Indigenous Foodways Are the Focus in a Growing Number of Classrooms | Civil Eats

Indigenous Foodways Are the Focus in a Growing Number of Classrooms

A recent bison harvest in Montana is one example of the work being done in a growing number of state-level curriculum programs that immerse students in sacred ceremony and food traditions.

Indigenous and non-native Great Falls students and staff gather around hides of six bison, including a freshly killed bison, as Indian Education Director Dugan Coburn (in blanket coat) demonstrates skinning the bison and honoring its life with thanks with a sage-burning and pipe prayer. The sage smudge burns away any bad energy. Sweetgrass burning welcomes the good. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Indigenous and non-native Great Falls students and staff gather around hides of six bison, including a freshly killed bison, as Indian Education Director Dugan Coburn (in blanket coat) demonstrates skinning the bison and honoring its life with thanks with a sage-burning and pipe prayer. The sage smudge burns away any bad energy. Sweetgrass burning welcomes the good. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

In early December, a group of about 25 high school students from Great Falls, Montana, traveled to a ranch in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front in biting, minus-9 degree temperatures.

After the ranch manager, Chris Bechtold, killed and bled out one of the estimated 700 bison in the herd, the students approached the carcass to participate in the traditional process of breaking down the animal. It was bitter cold out, but the organizer stoked a big bonfire to keep everyone warm.

Dugan Coburn, Indian Education for All and Indigenous Education director for Great Falls Public Schools, guts every organ from a bison for native and non-native students and school staff. The abdominal cavity includes four stomachs and the nutrient-rich large and small intestines. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Dugan Coburn, Indian Education for All and Indigenous Education director for Great Falls Public Schools, guts every organ from a bison for native and non-native students and school staff. The abdominal cavity includes four stomachs and the nutrient-rich large and small intestines. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Dugan Coburn, the director of the district’s Indian Education for All (IEFA) program, led a sage-burning ceremony and then a ritual pipe ceremony to clear bad energy and release negativity. “We use it to honor the animal who gave up its life,” said Coburn, a Blackfoot. “We do it so everybody there understands that every life is important and that taking one has to be done with seriousness and respect.”

He talked about how people in the prairie tribes relied on bison for food, clothes, tools, and shelter when 30 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. Then Bechtold described the interactive agricultural cycle in which bison help the prairie recover–boosting the water supply, grass health, and survival rates of mice and other animals.

“I’m asking (the students) to take it in—and remember all these things that we’re teaching them,” Coburn told KRTV, a local news station in Great Falls. “One day, I won’t be here, and that knowledge needs to be passed on to the next group of kids.”

“We use it to honor the animal who gave up its life. We do it so everybody there understands that every life is important and that taking one has to be done with seriousness and respect.”

This kind of Indigenous knowledge transfer is rare within a public school district, but advocates in the state see it as a crucial element for both Native and non-Native students. The Great Falls district enrolls nearly 1,700 students who self-identify as Indian. They hail from at least 60 different Native American communities, which include members of the Chippewa Cree, Assiniboine, Little Shell, and Blackfeet tribes, among others.

Montana’s Indian Education For All, a program that employs a director, three full-time Indian education specialists, and others at the district level, including Coburn, is based on policy that has existed since 1999. It stands out in a national landscape in which Native people and their cultures often go unseen. The Reclaiming Native Truth (RNT) project found that 72 percent of Americans rarely encounter information about Native Americans, and 87 percent of state history standards do not mention Native American history after 1900. Montana is one of a handful of states serving as models for others looking to bring Native food traditions and other traditional practices into the classroom.

A Hands-On Harvest

On the ranch, Coburn skinned the bison, allowing students to touch the thick hide, then passed around the organs. Students could hold the large liver, spleen, lungs, and intestines. Coburn held up the animal’s shockingly big heart, which he planned to cook and share at school. He also offered students a chance to taste a raw kidney and take a drink of bison blood, which he says historically allowed Native people to take in much-needed iron. “Blood soup was a common dish a thousand years ago,” he added.

“The kids walk up to the bison and feel how big it is,” said Coburn after the fact. “It’s still warm . . . the kidneys, intestines, and fat [will be used] for cooking and finishing stonework.”

Similar to a federal surplus program in South Dakota and Nebraska, where tribal, family, and public land grant management continues to help bring bison back from near extinction, the Diamond 4D Ranch in Montana teams with Indian Education leaders to reintroduce bison to their native range in a “perfect ecosystem.” The ranch creates a setting beneficial to both wildlife and agriculture by integrating progressive management practices and natural processes. The goal is to allow bison to “express their innate abilities” while preserving and restoring native prairie ecosystems.

Driver and Diamond D4 Ranch Manager Chris Bechtold lifts a pre-selected bison on his truck to transport back to students and staff after he shot the animal to harvest. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)A student handles the bison liver during the gutting part of the bison harvest process. Students were allowed to take portions home to cook and eat. Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools.

Left: Chris Bechtold lifts a pre-selected bison on his truck to transport back to students and staff after he shot the animal to harvest; right: A student handles the bison liver during the gutting part of the bison harvest process. (Photos credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Coburn has been taking students to the ranch regularly over the last three years—even early in the pandemic when student enrollment was down. And Bechtold remains in awe of the ongoing partnership. “It’s much more than a cultural class at that point. It’s cultural, it’s history, it’s biology,” he said.

Most of the students on the trip in December—even those from families who keep other traditions alive—had never experienced a bison harvest.

“It’s much more than a cultural class at that point. It’s cultural, it’s history, it’s biology.”

Student Gage St. Germaine spoke with KRTV about celebrating and using the whole animal, in keeping with tradition. He had painted his face with bison blood in the process as a way of showing respect to the animal. “It gave its life for us, it gave us meat and sustenance to survive,” he said. St. Germaine also spoke to the need to reconnect more students with what he called a dying culture. “There are not many people doing it anymore. It’s kinda fading away, and we need to show people that we’re still here; we still do the things that we used to,” he said.

After the harvest, the group transported the bison meat and organs to a processor in Great Falls, giving the students a chance to observe a mix of traditional and modern techniques, from start to finish.

Back at the student culinary kitchen at Paris Gibson Education Center, a local alternative school, the staff cooked the bison heart and offered samples to students: fried with minced garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and other seasonings. “It tastes like steak,” said Coburn.

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Biology teacher Jonathan Logan had prepped for the bison harvest. He teaches and tends the school’s aquaponics vegetable and herb gardens, including several kinds of sage for ceremonies, sunflowers, sweetgrass, fruit, and coffee in a multipurpose garden, where students learn hands-on skills and practice ceremonies, complete with a teepee.

Biology teacher Amber Lloyd visited the ranch with the students and took back a wealth of lesson ideas for her classes. “It was an amazing way to . . . connect with them. It showed them how important honor, respect, and traditions are within their culture.”

“I wanted a place where the students could see sweetgrass growing, lavender, mint, and sage, a place where students could go for healing and peace,” said Curtis Valladolid, a Native instructor who designed the outdoor garden. “At the start of the school year, we harvest the sweetgrass and braid it. I think last year we harvested and braided at least 200 braids . . . and it all started with six bulbs of sweetgrass!”

Biology teacher Amber Lloyd also visited the ranch with the students and took back a wealth of lesson ideas for her classes. She praised the harvest: “So many of our Indigenous students don’t have a great connection to their rich culture and heritage (maybe they didn’t grow up on the reservation), so it was an amazing way to share that with them and connect with them. It showed them how important honor, respect, and traditions are within their culture.”

Montana Constitution Emphasizes Native Culture

Montana is home to seven reservations, which provide endless opportunities for partnerships and learning about a wide range of traditional foodways. The Billings School District, one of the other large districts in the state that is near a reservation, provides Indigenous family support, powwows, and food events in keeping with IEFA.

Montana’s IEFA curriculum stands out because it is the only state in the U.S. that includes a provision in its constitution that says all students, Native and non-Native, should learn about the distinct culture and heritage of American Indians, with a particular emphasis on Montana tribes. And the distinct IEFA policy is an accreditation standard, so local teachers and districts can decide how they want to incorporate it into their lessons in all core subject areas. Traditional food procurement practices are often core to the lessons.

Likewise, the Indian Education Title VI program, a U.S. Department of Education program, works to meet the unique educational and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Title VI exists to send federal funds to school districts, tribes, organizations, and post-secondary schools in support of those goals. In Montana, it ensures that Indian students, in particular, learn about Native communities, languages, tribal histories, traditions, and cultures. It also ensures that educators and other staff who serve those students can provide culturally appropriate, effective instruction and support.

“A big part of Indian Education for All (IEFA) is that we not generalize, because every tribe is different.”

Other states, like Oregon, offer a basic IEFA curriculum required for specific grade levels to study all state tribes. “Because Montana is a local control state, we don’t require a specific curriculum but provide lots of lesson and resource options for districts to choose from,” said Brian O’Leary, spokesperson for Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Teaching all students that tribes differ in traditions is a key component of the content standards.

“We’re able to teach lodge etiquette for my staff,” said Coburn, explaining that different tribes follow varying techniques and ceremonies at different stages of the hunting, harvesting, and preparation of assorted food. “A big part of Indian Education for All is that we not generalize, because every tribe is different.”

O’Leary said he has seen an increased focus on food sovereignty and the return to traditional foods to restore cultural practices and improve health. Some Montana tribes highlight gathering food, as in an annual bitterroot harvest on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Harlem High School, located on the Fort Belknap Reservation, also tends a greenhouse ripe with possibilities for growing food and flowers, and the IEFA program offers a food sovereignty unit created to be integrated into family and consumer sciences classes (formerly home economics) and cooking classes.

The Broader IEFA Landscape

Montana’s work in this space is part of a complex and evolving national landscape. In 2019, the National Congress of American Indians published a collaborative study called “Becoming Visible” that looked at efforts to provide Native American education throughout the 35 states that include federally recognized tribal nations.

“The erasure of contemporary Native Americans’ contributions, innovations, and accomplishments in K-12 education fuels harmful biases in generation after generation of Americans who grow up learning a false, distorted narrative about Native Americans,” wrote the researchers. “Teaching students accurate Native history is not enough to break through the invisibility and stereotypes that feed and perpetuate bias and racism; it is also imperative to teach about contemporary Native issues and the accomplishments of Native peoples today.”

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

The report’s author found that nearly 90 percent of the states they looked at reported current efforts to improve the quality of and access to Native American curriculum, and most indicated that their content standards include Native American education, but far fewer states require such a curriculum to be taught in public schools. Only nine states provide additional funding for NEFA, and Montana is second to only to Hawaii in terms of the number of staff it employs.

Since the release of the RNT report, a growing number of states are adopting curriculum, professional support, policy, and initiatives to teach Native education, said Mandy Smoker-Broaddus, the report’s main author and a senior advisor for Native and Culturally Responsive Education for Education Northwest.

“Before, there was Washington, North Dakota, and Oregon, and [now] there are other states working on it, like Minnesota and Kansas,” said Smoker-Broaddus. “Quite a few state education departments have now expanded their Native education supports. They’ve hired new staff, like in New Mexico, Minnesota, and Oregon. They have all used some of the federal relief dollars in recent years to expand their staff, provide more resources, and provide more support, which is great.”

Hunting and other food-related practices are often a natural pathway for transmitting traditional knowledge, she adds. “Those traditional food systems that helped Native people grow and thrive are still important today, and teaching about this history and contemporary context helps students learn that we continue to grow and develop as communities.”

‘It Changes Students’ Lives’

Hands-on experiential learning, such as the recent bison harvest, also have a tendency to resonate with students in a way that many classroom lessons do not. “It’s important for students to not only read about it in a textbook, but get to experience it directly. It changes the students’ lives,” added Smoker-Broaddus.

That kind of holistic, in-person change is evident in Montana, where both teachers and administrators are working to overcome historical invisibility with a concentrated focus on foodway programs. Lloyd, the biology teacher, said the bison harvest prepared her students to evaluate the impacts of human activities on the environment and analyze the scientific concepts used by Native peoples to maintain a healthy relationship with environmental resources. Meanwhile, students in the culinary program learned how to prepare and process the cuts of bison meat. Coburn and his staff then distributed it to families in Great Falls, most of whom were Indigenous.

Students and staff warm themselves near a bonfire as previously harvested bison hides dry nearby as part of an educational ceremony on the Diamond D4 Ranch in Montana. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Students and staff warm themselves near a bonfire as previously harvested bison hides dry nearby as part of an educational ceremony on the Diamond D4 Ranch in Montana. (Photo credit: Great Falls Public Schools)

Coburn described the circle of life encompassed by the harvest on KRTV: “Our tribes mimic what the bison did; the bison was almost extinct; our tribes are almost extinct. We were that closely related with them. Now that the bison are coming back, we need to get our people to understand who they are, what they are, what they did for us.”

St. Germaine, the student, hopes the harvest can draw a few hundred eager learners. “I want there to be a lot more just ‘cuz it’s so fun and you learn so much from it,” he said.

Renata Birkenbuel is the Civil Eats Indigenous Foodways Fellow for 2022–23. Birkenbuel, a member of the Montana Little Shell tribe, began her newspaper career as a daily sports writer, but eventually evolved into an education and business reporter who also covered food co-ops, food banks, and food security—sometimes intertwined with other social issues, as well as unions, health care, the arts, and pay equity. Based in Missoula, she mentors young writers as a college adjunct writing instructor. She also spent time working as an editor at Prairie Populist, an online-only advocacy conservation publication covering on-the-ground agriculture and sustainability stories in Montana missed by the mainstream press. She has worked as a contract reporter for Newsweek and Missoula Current. From 2013 to 2017, she served as an education, business, and features reporter for The Montana Standard in Butte, Montana. For the 14 years preceding that, Birkenbuel was a contributing writer for The Seattle Times and published articles in about 40 other Northwest publications. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

More from

Indigenous Foodways

Featured

hickens gather around a feeder at a farm on August 9, 2014 in Osage, Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What Happened to Antibiotic-Free Chicken?

With the biggest poultry company in the country backtracking and other commitments to raising healthier birds unmet, the future is rockier than it once seemed.

Popular

Nik Sharma Offers His Top Tips for Home Cooks to Fight Recipe Fatigue

Nik Sharma baking at left, and tossing a chickpea dish at right. (Photo credit: Nik Sharma)

Far From Home, the Curry Leaf Tree Thrives

Zee Lilani of Kula Nursery stands among her curry leaf tree starts in Oakland, California. (Photo credit: Melati Citrawireja)

A Guide to Climate-Conscious Grocery Shopping

Changing How We Farm Might Protect Wild Mammals—and Fight Climate Change

A red fox in a Connecticut farm field. (Photo credit: Robert Winkler, Getty Images)