THE BLOG
10/26/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2014

Kids in Montana Unique: They're Learning the Truth

A few miles north of Wyoming, just off Route 25, is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. In fact, it's right across the street from the Custer Battlefield Trading Post & Café - complete with a rainbow assortment of brightly and inauthentically colored tipis and the promise of "Indian Tacos."

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is located in the Crow Reservation in Southeastern Montana. One can only assume Custer's namesake café is not. And while the café still cashes in on the genocidal exploits of a U.S. General, a certain cultural sensitivity has seeped into the park service. Sadly, that sensitivity is as new as it is shallow. Prior to 1991 the battlefield too was named for Custer. And to this day the literature distributed at the national monument refers to a "clash of cultures" and not the more accurate "native peoples' battle against extermination" which actually took place at the site.

The fact that the National Park Service is still soft pedaling the intent of the soldiers sent by the Federal Government to the Indian Territories is particularly disquieting in Montana, a state that - in 1972 - changed it's constitution to demand that the state "recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indian and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural heritage." One would imagine that commitment to education would mean national parks telling the truth.

Finally, what Montanans can't do for the National Park Service they are doing for their school children. It only took 34 years to make that happen, even though the Montana Indian Education for All (IEFA) Act passed without too much trouble. Year after year, when the legislature provided funding to make it a reality, school departments routinely syphoned off allotted dollars to pay for other education needs: effectively rendering IEFA defunct.

Cecil B. Crawford, a Native American Community Specialist for the Missoula's School Department, said that no other laws affect people like laws about Native Americans. Crawford explained, "If they passed a law today that the speed limit was 50 miles per hour, tomorrow you'd get a ticket. They wouldn't wait 30 years to enforce the law." Crawford said he was a sophomore in high school when IEFA passed, he's 58 now and "it's just coming into play."

Crawford's a legend among Indian educators in Missoula. They talk about his backpack full of supplies for kids, all kids, not just the Native Americans. Crawford said that he started working at Hellgate High School during the 1993-94 school year and was only paid to be there one hour a week. At the time, Crawford says, the drop out rate for Native American children was approaching 70 percent, and now it's around 5 percent. That's because, nowadays, Crawford works a lot more than one hour a week and he's not alone anymore. Missoula has five Native American Specialists, all working full time. Specialists Crawford, Raymond Kingfisher, Cathie Cichosz, Jake Arrowtop, and Kate Beals - and none of them care about their titles. Crawford simply refers to himself as someone who "helps kids graduate."

If a survey were conducted of Missoula students and their parents, few would be able to identify Kate Beals. Beals, a fixture in the first and second grades, has researched and read Native American stories to children for years. But the kids all know her as Ahka, the Inupiaqt name she uses while teaching. Ahka's stories and cultural lessons are so appreciated by all the children -- not just the Indians -- that teachers reschedule her if school closes and the kids miss her regular class.

And that's the point of IEFA. While intended to make the Native kids better understand their culture and their history, it's also supposed to increase the understanding among the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the ethnics who settled in Montana from far away. Specialist Cichosz says to do this, the kids have to hear native stories, native histories. Most books about Native Americans were written by white authors who were paid to write the story - and like any interpretation by outsiders - meaning gets lost. Cichosz says there's a danger, "non-native teachers might teach Indian kids wrong." They certainly have in the past. Resulting in huge errors, like the National Parks Service referring to genocide as a "Clash of Cultures."

Missoula County Montana isn't just teaching every kid in the school department the truth about native populations, their culture and their tragic history. It's keeping track of each and every tribe represented in the classroom. This representation is vastly important to the educators, because it comes in the form of a child. Consequently, Glenda Weasel - data specialist for the school department - painstakingly counts every one of them. Weasel does this out of respect for the child, but also to have the data necessary to support continuing, even expanding their program. According to Weasel the Indian Education Grant only recognizes certain tribes, she believes they need to recognize them all.

By Weasel's count, in 2012 there were 471 native students in the Missoula School Department from 31 distinct tribes. Kingfisher, the department's newest specialist says the one thing that would improve the work they are doing would be if they had more specialists. In fact, Kingfisher says, "We need one for every tribe in the system."

Seems like a fair request; if the intention is to teach children that there were separate and distinct nations in place before the white people came to North America, one really needs to understand who those people were: especially when talking to their descendants. After all, mislabeling all the tribes with the names of a chosen few would undoubtedly create a true clash of cultures.