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Honor thy River: Educational event celebrates Lower Flathead, highlights cultural importance

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FLATHEAD RIVER — More than 1,000 students learned lessons about nurturing relationships with native wildlife, people and oneself at the River Honoring held last week beside the Lower Flathead River near Moiese. 

The annual event partners community organizations with fourth and fifth graders from area schools. 

“They talk about what the resources are and how those resources are managed and cared for,” said Germaine White, spokesperson for the Tribal Natural Resources Department that hosts the annual event. “The children learn how remarkable this river corridor is.” 

The corridor has long been of importance to the Pend d’Oreille, Salish and Kootenai tribes who used it as a travel highway and food source. 

The Pend d’Oreille were so connected to the river that their sign language gesture for their self-identity mimicked that of a canoe-stroke. 

Anthropologist Carling Malouf once wrote that “the density of occupation sites around Flathead Lake, and along the Flathead River ... indicates that this was perhaps, the most important center of ancient life west of the Continental Divide."

But in the late 1980s there was a push to create more dams on the river, which could further damage an ecosystem already altered by the construction of Kerr Dam. Many native people had opposed construction of the dam in the 1930s because it caused degradation to cultural sites. 

As the threat of further development and degradation loomed, tribal advocates started massive education efforts in an attempt to harbor public appreciation for the river. The River Honoring ceremony was born of those efforts. 

In last week’s honoring the milky blue waters of the Lower Flathead River swept past as children moved from tipi station to tipi station along its banks. Ronan student Tyneal Fleammond squealed as she reached shoulder-deep into a murky black tank. She grinned and giggled as the fish within brushed against her searching hands, until water droplets splashed across her face when she successfully pulled one to the surface. 

The fish’s mouth gaped open and gills flapped as Fleammond tilted her head and looked the creature in the eye. She wasn’t as daring as some of the young boys who visited the station and offered the slippery friend a kiss on the fin. 

“Hi, fishy,” she said, before slowly sliding the animal back into the tank, shaking her arms of remaining water, and skipping off to a station filled with technical instruments meant to measure hydrology. 

There Martin Barnaby demonstrated with many instruments and tools used in his work with the Tribal Water Management program. 

Barnaby has participated in River Honoring since the first one was held in 1986. The children laughed as they snapped on Barnaby’s snowshoes and hoisted an instrument meant to measure stream flow. The activities are fun for the children, but also showcase one of the Tribe’s crowning assets — a long-running hydrology monitoring program that is among the best in the world. 

The program’s newest managers have been with the program for more than 20 years and some are nearing retirement age, Barnaby said. In his opinion that makes it even more important to pass knowledge on to the next generation. 

The interactive message of the presenters lodge themselves in the students’ brains. 

Barnaby said he was happy when one of this year’s fifth graders stopped by his station and remembered most of what was taught the previous year. 

“They learn,” Barnaby said. “They remember. It’s always great.” 

Ronan fifth grade teacher Charla Lake recalled her own young experience with the River Honoring as a Ronan student. 

“I think these stations are very good to get the kids educated,” Lake said. “They are very engaged throughout the stations.” 

She hoped the students would remember the lessons as the class began dissections this week. 

The event emphasized the importance of respecting the land, but also focused on respecting oneself and fellow people. 

Tribal elder Pat Pierre told children that they will only have enemies in life if they decide to be an enemy to someone else. 

“What you need to do in this world is make it good,” Pierre said. 

Positive life choices are rooted in the soul, Pierre told the children. 

“You want to remember something, you put it in your heart,” Pierre said. “If you put it in your head you’ll forget it.” 

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