History is important to Americans, but we should know not only about those who live across the oceans, but also about those who live across the street. Our children’s education, much like our own, includes generous doses of information about other nations. Beginning in grade school we are taught about the Goths, Normans, Romans, Greeks, the English and French. We can name the ancients-their places, palaces, and pharaohs. From caves to shipwrecks, from the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Tower of Babel, we have studied the languages and history of people in Europe, Africa, Asia, the mid-East, Far East, and even island civilizations strung across the oceans.
What we have neglected, however, is the history of the beginnings here on this continent. Tragically, Americans know next to nothing about our country’s native people. Even here in “Indian Country,” the Rocky Mountain West, our schools neglect Indian history. Montanans, finally, are accepting the opportunity, encouraged by Title X of our 1972 state constitution, to study, through our schools, the vitally important history of Native Americans. The key words in what has become known as “Indian Education For All,” are the last two: “for all.”Those who are not Indians need to understand the significant contributions of Indian government, art, medicine, agriculture, languages and customs to our individual lives.
Indian influences surround us and, yet, we seem sightless in our recognition of them. Do we know, for example, that almost half the states in America have names derived from Indian words or that many of our most commonly used words are from Indian languages including: pecan, hickory, chipmunk, moose, raccoon, and hundreds of others.
The names of the tribes whose people occupied these western lands are also virtually unknown to most Americans: Hidatsas, Sans Arch, Atsinas, Sihasapa, and Siksika. They and others introduced many of our favorite foods: corn, squash, potatoes, peanuts, vanilla, pumpkins, and avocados. Implements that are important here in the West, from canoes to snowshoes to fishhooks, came from Indians. Many historians agree that lacrosse, baseball, and the rubber ball were adopted from Indian games.
In meaningful ways, native people were responsible for the design of America’s government. Our founders, most notably Benjamin Franklin, according to his own words, arrived at the idea of “a union of American colonies” and eventually a united states from the governance ideas of the “League of the Five Iroquois Nations.” Our United States Congress is also patterned after a governance body was first developed by Indians.
The West’s dry land farmers of today should be interested in the Anasazi and the Hohocum Indians who conserved water and, through the use of small diversion dams and canals, grew cotton, tobacco, corn, and other crops in the deserts of the southwest. Building elaborate multi-story cities and more than a thousand miles of roads, those Indian farmers prospered for hundreds of years.
Closer to home, here in the high plains and Northern Rockies, the Cheyenne and Crow developed a system of laws and policing policies that maintained order and regulated behavior in stark contrast to the lawlessness and disorder which accompanied the white man moving West.
Montana now has the historic opportunity to lead the way nationally by effectively and aggressively pursuing Indian Education For All, thus teaching our own children about the vitality of our cultural ancestors here at home.
PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.