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Elders honored at Nkwusm school in Arlee

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Shelly Fyant, Arlee Tribal Council, decided it was time to honor the local elders from all cultures, so she organized a brunch at the Community Center on Friday and invited several dozen elders and children from the Nkwusm language school.

“I wanted to give back to my community,” Fyant said. “These are the kinds of gatherings we had when I was a kid and I wanted to get back to that.”

Carla Morigeau, 7, spent her time at the brunch talking with elders about the Salish words she learned at school.

“I like being with the elders,” she said. “I’m really happy because there is a whole bunch.”

Several of the Nkwusm students said they were showing the elders respect by getting them coffee.

“I can’t forget to ask if they want sugar or cream,” said Nirada Courville, 9. “Later, we are going to sing them Jingle Bells in Salish and some other songs.”

Stipn Smallsalmon, 75, explained the criteria for being an elder.

“For me, it’s about knowing your language and your stories,” he said. “It’s about knowing how it was a long time ago.” 

Fyant asked the elders to share their advice about life. A good night’s sleep was recommended as beneficial. The best way to get that rest is to resolve differences with people before bedtime. 

Mary Stranahan gave some words of advice: “Don’t forget to joke around and have a good sense of humor.” 

Harold and Viola Tanner won the cookie plate for being the couple married the longest amount of time at the event, which was an amazing 72 years. 

“We got married in Missoula when he was 20 and I was 18,” Viola said. “It’s gone by fast.”

What is their secret?

“It’s just love,” she said.

Pat Pierre turns 86 in January. He said the trick to a long life is to “keep working.” Teaching language at Nkwusm is one of the things he is currently passionate about.

“I made a commitment to these kids to teach them my language,” he said. “I speak Pend d’Oreille and Salish. There is very little difference between the two. We are working to bring the language back.”

Pierre also spends his time in the mountains chopping wood. For the past ten years, he has gone to water board meetings to share his opinion as a tribal elder for the water compact.

“I’m always busy doing something,” he said. 

Pierre sat at a table with several elders talking in their native language. Smallsalmon was at the table. He switched to English to explain that he has seen his native language start to disappear. He also teaches at Nkwusm. 

“It’s my dream to bring the language back,” he said. “We’ve caught it right at the end. We want to keep ahold of it and not let go. If people don’t know their history and background, it gets lost and people lose their identity. It’s important to hold on to that history.”

Smallsalmon never imagined himself as an elder.

“I never thought I’d be an elder,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d get this far. When I was a kid, the elders would tell us stories. Now, I am telling those stories. The elders keep us connected to the history. I hope we can get together more often for things like this.”


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