Unhampered by rainy weather, students learn about native cultures

2010-05-24T19:15:00Z Unhampered by rainy weather, students learn about native culturesED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 24, 2010 7:15 pm  • 

All-day rain forced cancellation of a field trip for Miles Avenue Elementary fourth-graders on Monday, but the show went on indoors.

The fourth-graders have been involved in a year-long pilot program that has them studying Montana Indian culture at the Rim Country Land Institute, a five-square-mile preserve of prairie grass and canyons a few miles northwest of Billings.

Driven indoors on Monday, the pupils learned about American Indian music from Scott Prinzing and Crow dance traditions from two members of the Native American Club at Billings Senior High.

Prinzing, with the MusEco Media and Education Project, wrote a guide to American Indian music for the state Office of Public Instruction. In his classroom presentation, he talked about native Montana musical traditions and shared recorded samples of the music with the fourth-graders.

The dance lesson was offered by twin sisters Natasha and Tahneya Laforge, accompanied by Anna DeCrane, a tutor advocate for the Indian Education Program at Senior High.

The Laforge sisters demonstrated a couple of Crow dances and entertained lots of questions, mostly about their elaborate elk-tooth dresses and beaded leggings, moccasins, belts and head bands.

“I’m so excited to have the district behind something like this,” said Sandra Abraham, one of the fourth-grade teachers at Miles Avenue.

Planning for the pilot program began last year after Abraham attended a “wildflower walk” at the institute on her own time. She was impressed with the site and the mission of the nonprofit institute — to offer place-based educational opportunities that increase understanding of and appreciation for prairie ecosystems.

She and Carolyn Sevier, an executive assistant at the institute, brainstormed through the summer and launched the pilot project last fall. Working with School District 2 and the state’s Indian Education for All program, they created a curriculum that examines two broad topics — the culture and history of Montana Indians and the natural environment that was their setting and source of life.

The fourth-graders taught by Abraham and Calli Nicholson have learned about plants and animals, native languages, traditional games, winter camps, music, dance and creation and origin stories.

During four previous field trips to the Rim Country Land Institute, the pupils took part in “walking classrooms,” learning about Indian customs and the use of plants and animals as they explored the expansive grounds.

“We’re not sitting and holding up plants,” Sevier said. “We’re walking and learning.”

The pupils also keep journals about their experiences, and, throughout the year, their teachers draw on those experiences to illuminate aspects of other classroom subjects.

“There’s a multitude of connections that are being made every day,” Abraham said. “I just think it makes education so much more relevant.”

Sevier said she and Abraham have also been working with the Audubon Conservation Education Center, which for two years has been offering an ANTS program — for Audubon Naturalists in Schools — that combines classroom lessons with field trips to the conservation center for fourth-graders at several local schools.

Sevier said the long-term goal is to involve every fourth-grade class in District 2 in a year-long place-based program offered either by Rim Country or Audubon.

Partnering with the nonprofit agencies makes it possible to secure grant money that the schools might not be able to access on their own, Sevier said.

Whether they’re learning about native cultures at the Rim Country Land Institute or studying bugs and birds at the Audubon center, Sevier said, the program connects kids to the land around them.

“Re-establishing that connection is part of the goal of what we’re doing,” she said.

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