BROWNING, Mont. – Blackfeet Studies is an important part of the curriculum for all students at Blackfeet Community College in Browning. Six credits in that area are required for all students to graduate with associate degrees, regardless of their major field. Many Blackfeet families do well in teaching their children but some don’t, so 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 two years.
Lea Guardipe Whitford, Blackfeet, is the Blackfeet Studies department chair. Whitford pointed out that 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 that provides an opportunity for special study.
“Two of the more popular classes are ‘History of the Blackfeet’ and the health and medicinal practices class that’s taught by Wilbur Fish,” she commented. “[Students] spend a lot of time in the field collecting and identifying plants. Wilbur is very good at identifying plants and he talks about traditional ways of preparing the plants and their uses, cautions students on not over harvesting and things of that nature as well.”
Those planning on majoring in either of the two subjects have about 16 classes to choose from. “We offer quite a few classes each semester,” Whitford said. “We’re one of the largest departments in the school in terms of numbers of classes taught, although perhaps only six or seven students graduate each year.”
Several instructors teach in the Blackfeet Studies program. Carol Murray founded the program during her term as college president and still teaches some classes. Whitford teaches humanities and history among other subjects, and had a class titled “Blackfeet Women” in session. “We’ll look at stories and the role of the woman. In our culture, women were highly regarded. We also talk about today and issues of concern to women, like health issues,” Whitford said.
She pointed out that quite a few older women were returning to college along with students just out of high school, and it was apparent in her “Blackfeet Women” class that there probably as many over 40 as under 40.
“The 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 commented. “We’re kind of a stepping stone for a lot of elders. They feel more comfortable. 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. They also serve as a role model 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 spoke of seeing former students wherever she goes in the community – people now working in hospitals, in the education system and elsewhere – and what a rewarding feeling it was to see their successes. She also noted there is a slow change in the student population on campus, as more students are going straight from high school to college.
The Blackfeet Studies program is rather unique in that it’s more focused than the Native Studies programs offered at other schools. “We’re located in the middle of the Blackfeet Reservation and are more aimed at just our own Blackfeet history,” she concluded.