“Teaching The Legacy Of Indian Boarding Schools: Montana As A Role-Model”

CBC InterviewBack in June, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation visited Montana to learn more about the Office of Public Instruction’s Indian Education for All initiative because Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has recommended improving how First Nations’ culture and history is taught to public school children.

In Montana, American Indian history and culture is integrated into every subject and offered to all public school students.

The CBC’s story suggests Montana’s Indian Education for All program should be a model for Canadian schools.

The six-minute report is in French, we’ve included a translated transcript.


Anchor: “One of the main recommendations made by the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation regarding Indian Boarding Schools is to establish a teaching program addressing the First Nations’ history. Such program has been already implemented for the past 10 years in the State of Montana. Should Canada follow this example? Raphael Bouvier Auclair went there to see what it’s all about.”

Bouvier Auclair: A perfect combination of plains and mountains. No wonder this place has been named “the Treasure State.” But a less desirable portrait hides behind the splendor of this State that encompasses a little over one million residents: the Indian Boarding Schools.

This classroom looks like a museum and it illustrates well the lifelong passion of Chris Fisk. The goal of his history course is to convey to students that before the mining industry was established in Butte, the city where he teaches, other men lived on these lands with a completely different life of fishing and bison hunting. The teacher relates that a troubling period occurred in the history of the First Nations in the United States – a difficult reality, but one that deserves to be unveiled.

Chris Fisk: “Certain episodes of the history of Montana and of the United States are not glorious. The period of the Indian Boarding Schools is one of them.”

Bouvier Auclair: He speaks to the students about the boarding schools where nearly 100,000 American Indian youth were sent during the 19th and 20th century.

CBC videoAs was the case in Canada, they were taken from their families to live in these establishments where they were forbidden to speak their native language. Some say they have been abused and beaten up – a difficult subject to be addressed by Montana’s school teachers who were not even aware of this reality just a few years ago.

American Indian culture is deeply embedded in Montana’s politics. In fact, the requirement to preserve the cultural integrity of American Indians through education is included in the State’s Constitution.

Denise Juneau, a Democrat, has been in charge of the Montana Office of Public Instruction since 2008. She is the first American Indian woman elected to this position in the country. She explained that implementing the Indian Education for All program in schools has been a challenge. No laws regarding this issue were established prior to 1999; then it took a decision from the Montana Supreme Court approximately 10 years ago to force the state to fund the program.

Since then, the State of Montana has invested $77 million to develop Indian Education for All teaching materials to be distributed in schools. School teachers are encouraged to cover a variety of topics, including materials on Indian Boarding Schools.

One chapter of this history is described by Denise Juneau as a cultural genocide. But the program presents this period as an exercise of assimilation for the purpose of “killing the Indian and saving the man.”

Denise Juneau: “We present this episode as a historical fact without judging one community or another.”

Joana Benach Salas: “The first time I was told to introduce American Indian culture in my teaching, I thought to myself, ‘oh, this will be very difficult’.”

Bouvier Auclair: Initially, this Spanish teacher formerly from Europe found the concept difficult to implement. But she now understands the intention of the program. For example she used a historical text related to American Indian history in her Spanish class.

Benach Salas: “I live here, I have friends who are happy about this program and it is normal.”

Bouvier Auclair: Jolena Hinchman participates in training workshops for school teachers who still need to learn about the culture of the First Nations.

Jolena Hinchman: “This effort creates a more pleasant reality for American Indians in the United States. This allows us to improve relations between communities.”

Bouvier Auclair: This young woman, whose family members attended Indian Boarding Schools, sees progress being made. She believes the discussions occurring in Montana schools are improving relations between communities.

Better knowledge of her people’s culture and greater pride in her people is noticeable. Although the American Indian academic achievement remains below average, the success rate of American Indian youth in schools has increased by five percent over the course of the last five years.

Hinchman: “When I was going to school, close to nothing was taught on the history of the First Nations.”

Bouvier Auclair: Nowadays, young people are enthusiastic to learn about the history of American Indian communities.

Chris Fisk is a high school teacher in Butte, Mont.

Chris Fisk is a high school teacher in Butte, Mont.

Student: “To learn to treat people with respect, to be tolerant toward people.”

Bouvier Auclair: Classes teaching about the history of Indian Boarding Schools have taught him the importance of respect and tolerance – a lesson that could be applied elsewhere in the United States and in Canada, according to his teacher Chris Fisk.

Fisk: “It is part of our history. We should not ignore it; we just need to understand it.”

Bouvier Auclair: According to him, acknowledging the past, even the darkest events, is the path towards a peaceful future.

Translation by Guylaine Gelinas