Montana State University

Two Red Birds: Blackfeet teachers' work displayed at the Smithsonian

May 24, 2005 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service


The Smithsonian honors Blackfeet Head Start educators (L to R) Julia Schildt, Carol Bird and Ethyl Grant by displaying their Blackfeet language and cultural curriculum material in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. (photo courtesy Laura Massey.)   High-Res Available

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Bozeman--When children in Head Start classes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation chime, "There were two red birds, Sitting on a hill / One named Jack, The other named Jill," the youngsters giggle and clap to the nonsensical nursery rhyme. Their version is unique: The children recite in Blackfeet:

Naa-tok-kaam Moah-ksi-pik-s'iks
Ii'ta-toh'kit'toh'pii'yoi, Nit'a toom moi-yii

The inimitable lesson, part of a creative curriculum by Blackfeet Head Start administrators and teachers Carol Bird, Ethyl Grant and Julia Schildt, is now displayed in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

"Representatives from Head Start in D.C. visited Browning last year," said Bird, "They asked for a copy of our curriculum to display in the Smithsonian's new Indian museum. Two binders are now installed in the resource center and categorized with the Smithsonian library."

Creation of the program began three years ago, when the Blackfeet women recognized a need for a structured curriculum for their Head Start. They integrated Blackfeet language and culture into what they knew pre-kindergarteners needed before entering public schools on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

"As we focused on a color, Otah-koin-nat-tsi, the Blackfeet word for yellow, for example, we found autumn-yellow leaves, collected them and learned something about color, science, counting," Bird said. She noted that they integrated language and culture lessons into the Head Start's framework of language development, literacy, math, science, creative arts, social and emotional development, approaches to learning and physical health and development.

Head Start teachers on other Montana Indian reservations hope to create similar curriculum substituting Blackfeet language and culture for Chippewa-Cree on the Rocky Boy's Reservation, said MSU Health and Human Development professor Laura Massey. Massey and another Health and Human Development professor, Janis Bullock, helped fine-tune the document. Sisters Bird and Grant graduated from MSU in 2002. Schildt is a senior at MSU.

"We now have in place distance learning programs on three reservations, Blackfeet, Rocky Boy's and Ft. Belknap," said Massey. "Through WebCT, we are teaching online courses to Head Start teachers and others, some of whom have never even touched a typewriter. And we now have the Blackfeet curriculum available on CD."

They spent a year creating a program that now directs early education for 290 children in Blackfeet Head Start programs in Babb, Browning, East Glacier, Heart Butte, Star School and Seville.

"It was a personal goal for me to make a curriculum," Bird said. "When I worked in kindergarten, the big focus was on the alphabet. When I began working at Head Start, I asked for curriculum. They didn't have one. So I wanted something in place--an outline and direction for teachers so the children were prepared for kindergarten, could write their name, and write letters of the alphabet."

Bird and Grant asked storyteller and cultural teacher Cecile Doore to teach Blackfeet language.

"During quiet time, the bilingual teacher told Na'pi stories, lessons or fairytales," Bird said. "The children really learned to listen. She told the Na'pi stories in English and added words in Blackfeet, words like 'dog' or 'blackbird.'"

The Na'pi stories are meant to teach things like respect, values, honor and politeness, said Grant.

"When an elder gives you a Na'pi story, you listen," said Grant, noting that Na'pi, or Old Man is a main character in Blackfeet legends. "If you are misbehaving at a Pow Wow, an elder might pull you aside and tell you a Na'pi story. When you leave, you know that you now must behave or Na'pi will get you."

"The children should know who they are and where they came from," Bird said.

"Our next goal," added Grant, "is to develop a curriculum for children 0-3 years old."

"They created a gem," Massey said. "Their storytelling is particularly good. They used traditional stories, not just translated nursery rhythms, and combined them with Blackfeet language with assistance from elders. They developed themes with basic concepts translated throughout the curriculum. And they are finding success with the children."

Contact Laura Massey at lmassey@montana.edu or 994-3300