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<<Back to Fall 2011 Steward

Intensive Program Bridges the Divide

 story by
Ann Boucher
Montana State Office

 Jacie B. and Marcia C. clean bitterroot

Jacie B. and Marcia C. clean bitterroot.
BLM photo

Students learn fire history
Students learn how fire scars are used to reconstruct fire history from Brian Anderson of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. 
BLM photo

In a world of instant news feeds, rapidly advancing scientific research, and an overwhelming array of entertainment, it’s easy to lose touch with the quieter, more traditional ways and wisdom. But those traditions have a lot to offer. The question is, how do we integrate them into our fast-paced world?

The Bridging the Divide Program is one attempt to mesh modern science with Native tradition. Now in its second year, BTD brings together Native American youth and tribal elders, incorporating time-honored knowledge with modern ecology while acquainting students with careers in cultural and natural resource management.

Designed as a summer school course for tribal high school students, the BTD program examines landscapes and ecosystems in the context of both modern science and cultural tradition. Five weeks of classroom learning at Shoshone-Bannock Junior/Senior High School in Fort Hall, Idaho, are followed by a one-week camp at Birch Creek Outdoor Education Center near Dillon, Mont.

Instructors include high school teachers, tribal elders, and BLM and U.S. Forest Service specialists.

BTD uses a four-part curriculum. One part explains scientific ideas in the context of ancient stories. Another one ties landscapes to the history and cultural identity of Native Peoples. A third segment explores how fire has been used through history to create a diverse mosaic of habitats, and how current land managers continue to use it today. The fourth component examines ethnobotany, the study of how plants are part of the culture.

Organizers emphasize different landscapes and individual plants each year, giving students both a broad overview and a detailed study in some aspect of their ancestors’ lives. This year’s focus was on sagebrush steppe ecosystem and the bitterroot. While learning about the overall ecology of the ecosystem, students learned about and practiced skills used by previous generations to harvest, store and prepare the roots of the bitterroot, a critical source of food. Next year’s emphasis will be on riparian areas and the red willow, an age-old building material, and the cutthroat trout.

“Learning traditional skills was perhaps the biggest hit of the camp,” said BLM Tribal Coordinator Mark Sant, “but they also particularly enjoyed how the curriculum integrated modern ecology with traditional life-ways.”

Sant came up with the idea for the field camp while working for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Interest and participation in the program is growing. At this year’s camp held June 19-25, four tribal elders from the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Fort Hall and the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribe from Flathead led the group in traditional skills, while BLM and U.S. Forest Service employees addressed possible careers in cultural and natural resource management. Many of last year’s students returned in 2011, and prepared a presentation of their own to promote the program at the annual Bannock gathering held in Ft. Hall on August 8-9.

The program is jointly funded by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. Sant hopes to secure additional funding to continue the camp at Dillon and establish additional camps in other field offices.

For more information, contact Mark Sant at 406-896-5263.

It was an unusually long and cold winter. The hunters could not find any game, and the food stores of the village were just about gone. The old woman left her lodge and went out in the cold winter to ask the creator to help her people. As she sat down praying in the crisp air, tears streamed down her face. Teardrops flowed through her long straggly gray tresses, dropping onto the snow-covered ground. In answer to her prayers, the tears turned into bright pink flowers as the creator gave bitterroot to the Salish people.

Long before explorers Lewis and Clark wrote about the beautiful purplish-pink flower of the bitterroot, Native Americans were using its roots for food and trade. Both the Salish and Shoshone-Bannock peoples dug the roots in the early spring and dried quantities of it for storage and use during the winter months. The root was too bitter to eat unless it was cooked, and it was usually mixed with berries or meat. The bitterroot plant (Lewisia rediviva) grows on gravelly to heavy, usually dry, soil in scablands or foothills areas. It is found on sagebrush covered plains and lower mountain slopes, in western and south central Montana.




Last updated: 06-28-2012