As an educator, Lacy Watson has invested in not just learning about, but learning from the worst of history. She once attended a special Holocaust training program that included a trip to Europe, visiting sites of death camps.
Watson, a West High teacher who grew up in Fort Benton, believes that understanding the darkest chapters of human history can help avoid repeating them. But despite that disposition, she spent most of her life unaware of the nearby Marias Massacre of about 200 Blackfeet Indians by the U.S. Army in 1870.
“It happened 40 miles from where I grew up, and I’d never heard about it until I was like 34 (years old),” she said.
A teacher training program in Billings helped educators draw parallels between the Holocaust and U.S. government policies affecting Native Americans, and to help their students do so.
TOLI, The Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights, which is named for Holocaust survivor Olga Lengyel, trains teachers across the globe in an effort to bolster education about human rights and social justice. The group offers resources that help link the Holocaust and other genocides to current events and local histories, and has 11 summer seminars in the U.S. and nine in Europe.
In Billings, that local emphasis means the exploration of how U.S. policies affecting American Indians can be viewed through the same lens as anti-Semitic policies, and how history blends into contemporary culture.
The National Congress of American Indians estimates 10 million American Indians lived in what is now the U.S. in 1500. Disease spread by Europeans, war and oppression left only about 237,000 alive in 1900. About 5.2 million people today are Native American or Alaskan Native, according to the 2010 census.
Congress issued a resolution in 2013 requesting that the Smithsonian Museum create a National American Indian Holocaust Museum.
Montana’s Indian Education for All requirement dictates that students learn about American Indian history and contemporary culture in an integrated way through multiple subjects, making the state well-positioned to implement such lessons.
But, as Watson and other teachers noted, educators can be reluctant to take on subjects they’re not well-trained in.
The TOLI seminar lasted for about a week, and included trips to a synagogue and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations. Visiting with real people proved invaluable to help drive home messages.
“It brings the human into the history,” said Medicine Crow Middle School teacher Lindsey Buehler.
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On Friday, teachers worked on “action plans” to help show how they plan to bring what they learned into their classrooms.
“This allows us to get out of the textbooks,” said Shaylin Young, a Hardin teacher. “We need to know how to teach that silence is not the answer.”
It’s somewhat common for students to lack knowledge of Native American history. But it’s also not unheard of for students to be unaware of the Holocaust, the systematic killing of about 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Watson’s sophomore class reads a book written by a Holocaust survivor each year.
“Every year, there’s a kid who says, ‘I didn’t know about the Holocaust,’” she said.
Educators acknowledged that it can be more difficult for students to relate to something that happened decades ago and thousands of miles away. But TOLI works not only to use the Holocaust to illuminate local history, but to make the Holocaust more relatable through local connections.
“It’s not a far-off thing. It’s in our faces,” said Jessica Hartman, a Bozeman educator.
“It’s not something that’s removed. It’s a part of who we are, and we need to acknowledge that,” said Bryce Bodily, an educator from Rigby, Idaho.
But ultimately, teachers need to let students “make their own connections,” Young said.
TOLI preaches a “pedagogy of hope,” trying to look forward as much as looking back into history.
“We have all of these terrible things in our history,” said Watson, a veteran of the TOLI program who now helps lead it. “(But) we don’t have to keep repeating these cycles of oppression.”