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College celebrates its beginning

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It’s such a big celebration that it couldn’t fit into one day. So the folks at Salish Kootenai College decided to make a weeklong celebration to honor those who helped to develop the college. 

“The goal and vision was to help capture the vision of those founders who worked so diligently,” said SKC President Robert DePoe III during a speech on Monday to kick off the celebration.

The celebration was also about honoring those who continue to make the school possible.

“We are not here as a single person doing the work,” he said. “We are a team. We are a family.”

The first weeklong celebration was held last year after DePoe decided it was time to recognize the effort it took to establish the school. 

“We wanted to honor those who made this possible,” SKC Foundation Executive Director Angelique Albert said of the people who helped create the college. They are calling it the Founders Week Celebration.

“It’s a week to honor everyone from the founders to the professors,” Albert said. “It’s like a homecoming celebration.”

The school doesn’t yet have a football team, the traditional sport to celebrate homecoming week, but they do have a basketball team, so they tied the celebration in with the school’s basketball games. And like any homecoming week, dress up days are included. Monday was pajama day. 

The school also unveiled the Founders Wall, which is a 95-foot-long wall in the Book Store building covered with a wall-to-wall 

picture of the Mission Mountains. The wall includes information about the founders and significant events at the school with room to add future events. 

“The wall was DePoe’s vision,” she said. “He wanted a historic wall to hold the school’s timeline.”

The timeline events began with the work of Joe McDonald and several others in the late ‘70s. McDonald was then the Director of the Flathead Valley Community College, and he decided that there needed to be more advanced educational opportunities on the Flathead Reservation. President Richard Nixon had just signed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act opening up many possibilities on the reservation.

“With the self-determination act, we could contract programs, but we didn’t have anyone with degrees to run them,” McDonald said.

Developing a college on the reservation would help equip people with the degrees needed to fill many positions, but McDonald saw education as more than a way to fill jobs.

“It was a way to keep our culture alive,” he said. “Our culture was dying so fast. We needed people to be able to teach how to tan a hide, make a dance outfit or say a prayer. Those things were dying and we needed people to teach them. The college was a place to teach the language, the culture and prepare people for work.” 

He also wanted the college to be inclusive towards all cultures. 

“I wanted it to be a place for rural people and not just Indians,” he said. “Many people in the area couldn’t afford to leave to go to college or they were needed at home.” 

The college didn’t start out in the sprawling campus that it is today at the edge U.S. Highway 93 in Pablo, spreading back towards the mountains with several educational buildings, housing and other sports facilities.

“The Polson School District lent us the space for the first college building,” he said. 

It eventually ended up in Pablo after the CSKT complex was built. 

“The tribe built the office complex and they gave us some space in 1977. The Charlo building was the first building we built, and we added others over the years.”

McDonald had no idea how much the college would grow.

“I never even had a faint thought that it would get this big,” he said. “Its growth really shows how much it was needed.”

He played a big role in developing the college, and he was the president for 33 years, but he wasn’t the first. McDonald explained that while he was the director of the Flathead Community College, Michael O’Donnell was running the original SKC College in Polson for the first year. He said developing the college was a group effort. McDonald said he is glad to be part of the Founders Week as a guest speaker.

“President DePoe had a wonderful idea when he decided to start it,” he said. “Other colleges do similar things. It’s time to recognize where we are and where we have been.”

Although, he said he is still waiting for the school to develop a football team along with a women’s softball team.

“We have the fields,” he said. “We thought that if we build them, they will eventually come.”

The celebration will continue into the week with Cancer Awareness Day on Wednesday. A Bison Stomp Out Cancer Stampede walk will be held at 2:45 p.m. at the Joe McDonald Health and Wellness Center. An Indian Taco benefit dinner and silent auction will be held in the Camas Room. The proceeds will be split between the Cheerful Heart cancer organization and the DePoe family.

“President Depoe is fighting liver cancer,” Albert said. “Cancer impacts a lot of people and we want to show our support.”

The night will continue with a Lady Bison basketball game at 6 p.m. Thursday is Native Bling and Rock Your Mocs Day with an all-day dry meat social. Friday is Bison Gear Day with a tailgate party before the Founders Week Basketball Classic Tournament starting at 2 p.m. at the Joe McDonald Center, and a Bison Stomp Dance at 10 p.m. in the Camas Room. The basketball tournament continues on Saturday starting at 11 a.m. 


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