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Children learn from elders at River Honoring

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The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes celebrated gifts of life, travel and beauty during the 26th annual Lower Flathead River Honoring last week.

“A lot of this is in a cultural context,” said CSKT Wildland Recreation Work Project Coordinator Terry Tanner. “Our people, the Salish, Kootenai and Pend D’Oreille people, have always used this river for travel back and forth to Washington. Before the dams went in, it was one of our main travel corridors to get from east to west. The river has really been important for us, not only for food and fish but for water. We hold water very sacred to us. It’s one of the most important things to us because water sustains life.”

Tanner said the two-day event saw more than 1,000 grade school students from as far south as Stevensville and as far north as Somers. More than giving thanks for the river and all it provides, the event was specifically geared toward teaching younger generations about conservation, the environment and why protecting the environment should be a priority. 

“This is very important to educate the younger generation and these young students,” Tanner said. “Not only to take care of the environment, but how to respect it.”

Teepees and tents dotted the riverbank as smiling and laughing children went from station to station learning about culture, wildlife, conservation and much more. 

With so much going on, National Bison Range Lead Wildlife Biologist Brendan Moynahan said he was hoping for a break in the action so he could be a tourist for a bit. 

“I definitely need to be educated later,” he said with a laugh. “There’s probably 30 different tents here and all kinds of interesting stuff going on. We’ve got a couple of activities specific to the bison range. We have an entire bison skeleton that we’re having the kids put together and we’re teaching them about how we mark bison with electronic chips so we can track individuals. We’re also working on a matching game where we match up hide, tracks, skulls and scat with individual animals.

“It’s been great so far.”

CSKT fisheries technician Rich Folsom spent more than five hours on the river south of Dixon harvesting fish for the day. Nearby, a livewell filled with the fruits of his labor — bass, trout, pike and suckers — awaited curious young minds. 

“The kids get to play with the fish and they enjoy that,” Folsom said. “That’s probably one of the favorite stations every year because they get to play with the fish in the water.”

Just behind Folsom, Ten Sticks Lacrosse founder Alex Alviar showed students how to properly cradle a lacrosse ball while teaching the cultural aspect of the game. Next to Alviar, tribal game wardens spoke of the importance of conservation alongside hunting and fishing, and several tribal elders spoke to the children about the importance of the land. 

“The original reason (for hosting a river honoring) was that there was concern by tribal members regarding proposals to build more hydroelectric facilities on the river. There was a pretty significant outcry from the tribal membership,” said CSKT education coordinator Germaine White. “I think there is always the concern that somehow, we might think about short term economic gain at the cost of long-term cultural well-being.”

White said she couldn’t have been more pleased with the outcome, and had a great deal of praise for the presenters and volunteers who made the event possible. 

“We had presenters that just did a fabulous job, and that’s very tough,” White said. “Being with students all day long for two days and keeping a presentation fresh and dynamic can be a challenge, and they rose to the challenge and exceeded all my expectations.”

Thankfully, the weather cooperated with sunny skies and mid-70s temperatures — an important factor with 1,000 children from all over Western Montana in attendance. 

White said she met with every school group at the end of the day and asked about their experience. This, White admitted, was risky as it was the end of the day and kids are normally hot, tired and ready to go home. 

However, White said 99.9 percent of the students said they had a great time. When asked which station was their favorite, they all had a different answer.

“It’s just amazing,” White said of the event. “Kids running around and playing and sitting and listening and looking at fish and being firefighters for a minute ... isn’t it great?

“This is to provide a cultural sense of understanding for why the river is so important to the tribes. It’s not enough to just have kids out there. We do this on purpose and we do this with a purpose — to provide them a window to see into the kinds of guidance and direction we get from our elders for our association with the river, so we share that cultural framework.”

Seated in the shade of a pine tree and a teepee, tribal elder Patrick Pierre told groups of children stories that intersected, flowed and moved together while reflecting a common theme; living with the earth, not off the earth.

“The stories that I tell are important because it’s their future,” Pierre said. “They’re going to have to see what comes in their future. This is kind of getting them prepared for what to look for in their future, what’s going to happen in their lifetime as they’re growing up. That’s the same thing that I experienced and just handed over to them so they can have a better understanding. Why are we gathered here? Is it just a day off of school? No. You have to learn about the environment, Earth, all living things. It’s a teaching experience and that’s why I speak so clearly, so they can have a good understanding.

“That’s why I’m here.”

 

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