Students at Washington Elementary analyze primary source photos hung inside of a courtyard tipi.

Primary Sources in Action with Ruth Ferris

Ruth Ferris, a long-time partner of the Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region program knows first-hand how powerful lessons built around primary sources can be for both k-12 students and adults.  Ruth is a teaching Librarian with the Billings School District in Montana, and a board member for the Friends of Chief Plenty Coups’ State Park Association.  She has been a recipient of grants from the TPS program and has been involved in trainings, workshops, conferences, and has participated in Google Hangout sessions where she has shared her insights in using primary sources in her work with children in grades k-6.

Every year, the Friends of Chief Plenty Coups’ State Park Association celebrates Chief Plenty Coups with a Day of Honor, and 2014 marked the 20th anniversary of the event.  As part of the celebration, Ruth developed an exhibit to demonstrate differences and similarities in the horse culture across tribes in Montana using primary sources.  The photo analysis activity involved a large map of Montana with pictures taken between the late 1800s and early 1900s placed to demonstrate the location of various tribes and reservations hung with twine inside of a tipi.  Participants were encouraged to look at the pictures and notice similarities and differences in the horses, bead work, clothing, and tipis between the different tribes represented on the map.  The photo analysis activity developed for the Day of Honor event focuses on the first Essential Understanding of Indian Education for All that emphasizes that, “There is great diversity among the 12 tribal Nations of Montana in their languages, cultures, histories and governments.  Each Nation has a distinct and unique cultural heritage that contributes to modern Montana.”


Participants of the Day of Honor event enjoyed the photo analysis lesson so much that Ruth has since modified it for use in her k-6 lessons in the courtyard tipi at Washington Elementary School in Billings.  Along with plants native to Montana, students at Washington Elementary have the chance to view, analyze, and ask questions about the photos to further their understanding of how the diverse culture from tribes within Montana have led to the collective unique cultural heritage of modern Montana.  Ruth explained that using primary sources to teach her children about Native American tribes in Montana has allowed them to see things in a different way, she even said, “I think that having primary sources gives them a window to the past that helps them understand things they don’t get when they are just reading stories about them.”

Click here for more information about Ruth’s work with the Chief Plenty Coups’ State Park Association or the photo analysis lesson plan.

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