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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 24, 2004 - Issue 105


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$1.2M Grant Helps Tribes with Preserving Traditions

credits: John Warner/Gazette Staff
Surrounded by their arsenal of video, audio and computer equipment are, from left Mardell Plainfeather, Francine Bear Dont Walk and Rubie Sooktis. The three are part of the Western Heritage Center’s team that produces the American Indian Tribal Histories Project

Surrounded by their arsenal of video, audio and computer equipment are, from left Mardell Plainfeather, Francine Bear Dont Walk and Rubie Sooktis. The three are part of the Western Heritage Center’s team that produces the American Indian Tribal Histories Project - John Warner/Gazette StaffWith the help of a new $1.2 million grant, a history project is "reawakening the memory of the Northern Cheyenne," a member of the tribe said Friday.

The American Indian Tribal Histories Project at the Western Heritage Center will help preserve threatened culture and traditions of several Montana tribes.

Instead of disappearing, that knowledge now can be passed on to future generations, said Rubie Sootkis, a field director for the project.

The project is rescuing traditional and contemporary tribal history by transferring it into books, educational DVDs and museum exhibits.

The project was recently awarded the $1.2 million by the U.S. Department of Interior to fund its second year. Last year, the project received $1 million to start work on Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.

The new grant will help the project expand to the Fort Belknap Reservation home to Gros Ventre and Assiniboine-Sioux tribes, said Francine Bear Dont Walk, director of the program.

During its first months, the project hired two field directors, Sooktis, a writer and filmmaker who has spent years documenting Northern Cheyenne culture, and Mardell Plainfeather, a Crow historian who has worked for the National Park Service and Little Bighorn College at Crow Agency.

Six students from Montana State University-Billings, Rocky Mountain College, Little Bighorn College and Chief Dull Knife College have been hired as interns. The students are being trained in interview and research techniques and in how to use audio and video equipment.

Interviews with current tribal members, "the meat of the project," will begin in February, Bear Dont Walk said.

The tribal members interviewed will be those who are knowledgeable in many areas including lullabies, classic stories, art, music and traditional skills such as tanning hides.

The information will be used to create a DVD for each tribe that can be used in schools both on and off reservations.

The DVD, which may be available as soon as November, will be an encyclopedia of primary sources of Indian traditions.

If a teacher wants students to learn about a sun dance, for example, students can listen to a tribal expert talk about the ceremony.

Because each tribe's culture is continuing to evolve, information about 21st century music, athletics and rodeo will be included.

Interviews and music recorded in the past that Sooktis and Plainfeather have tracked down also may be incorporated into each DVD.

Exhibits of each tribe's unique history and culture will be presented at the Western Heritage Center in February 2005.

A book on contemporary members of each tribe is expected to be published in November 2005. The book will be a snapshot of "who we are today," said Bear Dont Walk.

The tribal history project has been a dream come true for Bear Dont Walk.

Less and less cultural information is being passed down to younger generations each year.

Bear Dont Walk, who is in her 30s, doesn't speak Northern Cheyenne and knows of few young people who speak it fluently.

Even the Crow language, considered one of healthiest among all tribes in the United States, is in danger of disappearing, Plainfeather said.

Many parents now work and don't have time to talk about traditions with their children, Sooktis said. Extended, multigenerational families, once the norm in Indian country, are beginning to disappear.

Not only is the project helping American Indians learn more about their own tribes, but about other tribes as well.

Even though Crow and Northern Cheyenne tribes have lived side by side on neighboring reservations, Sooktis is learning new things about Crow history and culture.

Jona Charette, a Northern Cheyenne who is the administrative officer for the project, said it has special meaning for her family.

Charette's 7-year-old daughter, Savannah, is half Crow and will be able to learn of about both sides of her family with the project's help.

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