Teacher Bridges Cultural Gap

Education, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 1, 2001

Fourth-graders at Tongue River Elementary School in Ranchester, Wyo., are studying obtuse angles and isosceles triangles in a new way: They draw the geometric shapes on a giant piece of paper to create their own Crow Indian patterns.

Diana James, a 28-year-old Crow woman hired by the Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, is responsible. Her job is to bridge cultural and educational gaps experienced by Crow children in Wyoming schools by incorporating the American Indian perspective in the classroom.

With her soft-spoken manner and a bachelors degree in education from Regis University in Denver, James seems ideally suited to integrating Crow culture into the curriculum of public schools in the twin towns of Ranchester (pop. 733) and Dayton, Wyo. (pop. 652).

The towns are on the western edge of a vast grassland that was once all Crow territory. Today, the Crow Reservation is just across the Montana border, and in recent years, more Crow families have moved to Wyoming or sent their children to schools there in hopes theyll receive a better education.

James tutors all the Crow students, makes suggestions on lesson plans, and helps their parents make arrangements to keep their children in Wyoming schools, such as establishing them as dual residents of the reservation and Wyoming.

Younger children readily accepted her, but older students were slower to warm up. The girls I tutor in high school are so painfully shy, theyre just now getting to the point where theyll e-mail and ask for help studying for a test, she says.

Students, teachers, and parents have all accepted the program, introducing a new culture into a traditionally white school system.

It has enriched the school, says elementary Principal Jolene Adams. Of 200 students in the grade school in Ranchester, 35 are American Indian. The middle school, also in Ranchester, has 10 Crow children among 127 students. The high school, in Dayton, has seven Crow children out of 161 students. James works with classes beginning at the fourth-grade level, when Wyoming history is introduced.

Its one thing for a white lady to stand up here and talk about the Crow culture, but Diana authenticates my history class, says Alice Kerns, a fourth-grade teacher. Bringing in a different cultural perspective is so educational, and Diana has access to people and resources I dont have.

Jim Demontiney, parent of American Indian students in middle and high schools, says James is pretty effective in relaying concerns between the student, teacher, and parents, and addressing issueswhether personal or academic. And he believes her presence helps reservation students make a transition to the Wyoming schools.

Diana opened the doors for my daughter and another student, he says.

In addition to math and history, the American Indian perspective is woven into language arts. One assignment challenged students to write a piece of historical fiction that included at least five Crow words.

James teaches some lessons that reach beyond the classroom.

There have been some instances where weve had to address discrimination in the high school, she says softly. I told the girls, Wherever you go, you will face discrimination, either as a woman or a Crow, and it will give you inner strength.

Relating her own story helps her connect with students. Growing up attending a white school in Hardin, Mont., (pop. 3,000) just outside the reservation, James says she didnt fit in with the white or American Indian children. Her parents spoke English at home and didnt participate in some of the traditional Crow ceremonies. As a result, James is not fluent in Crow, so she tapes her grandmother speaking vocabulary words, allowing the fourth-graders to hear the intonations of the language.

This position has not only brought me closer to my grandmother, James says, but really helped me learn more about the Crow culture myself.