Gwendolyn Couture of Charlo, Montana, is a Native American studies teacher at Ronan High School located on the Flathead Indian Reservation serving students of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Gwendolyn used her $1,000 Dreamstarter Teacher grant to create podcasts about issues related to their reservation and its history with one of her classes in which her students helped to shape which last year focused on the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
“They loved it and learned and grew more than I could imagine,” she told us in her Dreamstarter Teacher application. “I would like to be able to support their next idea of creating podcasts about our reservation for our communities.”
Following the conclusion of the 2021-2022 academic year, Gwendolyn reported that “my purpose was for kids to connect with different areas of their culture and the adults who hold the key to cultural knowledge.
“I also wanted to be able to preserve the knowledge, stories, and ideas that the students discovered. The recorded stories and interviews and final podcast is the start of the school’s archive of digital cultural knowledge.”
Gwendolyn said the majority of her grant funding was spent on purchasing equipment and travel costs.
“We travelled around our reservation, to aboriginal sites off reservation, as well as traveling to Crow Nation,” she reported. “We researched, interviewed, and wrote podcasts on cultural topics that ranged from language preservation to use of sacred sites and treaty rights.”
Students recorded interviews with elders on a wide range of topics including language preservation, the traditional role of women in Ksanka culture, the controversy of developing sacred site Blackfeet, utilizing culture to thrive in the modern world, the importance and history of the Kootenai Falls, and the place of fasting and prayer.
Through this process, “the students became more confident in their culture and more comfortable asking adults for guidance and explanations of how to incorporate traditional values in a modern society.
“I saw a huge increase in confidence and willingness to approach elders.”
Among them was one student in particular who Gwendolyn described as “a proud citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation” who lives on the reservation and who benefited greatly from his participation in the project.
“He often confided in me that he didn’t feel like he belonged or could talk about his culture,” however the project provided him the opportunity to share his culture with his classmates who had known little, if anything, about it previously.
Eventually, “he stepped into a leadership role that I would have never would have guessed he would have done.
“As an extension of this project, he has helped facilitate and plan a cultural tour of his home for his classmates in Ronan.”
Gwendolyn noted that tribal education leaders have asked to distribute the videos to other schools on the reservation to help disseminate the ideas shared in them.
And she also commented that “unexpectedly, it helped to alleviate some of the tension I saw in students who belong to tribes which were traditional enemies.
“As we researched, interviewed, and visited these different areas the students saw each other as more alike than different and they bonded.
“I had been worried that these ‘traditional enemies’ would actually hurt each other.
“But they ended up with a huge respect for each other’s culture.”
She said that the students also did “pre-writing” on various topics that they were interested in gaining a better understanding of, and then shared their presentations to other classes as well as out in the greater community.
“The kids’ knowledge and understanding of the different areas grew tremendously,” she added. “They have actually asked to extend the project into next year to collect more oral histories to share with the public.
“The fact that adults were asking to listen to the podcast tells me it helped build a bridge between school and community.”