LIVING WITH FAITH Legends, culture and misinformation
Oki, means hello in the Blackfeet language. Part of teaching on the reservation, and actually anywhere in the state of Montana, requires one to include the native culture in the classroom. I admit I’m still trying to learn the language.
The culture, history and legends are easier to learn. For example, did you know that buffalo hide was used both raw and tanned? That there were over 30 different uses for the different parts of the beast? Or that there are at least two different legends for how the buffalo jump was created? (A buffalo jump is a cliff formation which Native Americans historically used to hunt and kill plains bison in mass quantities.)
In one of the legends, Napi (who, I believe, is thought to be the first man) was hungry, and the creator was willing to give him whatever he created from dirt. Napi created a large mound, and it was turned into a beast (buffalo) that chased Napi until Napi jumped into a tree and the beast ran off the edge of a cliff.
In the other legend, the people needed food, and a daughter of a hunter sang to the buffalo and promised to be wed if the buffalo would allow the town to have some of the herd. The buffalo ran and some fell to their death, and the woman tried to get out of the marriage, only to have her father trampled to pieces, one of which she was able to use to sing her father alive again.
Some interesting legends indeed, but one should not think that just because Blackfeet children live on the reservation and live with their families that they would know the legends of their culture any more so than non-native children know rhymes and songs like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Teaching the culture may not seem difficult, but trying to figure it out from the outside takes time.
The legends behind the buffalo is the lesson I taught my students on our September Cultural Day. While we incorporate the culture every day, we have one Friday near the end of each month when we highlight a part of the culture. I will be teaching this lesson every month, to a different second grade class, but I will be using paper bags to simulate tanned hides. Another teacher is focusing on Star Quilts. I hope to learn more about them soon, and I will explain them as well.
Back when I was waiting to hear if I got this job, I researched Browning, the reservation town and home of the school in which I teach. I read that the town is (1.) depressed and poor; (2.) has dogs roaming everywhere; and (3.) is filthy. There is some truth in what I found, but other information was simply incorrect.
Yes, the residents of the town are poor, but consider what our government did to Native Americans. They were placed on reservations and given rations. But the Blackfeet were a people who didn’t need money. They harvested what they needed, and thanked the earth for providing for them.
As for the dogs, yes, they are everywhere. However, in the Blackfeet culture, dogs have a spirit, and one can care for another living creature with a spirit, but one cannot own that creature. Locking a dog in a cage is infringing on that spirit’s need for freedom.
Concerning the trash, there are cans and they are used, but how many times have you been at a cookout or a picnic, thrown trash away, just to see a strong wind blow the trash to the ground? When my family rented a car when I first moved here, my mom was told that here, “wind” is any breeze stronger than 60 or 70 mph. During my first few weeks here, I did not feel the wind, but I witnessed breezes that back in Lansford would have had us removing flags and securing other items to keep them from blowing into the neighbor’s yard.
When one visits a new area, one should consider why things are the way they are. Are there cultural reasons? What happened in the past? What is the weather like? For instance, in my last school, when the temperature fell less than 32 degrees, we kept our students inside for recess. Here, it’s 0 degrees. Why? Well, by the end of September we already had a few days close to, or below freezing, with some mornings in the 20s. We had snow before fall officially began on Sept. 22, not that it stuck in the towns, but it did give us white-capped mountains.
One thing that causes quite a bit of trouble for people here are the wild fires. I was unable to see the fires on my drives, but they caused smoke that covered the area. Pieces of ash fell on towns far from the actual fires. Thankfully, the snow and drizzle assisted the firefighters and put an end to the smoke.
When I wrote this, I was not sure if there were still fires burning or not. I know that a couple of the fire camps have been disbanded, but I didn’t have cable, so news was not readily available to me. I remember the fire started by an ATV a few years ago between the Pa. Turnpike tunnel near the Mahoning Valley exit that spread over the mountain toward the Lehigh Valley. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was concerned, and the ground was scarred. That fire lasted a few days. Here in Montana, the fires burn for months and firefighters live in the fire camps for weeks at a time.
Next time, I will give you another word in the native language I am working to learn. I will also tell you more about the history and culture of this area that is starting to feel like home. Until then, Nii tak ko to mat tsi no. (I will see you again.)