(This is a preamble to Shane Doyle (Crow) and Megkian Doyle’s teaching unit, “Living within the Four Base Tipi Poles of the Apsáalooke Homeland.”)
I was born into the Apsáalooke Nation in 1972, during a time of pivotal political change for tribal nations throughout the United States. Just the year before I was born, President Nixon became the first and only U.S. Commander in Chief to address a joint session of Congress regarding the national state of Indian Affairs, which at the time was in crisis and seemed to be at boiling point. Nixon declared that his administration would reverse the two-decade old policy of tribal termination, and would work toward empowering tribal communities to become selfgoverned and self-determined communities. Over forty years later, the policy that Nixon advanced is still the law of the land. During that same year, Montanans created a radical new Constitution, which included a declaration that all public school students in the Treasure State must learn about the distinct and unique culture and heritage of American Indians. After 33 years of dormancy, this Indian Education provision was funded by the Montana Legislature in 2005, and is now well known by students and educators throughout the state as “Indian Education for All”. Both of these significant and progressive laws supported the recognition of tribal cultural survival and tribal sovereignty, but despite the best of intentions, 200 years of accumulated historical trauma can’t be wiped away in a few generations, and great ignorance can’t be swiftly corrected by a few laws. Like the new era and new laws they were born into, my generation’s challenge is to reconcile our collective memories of our tumultuous history with our dreams and vision for our future.
I grew up during the 1970’s and 80’s, on the Crow Indian Reservation, in the small town of Crow Agency, MT, population 2,000. As a member of the Apsáalooke (Crow) tribe, my extended family was the most important and influential part of upbringing. Although my mother was a single parent, and I was an only child, my life was consistently filled with dozens of cousins of all ages, as well as numerous aunts and uncles, and of course my grandparents. In Crow Agency, and in the local communities like Lodge Grass to the south and Hardin to the north, my extended family was always around, somewhere. I formed my core identity in and around my grandmother’s house, playing and running with my cousins. My childhood summer days were spent riding bikes around town with my cousins and friends, running through the sprinkler and swimming in the irrigation ditch to cool off. In the winter we raced sleds down steep hills and icy paved roads. We played three-man football under the street lights during the long and bitter winter nights, and we never got cold.
Every season offered a different purpose and opportunity to explore the hills and mountains of my reservation. My uncles and older cousins would bring me along on their hunting trips to the Pine Hills in the fall, and on tipi-pole gathering expeditions in the spring to the Big Horn, Wolf Teeth, and Pryor Mountains. I learned about all my relatives, both human and non-human, during those pick-up truck excursions. The trips were voyages into a classroom without walls. All of the hills and valleys had stories, and my uncles would share the old stories and the more recent ones as we traversed over a serene and epic landscape that seemed to me to be untouched by time and unfazed by civilization. As I’ve grown older and become a parent, my appreciation for my homeland and how my identity is tied to that ground has become a guiding force in my life.
Like many of my peers, I struggled during my teenage years to find a positive path into adulthood. Most of my extended family and many of my friends were high school dropouts, and I only partially attended high school. Yet, I managed to graduate from Bozeman Senior High in 1990. My mother had decided to pursue a Bachelor’s Degree at Montana State University-Bozeman, so we moved 200 miles from the Crow reservation to Bozeman, in the Gallatin Valley. The high school was four times larger than any school I’d ever attended, and as a newcomer in an ocean of students, it was easy to get lost in the crowd and tempting to drop out. But it was my mother’s leadership by example that kept me in high school and on the path toward college.
Although I had my sights on the University of Montana, I stayed in Bozeman after high school and attended MSU because I had an aunt and uncle and cousins who were already there, and they encouraged me to stay where I had support. My uncle Conrad Fisher was a lead singer for the MSU Indian Club’s intertribal drum group, known as the Bobcat Singers, and I began singing with the group when I was still in high school. The drum group practiced every Wednesday night from 8 – 11pm, and there were often more than a dozen singers from as many different reservations in attendance.
Being part of the drum group also kept me connected to Indian people from my home community and introduced me to other Montana tribal people from places I’d only heard about, like Browning, Poplar and Box Elder. The fellowship and camaraderie that we experienced in the drum circle helped create some of my greatest friendships, and because of these relationships I began to learn more about my own and my peers’ tribal cultures. Connecting with other Montana Indians and learning about the similarities and differences within tribal communities and among tribal people has since become one of my lifelong passions.
The friendships that I made with the other Indians who made up the Bobcat Singers also brought me more closely into the tribal ceremonial community. One of the elder members of the drum group was a USDA agricultural research technician from Crow Agency named Frank Caplette. Frank took me under his wing as a cultural mentor and ceremonially adopted father, and I began to participate in the sweatlodge ceremonies that he would conduct every Sunday morning. Frank extended an open invitation to MSU students and faculty to participate; I was one of the regular attendees. Soon I began to participate in other ceremonies as well, both on and off the reservation. With Frank and my Uncle John’s guidance, I fasted in the springtime, helped with the Sun Dance in the summer, and participated in Native American Church prayer meetings throughout the year. Participating in these spiritual traditions helped me to mature into adulthood and gave me the support that I needed to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education. When I finally graduated in 1998, I felt like I had also achieved an even more important educational accomplishment by re-connecting to my culture and forging an identity as a 21st century Crow Indian. Rather than being culturally assimilated and adopting a mainstream American identity, my experience at college had done just the opposite.
When I returned back home to my reservation to teach, I discovered that I had a lot to learn about teaching kids and leading a classroom. Although the academic challenges I faced as a teacher were often overwhelming, the rewards I received from working with kids made it all worth it. I taught 4th and 5th grades at the Lodge Grass Elementary School for four years, and my learning curve during that short time was steep. However, my life interests were pulling me in a different direction, and after my grandmother and uncle passed away in 2001, the time seemed right for me to leave home again and pursue a Master’s in Native American Studies (NAS). During this time as a graduate student, I began teaching NAS 100, and was energized by the higher level of thought and discussion in the college classroom. I’ve been teaching Native studies at MSU ever since that first class in the fall of 2002.
When the Montana Legislature funded the state’s Indian Education for All Law in 2005, my background in Education and in Native American Studies propelled me to the forefront as a leader who could help schools implement the newly recognized law. Because Montana was the first state in the nation to require that American Indian history, culture, and law be taught throughout the entire public school system, the resources needed to make this a reality were almost completely non-existent. Beyond the lack of textbooks and curriculum, the law also required teachers to become familiar with the topic, which came in the form of in-service teacher training. As a professional consultant, I found a role to fill in all of those arenas, especially in the realm of in-service teacher training. Collaborating with MSU and public schools throughout the region, I began offering graduate credit for teachers who wanted to travel to reservations during the summer to stay in tipis, visit sacred sites, and hear from tribal elders and community members. These reservation graduate class tours were so successful, they’ve continued with different educational groups every summer from 2007 – 2013, in total over 150 people have visited all seven Montana reservations, as well as the Wind River and Pine Ridge Reservations.
As the dawn of 2014 approaches, I have to reflect on the good fortune I’ve had throughout my life. Although I have achieved a lot in the past decade, including a Doctorate of Education, Curriculum and Instruction, I am undoubtedly most proud of my role as a husband and father of five children. I am also thankful for the many opportunities that I have been presented, including collaborations with amazing people – like the individuals who have created this curriculum, Honoring Tribal Legacies on the Lewis and Clark Trail. The leadership that these amazing scholars have shown me has been invaluable, and I humbly join in their endeavor to honor tribal legacies through teaching and learning.
Designing Curriculum about Places and People in my Homeland
Designing curriculum is always a challenge for me, so when I was invited to create new learning tools about my tribe to share with teachers and learners, it was both intimidating and exhilarating to accept the opportunity. Although I don’t consider myself an expert at designing curriculum, I do feel strongly about providing high quality learning activities for students and teachers in the public schools. My previous experiences designing Plains Indian curriculum has been fueled by a desire to see new and revelatory learning activities happening in and outside of classrooms, and I draw my inspiration for this creative process by getting outside and opening myself up to the elements and the ancient spirits. I feel best when I’m out under the big sky of my homeland, traversing Montana on foot in all seasons – on sidewalks and country roads, river valleys and mountain ridges. In my mind’s eye I consider the ever-changing landscape throughout history; a swampy hunting ground for T-Rex’s and Pterodactyls, and a frosty tundra where Sabre Tooth Tigers and Clovis Indians were neighbors who shared common food sources, and now modern Americans. I reflect on the endless web of relationships that make up the fabric of the Plains Indian tribal worldview and I try to focus my thoughts on the oral traditions of the people that connected everything and propelled us into the future.
My curriculum design philosophy is based on my desire to understand my homeland as much as I can, and to share this knowledge with others. I believe that the indigenous cultures of the Medicine Wheel Country have much to contribute to the rest of the worlds’ understanding about how to live a balanced and sustainable life. The tribes who lived light on the land also lived by a philosophy which emphasizes well-being over wealth, renewal over despair, and relationship over dominion. These cultural values were reinforced within extensive and inclusive kinship systems, and strengthened through participatory ceremonies and economic cooperation. I believe that contemporary communities, both tribal and non-Indian, could utilize these values and pathways to success that were cultivated and cherished by the indigenous people of the Northern Plains. “Walking in beauty on a red road” is a metaphor that tribal people throughout the west use to refer to living a good life. This balanced and graceful image is not a corporate model, but it powerfully informed tribal people’s worldview and behavior, and set them on a path towards enhanced and long-term well-being.
The places that nurtured and provided for the indigenous people of Montana must be kept in our collective memory as sacred areas of educational power and personal reflection. The winter camps along the rivers, the buffalo jumps and hot springs, the rock mines and the fasting beds along the high ridge lines, these are all places whose traditional value has been eclipsed by the newer, larger, and more powerful societies. Understanding how the land has changed over time, and what that has meant, and continues to mean to people, is one of the most important things that education can provide. Despite the dramatic changes in the land over the past 130 years in Montana, today’s community still has a lot in common with the people who lived here in the old ways. It’s the process of finding out what those commonalities are, and what they aren’t, that gives us a better sense of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
Enjoy this curriculum and thank you for being a teacher.