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Monday, March 13, 2017

Learning and Teaching about Indian Sovereignty plus Request for Short Story Ideas

I had an amazing time at OPI's 11th Annual Indian Education for All Best Practices Conference. It is truly one of my favorite conferences, and if you've never gone, I encourage you to put it on your schedule for next year.

Among the sessions I attended was a mini-institute on teaching Indian sovereignty led by Billings Public School IEFA Coach Glenda McCarthy and Dana Wilson, the former vice chairman of the Crow Tribal Council.


I went to the session because I've struggled with this topic for years--as I think many non-Indian Montanans do. 

Before I jump into Dana and Glenda's session, I want to share this definition of sovereignty, taken from the lesson plan "Crossing Boundaries through Art: Seals of Montana Tribal Nations": 


  • Sovereignty: The supreme power from which all political powers are derived. Sovereignty is inherent and cannot be given to one group by another. Sovereignty ensures the right to self-government, facilitates cultural preservation, and enables a peoples’ control of their own future. Legally, federally recognized tribal nations are considered semi-sovereign entities and as such have a unique relationship to the federal government. Sovereignty affirms the political identity of Indian Nations; they are not simply a racial or ethnic minority. 
  • I also want to share  IEFA Essential Understanding 7: "Under the American legal system, Indian tribes have sovereign powers, separate and independent from the federal and state governments. However, the extent and breadth of tribal sovereignty is not the same for each tribe."
There is tension between and within these statements:
  • "Sovereignty is inherent and cannot be given to one group by another."
  • "Legally federally recognized tribal nations are considered semi-sovereign."
  • "the extent and breadth of tribal sovereignty is not the same for each tribe."
And it is these tensions that have caused me problems as I've thought about how to think about (and teach) Indian sovereignty. Thankfully, this session provided some great material and strategies.

Lesson 1: Bring in guest speakers. Dana's been giving presentations to government classes in the Billings School District and his presentation reminded me how valuable reaching out to experts can be--especially when you are dealing with a complicated topic where theory and practice don't always align. If you are teaching about Indian sovereignty--especially at the high school level--it's worth looking to nearby reservations to see if there's anyone who can help unpack the complexities.

Lesson 2: Resources exist to help you. Glenda guided us to several.

  1. Glenda has gathered many amazing resources on the Billings Public Schools IEFA website (high school social studies page), which she is happy to share with teachers across the state. They include a Tribal Sovereignty PowerPoint, teaching notes, fast facts, and two graphic organizers she's found useful in working with students as well as many links. 
  2. OPI has created three units on tribal seals (one for grades 3-5, one for grades 6-8, and one for grades 9-12). Both called "Crossing Boundaries through Art: Seals of Montana Tribal Nations," the flexible multi-part units are designed to help "students to learn about Montana Indian tribes as distinct, sovereign entities while studying and creating symbolic art."
  3. Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe's website "The Rez We Live On" has a two-minute introduction to sovereignty. (Lots of other great info here too.)
Glenda led us in a great exercise, where she had us work in small groups to analyze one of several articles, which discussed topics as varied as Trump's transition team's meeting with Native Americans, bison range management, hunting rights, language preservation, medical marijuana, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Within our group, after reading our article, we were instructed to perform the following tasks:
    • Define key terms from the article as necessary in margin.
    • Find 1-3 key quotes/evidence that could explain the issue to others, or be used to develop an argument.
    • Write questions/concerns you have about this issue or the article.
    • Summarize the central idea.  How does it relate to tribal sovereignty?
    • Report back.
I loved this exercise because it allowed us to apply the concept of sovereignty to specific situations (and thus to come away with a more sophisticated understanding.) If you decide to use this exercise, can (and should as time passes) look for articles that you can use with your class (Indian Country Today is a good source) but Glenda was kind enough to provide the articles we read during the workshop in a teacher-friendly word doc, which I have shared here.

As you can see, it was a productive three hours!

It wasn't part of the workshop, but here's one more resource that might be useful for teaching (and learning) about sovereignty:  Tribal Nations in Montana: A Handbook for Legislators.  A joint publication between the Montana Legislative Services Division and the Margery Hunter Brown Indian Law Clinic at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana, the 73-page handbook covers brief, educational introductions to a myriad of topics. Chapter headings include “Basic Principles of State-Tribal Relations,” “Definitions of ‘Indian’ and ‘Indian Tribe’,” “Tribal Sovereignty,” “Gaming,” “Water Rights,” “Indian Child Welfare Act,” “Criminal Jurisdiction in Indian Country,” “Taxation,” and much more. An electronic copy of the Handbook is available at the above link. While supplies last, you can receive a hard copy by emailing or calling Hope Stockwell at 406-444-9280 or HStockwell@mt.gov.


On a slightly different note, I received an email from a high school English teacher requesting suggestions for short stories that could help "non-native students to understand how cultural their ideas and understanding of land ownership is vs. other cultural beliefs about land stewardship." She writes: "I had been researching for any fiction (but non-fiction is great too) simply because students seem to be more receptive to a scenario, anecdote, or story about a topic than to an essay. That said, learning how to read essays, even if they don't appreciate them, is a part of their curriculum too." She already uses the amazing poetry collection OPI published: Birthright: Born to Poetry--A Collection of Montana Indian Poetry, and I recommended choosing excerpts from Plenty Coups and  Pretty Shield, which OPI donated to every public school library. I also suggested she take a look at our lesson plan "Mining Sacred Ground: Environment, Culture, and Economic Development on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation." Do you have other suggestions? Please send them along. 

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