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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Hallowed Ground - Students Attend CSKT Event
by VINCE DEVLIN of the Missoulian
credits: Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

ALONG THE FLATHEAD RIVER - Can you truly honor a river without getting wet?

Not this year - not, at least, on Tuesday, when more than 400 youngsters from the Flathead Indian Reservation and beyond came to hallowed ground along the banks of the Lower Flathead for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' 2009 River Honoring.

Fourth- and fifth-graders from Polson, Dayton, Dixon, Charlo, St. Regis, Glacier View and Valley View seemed mostly oblivious to a steady downpour as they galloped from tepee to tepee along the east bank of the Flathead.

“They really like it,” said teacher Mary Davis of Polson's Linderman School, who has brought many a class to the River Honoring. “They enjoy being out of the classroom, and learning in a different environment. It's usually very, very educational.”

At the fisheries station, Rich Folsom and Joe Santos of the CSKT Natural Resources Department helped the kids identify smallmouth bass, northern pike and other fish the pair had caught the day before and kept alive in tanks. At the wildlife station, Stephanie Gillin, Janene Lichtenberg and Whisper Camel showed them the difference between the tracks left by a coyote, and those by a mountain lion.

A favorite stop on the two loops set up on the grounds, each containing 10 stations, was at one where Native games were played.

At one, Jay Laber of the Salish Kootenai College Art Department ran games that emphasized communication. Laber divided Beverly Schallock's fifth-grade class from Polson Middle School into two teams, one of boys, one of girls.

In one game, students lined a bowling lane-sized course that had been roped off - girls to one side, boys on the other.

Laber had pounded many stakes into the ground as obstacles. One boy and one girl were blindfolded and sent down the path, with nothing to guide them through the stakes except the shouts of “Left!” or “Right!” or “Back up!” from their classmates.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given that communication was the key, the girls regularly won.

While Laber was running his games on the Red Loop at the southern end of the grounds along the river, a horse sculpture the artist made from parts of old cars once abandoned in the Flathead River was standing tall next to the Backcountry Horseman station on the Blue Loop at the north end.

“Terry Tanner (of the Natural Resources Department) called me and said I should come take a look at it before he crushed it,” Laber said. “I went down and picked up most of it, took it home, made a pile and stared at it for a year before I made the horse.”

But the metal sculpture was a fitting symbol for the event: rusting trash left in a beautiful river by one group, cleaned up from its waters and transformed into art by another.

“I thought the horse made out of metal was really cool,” said 10-year-old Josey Motichka, a fourth-grader from Polson. “I really liked the fish exhibit. I learned a lot I didn't know. And at the recycling station I learned there are three different kinds of plastics, and I didn't know that, either.”

Education is a major part of the event, and several more busloads of fourth- and fifth-graders - these from Ronan, St. Ignatius, Arlee, Pablo, Hot Springs, Trout Creek, Lewis and Clark of Missoula and Nkwusm, the Salish language school in Arlee - take their turn along the banks of the Lower Flathead on Wednesday.

Every school on the reservation is invited, said Germaine White, and every year some off-reservation schools, such as Lewis and Clark, St. Regis and Trout Creek, ask if they can come, too.

“We don't like to turn away anyone that wants to come,” said White, and education and information specialist with the CSKT Natural Resources Department.

The River Honoring began 23 years ago, White explained, after the tribes and non-Indians had successfully halted several proposed dams downstream from the one that was built, Kerr, in the 1930s.

One, to be constructed on the western edge of the Flathead Reservation, would have flooded the river for many miles upstream. In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tried to build at least four more dams on the Lower Flathead, and in the 1980s another was proposed for the Buffalo Rapids area.

After that, several tribal members began the River Honoring as a way to remind people of the importance of the Flathead River, White said. It has evolved over the years, from a river float and feast, to one with weekday lectures and panel discussions targeted at college students, to the present format begun in 1993.

“It was decided that the potential for increasing awareness and instilling a favorable land-use ethic was greatest during early school years,” White said. That year the event was also moved from the fall to the spring, when the river is charging hard with spring runoff and most school field trips are scheduled.

This year's River Honoring kicked off, as it has for years, on Monday evening, when several educators and elders were honored at a barbecue for work that contributes to an understanding of the importance of the Flathead River, which has helped sustain Indian people for thousands of years in this area.

Honored for 2009 were Josephine Quequesah, Mary Lucy Parker, Stephen Small Salmon, Tim Ryan and Jim Rogers.

Ryan wasn't resting on the laurel. He was in tepee No. 3 on the Red Loop, showing off the tools and crafts he makes the same way his ancestors did for centuries to fascinated youngsters.

Using materials he finds, often willow and dogbane and stones along the banks of the river, Ryan makes fish traps, baskets, hammers, twine, fishing string and much more.

His “cordless drill,” where a buffalo rib bone is used for a bow that powers a shaft of wood containing his “drill bit,” an unusually shaped arrowhead, is often a hit.

“And I tell them this is a shared heritage with all cultures,” Ryan said. “At one time all cultures lived in a wild environment and everybody's heritage goes back to those days. They just occurred at different times in history.”

Ryan also explained why sites such as the River Honoring grounds are important to Indian people.

“When artifacts are removed, it takes a page from our own history book,” he said, “and we believe our spiritual ancestors are still here, using them. That's why we don't like to see them taken.”

Small Salmon, another honoree, was also working the River Honoring, drumming and singing Salish songs every half hour to announce that it was time for classes to rotate to new stations.

As rain pelted everyone not in a tepee or under a tent or umbrella, Small Salmon joked with soaked students as they passed by in their groups.

“Who wants to get back on the bus?” he said. “Who wants to go back to school? Raise your hands.”

Nobody did, a pretty good sign the River Honoring was succeeding.

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