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Native American Heritage Month – A constitutional promise

by Zach Hawkins
| November 20, 2022 12:00 AM

November is National American Indian Heritage Month. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a Congressional Joint Resolution establishing this event and called upon governments, interested groups, organizations, and the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities. Every subsequent President has affirmed this proclamation. Thus, this month is a good time for all Montanans to reflect on the contributions of our Indian people to our great state and our nation.

A few amazing facts about Montana Native American history you may not know:

• Montana is home to one of the largest collections of pictographs and petroglyphs anywhere in North America. There’s a site called Bear Gulch about 20 miles outside of Lewistown that has over 1,200 distinct features, some of which are about 2,000 years old. Indigenous peoples traveled to Bear Gulch for thousands of years to commemorate rites of passage and other significant events.

• Montana is home to the largest collection of Clovis artifacts in the world. These were found in the Shields Valley in the 1960s along with the fossilized bones of a small child estimated to be about 12,500 years old. This site has been a source of both archeological and genealogical discovery and has helped shape our understanding of the first Montanans as well as American Indians as a whole. The DNA of this child had a direct link to 80% of modern American Indians. These and other unique markers of our Indigenous history are a part of what makes the Treasure State so special for those of us who call it home.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Indian Education for All (IEFA) Unit is tasked with supporting schools and teachers with the tools and resources necessary for teaching about Indians. This is in accordance with our Montana Constitutional promise in Article X that “The state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity” and §20-1-501, MCA, also known as the Indian Education For All law. While this is a year-round endeavor, National American Indian Heritage Month offers a great opportunity for our teachers, students, and communities to highlight and celebrate the rich cultures and histories of our Indian friends and neighbors. The OPI IEFA website offers a guidance document dedicated to this month. This document provides links to resources and tips for learning about who Montana and American Indians were and are today. Veterans Day and Thanksgiving offer teachable moments for students regarding Indian contributions to our nation. The IEFA Unit offers lessons and ideas for teaching about these topics. One resource is a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Thanksgiving address that provides great insight into Indigenous ways of giving thanks and celebrating our many blessings together.

All Montanans are encouraged to embrace American Indian Heritage Month and honor the charge of President Bush and his successors. This is a great opportunity to explore and learn while celebrating all that makes Montana great.

Zach Hawkins is director of Montana Office of Public Instruction’s Indian Education for All.

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