Brenda Johnston wins 2nd Annual Advocacy Award for Excellence in Indian Education

Brenda Johnston, teacher at Browning High School in Montana, participant in the 2009 Memorial Library Summer Seminar, teacher-leader in the Montana Writing Project (MWP), and a leader of the Montana Satellite Seminar, has been awarded the 2nd Annual Advocacy Award for Excellence in Indian Education in honor of Teresa Veltkamp.

Ms. Johnston, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe, teaches at Browning High School in Montana, which is located on the Blackfeet Reservation.  The school, which is housed in a modern building completed in 2009, has approximately 500 students, most enrolled members of the tribe or descended from tribal members. Many staff members are also Blackfeet from the local area, though others come from as far away as New York, Michigan, and Russia. As Ms. Johnston says, “it’s important for our students to have role models that are Blackfeet, but it is also good to have staff that can expand students’ horizons, so the diversity in faculty and staff works well for our school.”

Along with her late husband, Jim, Ms. Johnston taught in Browning for five years directly out of college. While Jim continued to teach in Browning, she left to become a full-time parent to their two children. Ultimately the Johnstons moved to White Sulphur Springs, where Ms. Johnston returned to the classroom, and her experience there included a year working with children in a nearby Hutterite colony. After her son graduated from high school, she accepted an offer to teach in Browning; as she says, “my original plan was to stay for a few years and then look for something else.  That was in 1999, and I am still here today.”

Ms. Johnston has strong feelings about her decision to return: “I believe it was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally.  It’s a hard and demanding job, but the rewards can also be enormous.  We live in a high-poverty area, and because of that face a lot of challenges, but so do our kids.  I want our kids to have choices, and that is what drives me as a teacher.  My education has allowed me to do things I never dreamed of doing, and I want my students to be able to have those opportunities as well.”

The National Writing Project has also played a critical role in Ms. Johnston’s professional life. She first became involved with the MWP in 2006, after attending a three-week Writing Project summer institute that was, she says, “life changing.” The following year, she was invited by MWP Director Heather Bruce to co-facilitate the institute.

It was also at this point that Ms. Johnston became more fully committed to Indian Education for All (IEFA), which, she says, is critical to the mission of the MWP.  As Ms. Johnston says, “when we are talking about social justice, it is only right that we teach about the history of Native American people in our state and in this country in order to understand how we got to where we are today and to build bridges.”

After attending a Memorial Library Summer Seminar in New York City in 2009 along with Wendy Warren, Ms. Johnston emerged as a leader among her fellow teachers, and she and Ms. Warren began to mount a Satellite Seminar program in Montana. These seminars, which are held in July at the University of Montana in Missoula and entitled “Worlds Apart but not Strangers: Holocaust Education and Indian Education for All,” achieve the goal of “building bridges” to which Ms. Johnston is so deeply committed. The seminar offers participating teachers the chance to learn about Holocaust and American Indian history while considering creative and innovative ways to meet the standards implemented by the state mandate around IEFA.

Ms. Johnston is aware of some of the challenges of doing this work: “I truly believe that schools have a responsibility to teach this history and to be truthful when presenting it.  In the summer seminars that I have co-facilitated with Wendy Warren and others, we have occasionally run into various levels of resistance, but most teachers want to incorporate IEFA in their classrooms; many just don’t know where or how to begin.  That is why MWP and the Memorial Library are so wonderful.  Through those two vehicles, teachers learn from one another how to begin this process.”

Ms. Johnston’s personal story has played an important role in her ability to be sensitive to tensions that can attend cross-cultural exchange. While she is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe, her husband was Scottish and English, descended from passengers on the Mayflower and homesteaders in Montana.  Their marriage “forced me to enter doors that I was terribly frightened to go through at times” she says.  In White Sulphur Springs, for example, she knew herself to be “the only enrolled Native American in the county,” and, she notes, “it was scary.  Most people accepted me with open arms, but there were times I heard people make racist remarks, not directed at me personally, but at Native Americans in general, and they might as well have been attacking me and my children because that is how it felt.” She finds that these encounters empower her to think critically about the challenges to teaching about IEFA.

The material can indeed be challenging. In her classroom, Ms. Johnston covers the “Baker Massacre” prior to teaching about the Holocaust. As she explains to her students, on January 23, 1870, Colonel Eugene Baker of the U.S. Army attacked a sleeping camp of Blackfeet along the Marias River in the early morning hours, killing 173 people, mostly women and children, burning their lodges and supplies, and confiscating their horses.  Baker took 140 prisoners, but later turned them loose on the prairie in sub-zero temperatures after learning that they suffered from smallpox. In an effort to remedy what she feels is a silence around this topic – it wasn’t taught when her mother was in school – Ms. Johnston and her husband did primary research on the massacre at the Montana Historical Society, and she shares the primary source documents they collected with her students.

Ms. Johnston says she is moved by the concept of multigenerational memory, a concept that was part of her leadership training with guest speaker Bjorn Krondorfer at the Memorial Library. As she reflects, “I was struck by the idea that our influence continues long after our death, that our reach extends hundreds of years into the future after our birth.  When I read those primary source materials, I can’t help but think that we have people today that are heirs to those attitudes, and hopefully through the work of the MWP and the Memorial Library they will one day be dispelled.”

Her insights were also deepened by her experience on the Memorial Library trip to Poland and Israel, which allowed her to walk the ground of Auschwitz and to visit demolished sites of Jewish history and culture. She left three pairs of baby moccasins sewn by her mother at various sites during the trip, as a gift offered to the recipients and as a way to affirm the kinds of cultural exchange in which she believes.

Jennifer Stadum, a participant in the 2012 Satellite Seminar and Indian Education Implementation Specialist at Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, attests to the power of Ms. Johnston’s work as an educator, and to the reasons her office selected Ms. Johnston for the Award for Excellence in Indian Education:

Ms. Johnston and her family with Denise Juneau, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

Ms. Johnston and her family with Denise Juneau, State Superintendent of Public Instruction

I had the privilege of meeting Brenda this past summer in Missoula at a week-long workshop looking at the historic and generational traumas of both the Native American genocide and the Holocaust and how best to teach them. Within the first hour I knew I was in for quite a ride after meeting Wendy Warren and Brenda Johnston in person. They were not just facilitators of a seminar. They were co-participants with us. The minute I met Brenda we connected and I knew the week would be very special… Empathy was surely the foundation of how all the information that week was treated. We went on quite a journey through Holocaust curriculum, the sharing of Jewish religion and culture, the physical journey of visiting the exact location where the Salish peoples were “removed.” The course was so well organized and best practices were modeled every step of the way… When Brenda’s nomination came across my desk I could only think, “How perfect!” She absolutely fits what we are looking for as an educator who advocates excellent Indian Education integration and has a far-reaching influence beyond the classroom.

As if to echo these thoughts, in a statement that demonstrates her broad commitment to her state and to the larger world, Ms. Johnston observes, “I want Montana to be a better place for    my grandchildren and all children, and that is only going to happen through education.“


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