On a recent field trip to the Montana Audubon Center, Science students from all three Billings high schools learned about how Native American tribes interacted with their environment, and how those interactions helped shape and sustain cultures.
"It really comes back to place-based education," said School District 2 Indian Education coach Jacie Jeffers. "We have the ability to tap that (Native) culture."
From a series of Native presenters, students learned about more than the physical attributes of plants and animals.
"Everything has a story," said Linwood Tall Bull, an instructor at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer. "The only thing I can't find a story for is a Big Mac, even though I like them."
Tall Bull explained why some bands of the Northern Cheyenne would eat beaver as an honored meal. The animal was recognized for its industrious work habits and hardy nature, being able to maintain fat to survive the winter.
"If you eat of them, those gifts are going to be bestowed upon you," Linwood said.
Similarly, pronghorn antelope, recognized for its endurance and speed, was a common meal for dancers, and part of the antelope would adorn moccasins.
Ada Bends, an expert from the Crow Tribe, explained the clan system to students. Relations described as nieces or nephews in western culture are considered sons or daughters within clan relations, she said.
Carolyn Sevier, who runs the Audubon center, taught students about biological characteristics of local plants, like the state tree, the ponderosa pine. The tree is found across Montana, from lush forests in the northwest to sparse outcrops on Billings' Rimrocks.
"It seems like a pretty terrible place for a tree to grow," Sevier said. But ponderosa pines have a deep tap root, giving it extra stability and water-reach.
Survival was a theme of many of Tall Bull's stories. He talked about how Northern Cheyenne women, while the tribe was at war with the U.S. government, would dig tunnels in snowbanks and teach children to hide if soldiers came.
"Many of those kids were orphans," he said. "From birth, they were taught to be survivors."
He told a story about cleaning a freshly killed deer, and some of the rituals that accompanied the process. One involved eating a part of the deer's intestines.
"I tried it once, I had diarrhea within about two minutes," Tall Bull said.
He learned about the process from women in his family. Tall Bull argued that women are often overlooked in the history of Native Americans, much like in western history. He said he tried to emphasize women's roles in his lessons.
"Because I was raised by grandmothers, I learned so many things from them," he said.
That knowledge is still relevant today, lecturers said.
"I live in two worlds," Bends said. "I speak English when I present to you. When I go home ... " she transitioned into an Apsáalooke greeting.
Teachers helped prep students for the visit and continue to tie in lessons later in the year with environmental biology, Jeffers said.
"There's a way to bridge these things."