Blackfoot tells school of his people's history

Indian: Curly Bear Wagner of Montana visits Glenelg with tales of Native American life.

January 22, 2003|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sixteen-year-old Kevin Broderick is a history buff. On a family vacation to Montana last summer, he attended a lecture at Glacier National Park.

The speaker, Blackfoot Indian Curly Bear Wagner, told Native American legends. Wagner also mentioned that he was developing a CD-ROM that explores the Lewis and Clark expedition from an Indian point of view.

"I found that to be really interesting, since I knew that this year ... we would be studying the Lewis and Clark expedition," said Kevin, a junior at Glenelg Country School.

He kept in touch with Wagner by e-mail and invited him to speak at the school. Wagner was coming to the area for a Lewis and Clark celebration at Monticello, Va., and agreed to visit Glenelg last week.

As observances of the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition begin, Wagner is traveling to schools across the country.

"The history of the American Indians has never been taught in the school system," Wagner said. "This is American history. We [Blackfeet] have a really rich culture and heritage."

On Jan. 15, the school day was devoted to Wagner's visit. Children from preschool through fifth grade filled the elementary school library to hear Wagner compare hunting buffalo to a trip to the mall.

"Everything came from the buffalo," he said, including shoes, lodging and food. "So that was our Wal-Mart store."

Throughout Wagner's description of camp life, horse raids and courting rituals, he returned to the common aspects of human experience.

The children gasped when he described drinking buffalo blood after a kill "so we can be strong, like the buffalo." But when he asked them whether they eat gravy, the students were surprised to learn that it's sometimes made with blood.

Kevin's father, Ray Broderick, is the private school's academic dean.

With older students taking U.S. history, Broderick said, Wagner spoke about "the state of the Blackfeet currently, a little more of the harsher reality of what's going on.

Part of what we're trying to do is to incorporate his perspective into the curriculum of the school so that every year they would talk about the impact on the native people."

Tom Klein, who teaches 11th-grade U.S. history, said his students "wanted to know what the Blackfeet's relationship with the state and federal government is now.

They wanted to know what life is like for a Blackfoot student on the reservation."

Wagner is a Vietnam veteran and former cultural officer of the Blackfoot Nation.

He was raised in a traditional Indian home by a grandmother who remembered and told stories about the days of horse raids. Wagner said few Native American children are raised with the kind of oral heritage that he was.

As a result, he founded the Going-to-the-Sun Institute, an educational organization, in 1994. Its goals are to preserve the knowledge and oral traditions of the Plains Indians, sharing them with Indians and non-Indians.

The CD-ROM curriculum that Wagner is creating will explore U.S. history from a Native American perspective.

Vicki Privett, Wagner's business manager and the institute's secretary-treasurer, said, "I was just struck by how little I knew about the Plains Indians, and I was interested in bringing it into the schools. That's one of the goals of the foundation."

Wagner is "very aware of the lack of material available that's actually being written by the people that are being talked about," she said.

Kevin plans to keep in touch with Wagner and hopes he will return to Glenelg. "I talked to a lot of my peers, and they said he ... gave them a lot of insight on the culture," he said.

Wagner said that when he visits schoolchildren, "they get rid of the stereotype thinking about the Indian." What white settlers called savage behavior, he said, was really Native Americans fighting for survival.

"We are people just like them. We are a nation that still have our culture and our tradition intact," he said.

Information: www.curly- bear.org.

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