BROWNING, Montana—When June Bullshoe Tatsey’s father told other members of the Blackfeet tribe that he wanted his four daughters to become teachers, they laughed. It was the 1930s, during the Great Depression, and American Indians faced discrimination applying for the few available jobs. Public school teachers in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s main town of Browning were white. Native people simply did not become teachers.
But by the mid-1970s, Bullshoe’s daughters had all realized their father’s dream. All four left the reservation to earn a master’s degree in education, and all four returned to work in the Browning school district, which encompasses nine different schools. Today the community remembers them as the “trailblazing Bullshoe sisters”—and their legacy continues not only through June Bullshoe Tatsey, the one living sibling, but through her daughter and her granddaughter, both of whom now work as educators on the reservation.
The sisters were among the first to show that teachers in remote reservation schools can, and perhaps should, come from the local population—that these communities need not rely on outsiders to educate the youngest members of their tribes. Each generation of the Bullshoe clan agrees on that.
Where June’s daughter, Carol Murray, and granddaughter, Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner, differ is over whether the teachers themselves need to leave the reservation to become the kind of educators the community needs. Murray-Heavy-Runner, who spent two years studying on the reservation before leaving for Montana State University, teaches sixth grade in Browning and believes her time away made her a worldlier, less insulated instructor: “When you leave, and you have to live somewhere else, your lens just opens up.” Her mother Carol Murray, in contrast, is committed to making it easier for locals to earn their teaching licenses without leaving Blackfeet territory. She was a member of the first graduating class to complete four-year degrees in education at Blackfeet Community College—although she later left the reservation during summers to finish her master’s degree. She’s now the provost of the community college, overseeing an initiative aimed at nurturing more homegrown teachers.
This is by no means a minor philosophical matter; there are immediate pressures to consider. Rural communities across America often face particularly acute teacher shortages, so it’s important for places like Browning to cultivate and recruit teachers however they can. But the Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s renewed emphasis on growing teachers who never have to leave the reservation brings with it great promise—and the potential for some serious drawbacks.
A career in teaching offers locals fulfilling, steady employment in a town with great economic hardship and few jobs. Relying on local talent can reduce teacher turnover rates, since longtime residents are less likely to leave. Perhaps most important, Native teachers have a unique connection with Native students: They know the culture and community intimately and understand the challenges of reservation life.
Still, some educators wonder whether tribal colleges, which are often under-resourced, have the tools and expertise to train the next generation of teachers entirely on their own. And some Native teachers who left the reservation and came back say the experience and insights they gained while living away were invaluable to their work. Ultimately, the reservation’s schools must strike a delicate balance, providing a rigorous modern education while working to preserve a fragile, centuries-old culture. The children there will undoubtedly benefit from teachers who share their culture and can pass on the reservation’s knowledge in the classroom. But a pressing question remains: Can teachers who have never left the reservation give Native children a portal to the rest of the world?
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The Blackfeet people, or Pikuni, lived on the prairies for thousands of years before the United States government and the tribe established the boundaries of the reservation in 1888. Their early contact with Europeans was devastating. Smallpox epidemics in the 18th and 19th centuries killed scores of tribe members. In 1870, the United States Army led a massacre on a peaceful Blackfeet camp, murdering hundreds—mainly women, children, and the elderly who were asleep in their teepees. In the years that followed, overhunting depleted the buffalo population upon which the tribe depended, and countless Blackfeet starved to death. Well into the 20th century, Native children were sent to strict boarding schools that aimed to “civilize” them by stamping out their culture—what was known as “kill the Indian, save the man.” They were forbidden from speaking their language or performing their ceremonies.
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation is 1.5 million acres, stretching from Glacier National Park in northern Montana to the Canadian border. These days, it is known for its spectacular mountain ranges, fierce winters, and a staggeringly high poverty rate—30 percent, more than twice the national average.
Browning, on the southern part of the reservation, is home to about 1,000 people. It has a few shops and not much else. There’s a large casino on the edge of the town that is owned by the tribe. There, tourists and locals can eat “Indian tacos”—a variation of the frybread meal Native Americans created in the 19th century, when they were forced off their lands and survived on Army rations. On weekends and at night, the town is quiet and dark save for the reservation dogs—the animal is sacred to the Blackfeet—that roam the streets untethered.
Because she couldn’t train on the reservation, June Bullshoe Tatsey left, leaving her young children behind with family while she earned her education degree—just as her daughter and granddaughter would to complete their training. Murray-Heavy-Runner’s 11-year-old son Joseph says he, too, might become a teacher—“if it doesn’t go good for me in the NBA.”
In the decades that followed the American Indian civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s, the number of Blackfeet teachers on the reservation grew significantly. In contrast to June Bullshoe Tatsey’s childhood experience, the classrooms today are more likely than not to be run by members of the tribe. Sixty-three percent of Browning district teachers identify as Blackfeet. Partly as a result, the teacher turnover rate—once as high as 30 percent—declined to 18 percent in 2014–15.
But nurturing homegrown teachers is about much more than just filling positions.
As a Blackfeet woman, Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner understands her sixth grade students’ complicated family backgrounds: In the past, she’s taught Blackfeet children who were born addicted to amphetamines or lived with their grandparents because of family troubles. She knows cultural rules and taboos. Some of the male students in her sixth grade class, for example, wear long braids down their backs in deference to an ancient Blackfeet belief that hair-cutting is bad luck. Others might come to school on the occasional Monday with faint stains of red paint on their faces, left over from a weekend ceremony. Like many Native teachers, she’s aware some children and their families are distrustful of schools and teachers. In the past, many white teachers arrived only to leave within a year or two. Memories from the boarding-school era linger, too—echoes of a time when school was a place of cruelty, where their culture was systematically unraveled.
On a fall day last year, Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner stood on the sideline of the football field at Napi Elementary, watching the boys in her sixth grade class play. They’re now old enough to play tackle ball, though some of the smaller boys were dwarfed by their giant shoulder pads. The game, the last of the season, was a miniature social event, and families came from across the reservation to watch. Murray-Heavy-Runner, whose son Joseph was on the field, chatted with friends in the bleachers. As a Native teacher, she considers it important to attend events like this one, for her students and their families to see her at shops, rodeos, and powwows.
The role local teachers play in bringing together the community and helping heal old wounds is not lost on school leaders. The district employs several teachers on “Class 7” licenses, which allow tribal members with unique language and cultural knowledge to teach even if they don’t have the certification normally required by the state. This school year, the Browning district started a new Blackfeet language-immersion program that will provide more jobs for Blackfeet teachers in the coming years.
But the biggest change will take place at Blackfeet Community College, which hasn’t offered a four-year program in education in a generation. Thanks to a new partnership with the University of Montana, graduates of the current two-year program will be able to stay in Browning and complete their four-year elementary education degree through online classes and with visiting professors. For the past two decades, teacher hopefuls needed to move off reservation to do their final two years at a university. Twenty students have expressed an interest in taking part in the program and so far it has accepted seven. Additionally, Blackfeet Community College just debuted a program that offers night classes in education to school support staff. After a year, they can become certified to teach up to third grade.
There’s no doubt the opportunity to stay in Browning will make it easier for many Blackfeet to become teachers. Some lack the money to leave, or run out of funds before they can finish their degrees. Others become overwhelmed and lonely away from friends and family and a close and protective community.
Ashley Burd, 20, left the reservation after high school to study. She never went out, yet still accumulated thousands of dollars in debt from tuition and other college fees. She came home after a semester. “It’s really expensive,” says Burd, who plans to work toward a four-year degree at Blackfeet Community College through the new program.
Burd’s classmate, Meg Crawford, comes from a Blackfeet community so tiny that it’s common for high-schoolers to tell their elders about their crushes to make sure they aren’t related. Like Burd, she left the reservation to study but felt isolated, returning home before she could complete her degree. Though she had been outgoing in high school, she says she became an unhappy “loner” away from her family and community.
Why do some Native students struggle off the reservations? Professor Jioanna Carjuzaa, who runs a support group for Native American students at Montana State University, says “we often think of Native students as having the same challenges as international students—their home culture and school culture is just not the same.” Some flounder academically because their remote reservation schools had subpar resources.
And those who seek to go into teaching often switch into different degree programs with brighter economic prospects, Carjuzaa says. Instead they go into areas like science and nursing, fields that offer larger scholarships and better financial aid.
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Even if communities like Browning are able to produce more teachers on the reservation, that won’t be enough. Several long-serving Native teachers are due to retire soon, and district enrollment climbs every year. “We need to encourage more [local] kids to go into education,” says Jason Andreas, the head of human resources for the Browning school district. “But it could be a 20-year investment to have a real impact.” The district currently has 33 open teaching positions.
Meanwhile, there’s reason to question the quality and preparedness of teachers who never leave the reservation. Browning Superintendent John Rouse says that many teacher education programs, including tribal colleges, have in the past struggled to train teachers to meet the needs of students in communities like Browning. In particular, he says veteran educators sometimes struggle with how to “differentiate” instruction for students at vastly different education levels.* “It’s a huge issue here, the spectrum is wide,” he says. “We have high school kids that are in ninth grade that are reading on a third-grade level.” Rouse, a non-Native who came to the Browning district three years ago, says some local teachers make grammatical errors in their speech and writing, establishing an unhealthy cycle of poor performance at school—one that he is working to break. Additional training for teachers in literacy skills has helped, he says, and has translated into improved test scores for students.
Murray-Heavy-Runner is adamant that every teacher should experience life off the reservation, even if just for a short time. Before she went to Bozeman, Montana, to finish her teaching degree, she had never had to pay rent before. She didn’t know where to buy baby Tylenol, because she had always gotten it for free at the Indian Health Service. “It’s perspective,” she says. “When you have to live away you learn to function off the reservation.” To prepare young Blackfeet for the world, teachers should experience a wider world themselves, she says.
While Murray-Heavy-Runner believes the tribal college plays a crucial role in the community, she also worries that sometimes it fails to adequately prepare local teachers. She notes, for instance, that she had the opportunity to study with more experienced professors during her two years at Montana State. “They had experience and they were able to share that. … Here that wasn’t always the case.” She credits the tribal college, however, for giving her and many others a helpful start.
Blackfeet Community College officials remain convinced they can train teachers who are well-prepared to lead local classrooms. Lori Falcon, who is helping oversee the rollout of the new program, acknowledges she’s working with limited resources. The library is small, for instance, and it could use a few more computers. But Falcon says the college works closely with the school district to ensure they are preparing excellent teachers who can also serve as cultural role models. They are currently working to shore up support and mentorship for new teachers, so they’re not overwhelmed when they start.
Falcon adds that many Blackfeet would never have the chance to become teachers without the tribal college. She’s realistic, however, about the challenges they will face. “The best teachers in the world are going to have challenges with poverty and drug-affected children,” Falcon says.
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At 63, Carol Murray is now a community leader. She wears her hair long and speaks in a steady, calm voice. She says that teacher training is as complicated as life on the reservation. It’s “not black and white, but many shades of gray.”
Murray appreciates her daughter’s views on the importance of leaving the reservation temporarily but doesn’t always agree. For many Blackfeet, leaving home simply isn’t financially or emotionally realistic, Murray says.
For recent high school graduates with no family or commitments, it might make sense to go away to study, she adds. But “if someone came in and said, ‘I’ve just bought a house and I have a family and I want to be a teacher,’ I’d say, ‘Do the [local] teacher training program.’ ” As provost of the college, she’s committed to making it easier for her people to become teachers without upending their lives.
Murray watched her mother and aunts struggle in their bids to become teachers, and describes the guilt—even shame—Blackfeet sometimes feel when they leave: a creeping sense that they have turned their backs on who they are and where they came from. Many Blackfeet still grieve over the injustices of the past, Murray says, and feel an unshakable connection to their home. Time after time, Murray has watched Blackfeet go away, only to return quickly, homesick for the reservation. She describes it as a special type of loneliness. “It’s a longing to be among your people,” she says.
But with each passing year, Murray says, young Blackfeet people become more confident in their sense of themselves. She believes it’s partly because there are now more open and honest discussions of the community’s past, including the incredible trauma the Blackfeet have endured for generations. With growing numbers of Native teachers in classrooms, those conversations start as early as elementary school.
In spite of their different perspectives, Carol Murray and Angela Murray-Heavy-Runner both want the same thing: to strengthen their home and the people who live there. One way or another, the community is determined to see that happen—to hire teachers who can educate the next generation of Blackfeet and ensure that the trailblazing Bullshoe sisters’ hard-won legacy lives on.
Tomorrow’s Test is a weeklong series looking at the challenges, tensions, and opportunities as the United States shifts to a majority-minority student population in its public schools—a milestone the country as a whole will reach within the next generation. It is a collaboration with the Teacher Project at Columbia Journalism School, a nonprofit education reporting fellowship.
*Correction, June 10, 2016: The article originally misstated that Browning Superintendent John Rouse said that tribal college education programs had underprepared some teachers. He was referring to college education programs in general, including some tribal colleges. (Return.)