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Teaching Native History Through Art

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John Bercier, a Chippewa Cree art teacher at Butte High School in Montana, is raising the bar on art education by combining it with Native American history.

According to a recent article in The Montana Standard, Bercier is working with Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI) to develop an art curriculum for OPI’s Indian Education For All (IEFA) policy.

One of Bercier’s advanced art classes recently focused on ledger art. The original purpose of which, according to “Final Accounting: Traditional Ledger Art Speaks to Past and Future” by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, was tribal record keeping.

“Ledger drawing (so named for the accounting-ledger books that were often used) originated in northern and southern Plains cultures such as the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Blackfoot, Mandan, Comanche and others. It typically depicted significant events like important battles or hunting expeditions as a way of recording a tribe’s history,” Gilio-Whitaker said. “The images could also impart more personal messages contained in the dreams or visions of an individual. With the conclusion of the Indian Wars and the incarceration of 72 prisoners at Fort Marion (who were encouraged to draw), ledger drawing emerged as an iconic American Indian art form.”

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But instead of using old ledger books, or even buffalo hide Bercier’s students superimposed their works of art on maps, many of which were donated by the Bureau of Land Management, reported The Montana Standard. Jake Heard, a sophomore in Bercier's class drew inspiration from a map of Yellowstone National Park. From there he created the U.S. flag using images of buffalo and stars.

There are currently no lesson plans on the IEFA website for art classes, though there are a number for health enhancement, language arts, math, science and social studies.

“I’m hoping OPI and the state jumps on board with it,” Bercier told The Montana Standard. “I see a need for Indian Education for All. Art is a great venue for teaching Indian culture.”