Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 30, 2001 - Issue 39



S.D. Schools Try for Indian Perspective


 by Brenda Wade Schmidt The Argus Leader - June 21, 2001


art Nightfires by Jeanne Rager

art Nightfires by Jeanne RagerWhen Emmett Martin's history students learn about Sitting Bull, they hear more than stories of Indian conflicts. They learn about a medicine man who loved children and had a beautiful singing voice.

Martin also weaves together oral histories from the Rosebud tribal elders and other American Indians in the Todd County School District to make the stories from the 1870s personal to his students, most of whom are Indian.

"I try to be as objective as possible. I try to put myself back there," Martin said.

History lessons involving American Indians haven't always been presented that way.

Take the Battle of the Little Bighorn and the ensuing upheaval in the lives of American Indians on the Northern Plains, for example.

Historians have put various spins on what happened in that Montana river valley 125 years ago. Educators say some textbooks up until the 1950s depicted Custer as a hero. In the 1970s and 80s, the emphasis changed to be more favorable to the American Indians, Martin said.

History books today are more balanced, agrees Bill Thompson, a Sioux Falls Lincoln High School teacher who retired last month after 29 years in the classroom.

"It used to be referred to as Custer's Last Stand," he said. "Now, it is called the Battle of the Little Bighorn."

In Sioux Falls elementary schools, little is taught about the Battle of the Little Bighorn. South Dakota history is a state requirement for fourth-graders, but the curriculum mostly covers regional tribes such as the Plains Indians rather than specific events, said Marilyn Charging, supervisor of Indian education for the Sioux Falls district.

The state education department doesn't dictate curriculum to local districts. But the South Dakota Legislature has directed the state Board of Education to adopt course standards for math science, language arts and social studies. The social studies standards, adopted in June 1999, focus on "leaders, founders and achievers of South Dakota and the United States. ... Students will learn about South Dakota history from the first written record to the present, including the earliest interactions between Indian and non-Indian cultures."

More specifically, the standards say students should:

Explain the effect of people and geographic location on the growth and expansion of South Dakota, emphasizing the Mandan, Arikara, Sioux and other tribes, explorers and traders, railroad expansion and town building, homesteaders and gold miners, rainfall, prairie, Black Hills and the Missouri River system.

Trace the history of South Dakota with emphasis on notable figures, including Indian leaders such as Red Cloud and Sitting Bull.

Charging said she is always looking for ways to enhance lessons with information on American Indian history. She said she hopes students grasp the historical significance of the time period surrounding the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

"I certainly feel that it's important to give a real good perspective of how that impacts what we see today," she said.

South Dakota ties

It's that broader approach that another Sioux Falls teacher, Thomas Lubeck, uses in teaching about the Little Bighorn events.

Most people don't realize that the battle happened in Montana, not in South Dakota, Lubeck said. But still it is closely tied to the history of Dakota Territory.

In his advanced placement history class at Lincoln High School, Lubeck helps his students look at the battle as a result of the Black Hills gold rush and the effort to remove the American Indians from that region.

"We don't really look at the battle that much, but rather we look at the context of the event," he said. "It's part of a much larger military operation.

"As the miners came in, the government had to develop a policy with regard to the Lakota to deal with the issue of ownership of the Black Hills. To that extent, it's part of South Dakota history," he said.

'Out of their time'

Whether or not students are listening, however, is another story.

"It's out of their time. I don't think they grasp the significance of the battle," Martin said. "It's really a challenge."

John Abdo, a Sioux Falls teen-ager, said his grandparents, not a textbook, have taught him about the government breaking its treaties with the Indian tribes and taking the Black Hills from them. "I haven't really got it taught to me that much," says Abdo, 14. "Most of the kids nowadays are around modern-day things. I think the past is more interesting."

Historic photos

Bill Groethe, a 77-year-old Rapid City photographer, has helped preserve American Indian history through his photos. He has donated many images to schools and colleges so that American Indian young people could learn about their ancestry.

Among his collection are portraits of the last nine survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, photographs he took in 1948.

With little film left and a fading daylight, Groethe had the men sit on an apple crate with the sky in the background.

"I only have one shot of each, but they're all good," he said.

The photos hang in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

The last photograph taken was of Dewey Beard, whose Indian name was Iron Hail. He lived the longest of the survivors, and died Nov. 2, 1955.

The men didn't tell Groethe about the battle and he didn't pry.

"These were proud people that I photographed," Groethe said.

Ken Custer, of Murrieta, Calif., a relative of the fallen 7th Cavalry officer, says interest in what happened at the Little Bighorn has fallen off in the past 20 years.

Interest wanes

His great-grandfather was a first cousin to George Armstrong Custer. Growing up, Ken Custer said his historic relative was depicted as a hero.

"I have an old Kellogg's Corn Pops box. You know how on the back of cereal boxes, they had these heroes of the Old West. One of them was of the general. It's a heritage thing for me," he said.

Custer said he was taught the history of the battle as part of the overall settling of the West.

"I remember Custer coming up constantly when I was a child, and as a young man. I was in the service during the Vietnam War, and I got constant questions about my relationship to the general," he said. "But American history as taught today, kids aren't taught all the aspects of it like I was."



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