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Encampment passes on appreciation for traditional skills

Last week’s Agnes Vanderburg Camp on North Valley Creek Road could have been transplanted from the 19th century except for the cars and pickups.

Smoke from campfires veiled the pine trees, and the creek overfilled its banks. A deer carcass hung from a tree limb, and people knapped arrowheads, tanned hides, beaded, and made drums, atlatl darts and other traditional items. 

Though the week of June 7 through 11 was wet, with rain almost every day, spirits were still high at the end of the encampment.   

Salish Kootenai College students could learn to bead with Rachel Bowers, build flutes with Carolyn Rogers, learn traditional tool-making with Frank Finley, make baskets with Eva Boyd, tan hides with Junior Green and make arrowheads with Dwight Billedeaux.

SKC registered 46 students for the camp; they received academic credit for their participation. Families of participants were also welcome so many small, muddy children raced through the grass and under the trees looking for sticks, rocks and pinecones. 

On one rock in a clearing Dwight Billedeaux mixed earth-colored paint, using clay rocks and tacky glue. Using the sticky mixture, he painstakingly daubed rawhide earrings so they looked like eagle feathers.

Billedeaux also taught students to knap arrowheads, making it look easy. 

“I started when I was 10,” Dwight Billedeaux explained, holding a piece of leather on his left knee and knapping crescent-shaped pieces of obsidian with a length of deer horn.

Billedeaux learned to make arrowheads from his dad and an anthropologist, and has been going to the Agnes Vanderburg encampment since 1979, only missing one or two years.

“When it (the obsidian) says ‘knap,’ it means turn it,” Billedeaux said, explaining how making arrowheads got its name. 

You have to make an arrowhead on your leg because if you put the leather on a hard surface and knap it, the chips of stone can fly up and hit you in the face or the eye according to Billedeaux. 

“It hurts (using your leg), but it’s safer,” Billedeaux said, smiling.

He sat on a camp chair and effortlessly churned out arrowheads. With a grin, Billedeaux said he should be able to make arrowheads since he’s been doing it for 50 years. 

A sculptor who uses recyclable materials, Billedeaux made some of the big pieces of artwork spread across the SKC campus, such as the man holding an eagle. Billedeaux also paints. One sample of his work is the portrait of John Peter Paul in the John Peter Paul building.

Student Trevor Hando sat nearby making an arrowhead while fellow student Terence Mousel fashioned an atlatl dart. Like many students who stayed busy at the encampment, Mousel had already made a hand drum, a spear, arrowheads and a rattle.

Hando’s tent kept the rain out, but his mom’s tent leaked. 

Instructor Frank Finley was keeping an eye on the atlatl dart while scraping his walking stick until it was smooth and beautiful. Finley used his knife blade to get rid of a “pig’s ear,” or staub, on the stick since Finley’s parents always told him there was no sense making something ugly.

Finley, who calls himself a Renaissance Indian, said an atlatl was a Plains Indian tool, but the Inuits also had a form of it, as do the Aborigines in Australia.

“The style is different, but the idea and the tool are all the same,” Finley explained. 

In the next clearing, Junior Green and his three hide-tanning students worked. One group of students with Green squeezed the moisture out of a hide while another scraped hair from a hide. The third student, Acorn Holds The Enemy, used sinew to stitch up holes in his hide.

Green gathered his students and anyone else available to pull on a hide that had been soaked in brains. 

Learning about traditional ways of doing things, such as tanning hides, will go on all summer at the camp. To prepare for the Head Start camp this week, the carpentry crew from Kicking Horse Job Corps was unloading a load of tepee poles so the cycle of learning and camping could continue. 

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