Blackfeet Classes Draw Students, Young and Old

Feb 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 18-3: Building Prosperity, Tribal College News
By Jack McNeel

BLACKFEET ARTIST. Dale Fenner, a Blackfeet Studies major, made this parfleche cylinder during a college workshop. Photo by Jack McNeel.

Blackfeet Studies is an important part of the curriculum for all students at Blackfeet Community College (BCC, Browning, MT). Six credits in that area are required for all students to graduate with associate degrees, regardless of their field of study. Many Blackfeet families do well in teaching their children, but some don’t. This requirement provides everyone the opportunity to learn about tribal history and culture.

The college also offers majors in both Blackfeet Studies and Blackfeet Language. These majors require a minimum of 30 credits in those subject areas out of the 60 total credits required for graduation after 2 years.

Lea Guardipee Whitford (Blackfeet) is the Blackfeet Studies Department chair. All students must select at least two classes from a group of six to fulfill graduation requirements. Those six include History of the Blackfeet, Early Indian Health and Medicinal Practices, Pikunii Humanities, Blackfeet Art Basics/History, Blackfeet Philosophy, Beginning Blackfeet Language, and an elective special study.

“Two of the more popular classes are History of the Blackfeet and the health and medicinal practices class that’s taught by Wilbert Fish,” she commented. “[Students] spend a lot of time in the field collecting and identifying plants. Wilbert talks about traditional ways of preparing the plants and their uses. He cautions students on not over- harvesting.”

“We’re one of the largest departments in the school in terms of numbers of classes taught and student enrollment in those classes, although perhaps only six or seven students graduate from these two programs of study each year,” Whitford said.

Marvin Weatherwax, Sr. teaches the Blackfeet Language classes. Carol Murray founded the Blackfeet Studies program during her term as college president and still teaches some classes.

Whitford teaches humanities, history, and Blackfeet Women. “We’ll look at stories and the role of the woman. In our culture, women were highly regarded. We also talk about today’s issues of concern to women, like health,” Whitford said.

There is a gradual change in the student demographics at BCC, she said, “as younger students enroll straight from high school to college. Nevertheless, there are still many older women returning to college.”

“The Blackfeet Studies classes often aren’t as competitive as other subject areas and that helps ease the transition to college for some of the older students,” she said. “We’re kind of a stepping stone for a lot of elders. They feel more comfortable starting with Blackfeet Language/Studies courses. Then they may branch out into other areas as they become more comfortable with college.”

“It’s also a social thing to some degree, an opportunity to get out and mingle and learn and also contribute,” Whitford says. “They (elders) also serve as role models to others: ‘If I can do this, you can do this too.’ It’s awesome to see an elder in the community graduating with her grandchildren.”

Whitford sees former students wherever she goes in the community — people now working in hospitals, in the education system, and elsewhere. She feels rewarded, seeing their successes.

Jack McNeel is a freelance writer who can be reached at (208) 665-9233. Reprinted with permission from Indian Country Today.

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