EPSCoR - Montana NSF

Blackfeet Skies
Blackfeet Skies text_container

Leo Bird has a unique teaching style. While he is teaching biology, chemistry or astronomy to his Browning High School students, he is also teaching them about Indian culture, and, in a way, teaching them about themselves. They respect him for that.

On March 31, 2006, the community of Missoula, Montana was treated to an evening of Leo’s teaching techniques at The University of Montana, where he presented a lecture titled, “Blackfeet Skies”. As a part of Montana NSF EPSCoR’s Science within Society lecture series, and cosponsored by UM’s Native American Center of Excellence, Mr. Bird discussed the Blackfeet tribe’s traditional lore, cultural significance and practical usage of astronomy. Although the lecture occurred during spring break, approximately 135 people were in attendance. The event also sparked much interest from the local media. In addition to an article in the Missoulian, interviews were aired on two radio stations and the NBC television affiliate, KECI. Historically, the Blackfeet were a nomadic people, often traveling by night using the stars for navigation, but also as a celestial tapestry illustrating the stories and ancient traditions of their culture. The night sky is very much a part of their culture. This can be seen in the designs on their traditional clothing, lodges and other art. Mr. Bird further explained this relationship and how Blackfeet constellations represent specific geological features, places, spiritual characters and ceremonial seasons. He especially wanted to impart that astronomy and knowledge of Blackfeet culture is for everyone, not just scientists.

Mr. Bird is one of the recipients of the 2005 Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, the largest teacher recognition program in the U.S., awarding nearly 100 teachers annually. He plans to spend the $25,000 that accompanies this prestigious award to travel to Alaska to visit his grandmother and other family, whom he has never before had the opportunity to visit, and, of course, to study the Northern skies.