other skills through a new, three-quarter course for education majors, called “Integrated Perspectives in Science for Educators.” Now in its second year, the program teaches tomorrow’s teachers how to include Native American knowledge in their lessons.

“Educators have to be highly versed in many different areas and among those are the numerous sciences,” said Michael Munson, an instructor in SKC’s Division of Education who co-teaches the course. “The mission of Salish Kootenai College and purpose of working in our tribal community is to prepare teachers to be the best teachers they can be for our Native and non-Native kiddos in our communities.”

Northwest Montana’s original residents kept close tabs on their environment — harvesting bull trout when the larch trees changed color and checking on wild roses to know when bison were calving — and crafted a range of tools from the area’s materials. That knowledge, Munson and her colleagues realized, could make science lessons more engaging for local students — if teachers knew how.

“Why not, in order to honor the mission of Salish Kootenai College and our communities in perpetuating and honoring our cultures, why not center our courses on those practices?” Munson said.

Working with the Salish-Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai Culture Committees and other experts, she and other faculty created a required three-quarter course for students pursuing education degrees. It’s now in its second year. On Wednesday, a Drymeat Social at the college gave another instructor, Tim Ryan, the chance to demonstrate and teach students some of the skills directly.

“The student has the opportunity to work with traditional materials and make the traditional material goods of our tribes, and then we apply the Indigenous sciences or the traditional ecological knowledge built … in these material cultural items,” he said.

Holding up a wooden root-digging stick, about 2 feet long with a handle on one end and point on the other, Ryan explained that it’s “essentially a crowbar to lever the plants out of the ground, and so when we look at the digging stick, your lever is the shaft and the ground is the fulcrum.”

“We kind of break it down in the sciences so our teachers can articulate that with their students, so I'm teaching the teachers to be able to teach culture and science together basically.”

The course also includes site visits and a research project. Munson said students have explored everything from the science and technology of snowshoe design to links between the landscape and mental health.

“This is more of an Indigenous STEM class,” said Goklish, a member of the White Mountain Apache Tribe and sophomore in the preschool-through-third-grade program. “It’s nice to see our ancestors as critical thinkers, because that's really what this is,” she said. “It seems that over the years, we've forgotten (this knowledge), and doing this, we're slowly introducing it back into society.”

By the end of this quarter about 45 students will have completed this program, Munson said. Ryan, who’s taught and consulted on Native ecological knowledge around the Northwest for about 20 years, said that “we're doing something new here … with the education department bringing in the Indigenous sciences program like this.”

As the program’s graduates bring this knowledge into area schools, they’ll likely get a strong reception from Josh Hoskinson, son of SKC child care teacher Louanne Hoskinson and a freshman at Ronan High School.

After getting a mat-weaving lesson from Ryan, he explained he hunts often around Ronan and Arlee. Hoskinson had already taught himself to make a fire from a bow drill watching YouTube videos, and hopes to learn how to make a fish trap.

“I’ve always liked more outdoorsy things,” he said.

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