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MWC celebrates Salish art at local elementary schools

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FLATHEAD RESERVATION — The Missoula Writing Collaborative (MWC) has spent the last two weeks in schools throughout Flathead Reservation bringing a special program to kids to celebrating Salish ledger art, poetry, and history.

A nonprofit organization, the MWC began 12-week writing residencies with elementary schools throughout the area back in 2019 where authors from the collaborative spend an hour per week with fourth and fifth graders exploring poetry and art. Though separate from the residencies, the current two-week program is still part of the same “Young Voices of the Mission Mountains” MWC project that focuses on Salish and Kootenai students.

Teamed up with Salish storyteller Aspen Decker, the MWC has been able to provide this special project to schools for the last few years thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant. According to Executive Director Caroline Patterson, this special program has more of a historical focus with ties to Salish language and storytelling than the weekly residency workshops. It gives provides the opportunity to bring in and highlight Decker’s particular talents. 

Visiting elementary schools in Arlee, Dixon, Pablo, Ronan, and St. Ignatius, Decker kicks off each day of the project by teaching kids Plains Sign Language and some relevant Salish before launching into a story primarily in Salish. Patterson describes the presentation as mesmerizing. “It’s a great honor for us,” Patterson commented. “We learn as much as the kids learn every year.” 

From there, the kids get the chance to delve into ledger art, which is taught by Patterson and other members of the MWC. Ledger art is a form of indigenous art that gained popularity in the late 19th century. Travelers like trappers and missionaries brought ledgers that allowed Native populations to depict their art and stories on a new medium. The practice of ledger art resurged in the 1960s and has maintained popularity through today. 

“(After Decker’s presentation) kids pick an animal, then try to write a poem about how the animal came to be the way it is. Maybe how the wolf got its howl, or how the fox got its red color,” Patterson explained of the ledger art portion of the day. “They come to us with these wonderful, imaginative things.”

Toward the end of the school year in May, the children’s artwork projects are collected, combined into an anthology, published and distributed to students with a special reading done by the young artists themselves. 

“I think the thing that’s amazing is the imagination of these kids. It’s so fantastic. Every time we come the stories are always new. Every year there’s foxes and turtles and coyotes and bison, but every year the stories about them are completely different,” Patterson laughed. “That’s what’s really cool about it.” 

To learn more about the MWC or future programs coming to Lake County, visit them online at: or call 406-549-3348. 

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