Connecting Communities

Elementary students bridge gaps through art with the Blackfeet at HeART program

By Maggie Dresser
James Weyh, left, and Taos Wellman play a pictograph matching game at Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish as part of the “Blackfeet at HeART” cultural exchange program on Nov. 14, 2019. Muldown students will visit the Blackfeet Nation in the spring. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On a cold, foggy November day, about 20 elementary students from the Blackfeet Nation braved early winter conditions and headed west to Muldown Elementary School in Whitefish.

Along that 100-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 2, the students anxiously waited to meet their Muldown pen pals who they’d been writing to since the school year started.

Through Blackfeet at HeART, a nonprofit program connecting cultures through art, students at Cuts Wood School in Browning are able to travel, meet and collaborate with Muldown students in Whitefish and create art together.

“The students are able to build friendships and show each other how they’re able to help their community,” said Charles Kennedy, a teacher at Cuts Wood School in Browning.

Once the students met each other, Hockaday Museum of Art consultant Smokey Rides At The Door presented traditional Blackfeet art to an attentive audience. Art pieces included drums, war bonnets and buckskins made out of buffalo hide.

After the presentation, Cuts Wood students helped Muldown students learn the Blackfoot language with a pictograph matching card game called Nitsinkensin.

“Our students are able to teach the Whitefish students the Blackfoot language,” Kennedy said. “That’s what we take pride in our school is public speaking and leadership.”

This all led to the main craft of the day — elk rawhide journaling. The traditional Blackfeet journaling method traces back to the Cuts Wood students’ ancestors, when they drew pictographs on rawhide to illustrate everyday Blackfeet Indian life.

In the spring, Pam Gianos’ third grade class at Muldown will head to Browning where they will bring their own art project to the Cuts Wood students.

Both Kennedy and Gianos said their students were excited to meet their pen pals last week and are looking forward to another gathering in the spring. Muldown third-grader Kimberly Owen said she was so excited to meet her pen pal that she “was jumping up and down.”

Gianos says the meeting allowed the kids to put a face to the name that students were interacting with via snail mail all fall.

“The biggest benefit is we don’t have a lot of diversity in Whitefish,” Gianos said. “It introduces my kids to the Indigenous people that were here 10,000 years before we came.”

Students have the opportunity to connect through the Blackfeet at HeART program organized by Sue Fletcher of Whitefish. She founded it after forming friendships with artists in Browning and realized their lack of art supplies.

“They were so talented but the materials were so inferior,” Fletcher said.

She and her cofounder, Sue Cox, who is no longer with the program, began donating supplies to artists on the Blackfeet Reservation and holding workshops.

Before Blackfeet at HeART became a nonprofit, Fletcher put an advertisement in the Browning newspaper that said, “Free Art Supplies.” Sixty-four people including emerging artists, teachers and kids called the phone number.

“We were able to grant the wishes for 64 people,” Fletcher said. “They couldn’t believe it. There were tears and there was disbelief.”

After that moment, Fletcher and Cox gained nonprofit status for Blackfeet at HeART and began donating to schools, shelters and individuals.

“We’ve gotten art supplies into every classroom on the reservation,” she said.

The nonprofit has since evolved from donations and funding to student collaborations with Muldown and Cuts Wood in hopes of connecting communities.

“As the crow flies, these two communities are not that far, but they’ve maintained this separateness,” Fletcher said. “We’re creating a bridge of understanding across the Continental Divide.”

For more information, visit www.blackfeetatheart.com.

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