What's in a name? For tribal history researcher, everything
Dec. 21, 2008
ARLEE - Julie Cajune sat in her Subaru with the engine turned off, clutching a manila envelope, almost afraid to look inside.
She just wanted some names for a map. The map would teach Montana schoolchildren how their Salish Indian neighbors saw the countryside they all share: landmarks like "It Has a Face," "The Surrounded Place" and "River of Eyes Wide Open Wood."
Those names were iceberg tips floating on the sea of Salish culture. Each one unpacked multitudes, referencing routes to the buffalo plains that avoided enemy Blackfeet Indians, stories about Coyote that instructed children and the times of year when bitterroots were available.
As a researcher for the Montana Tribal History Project, Cajune wanted the most authoritative versions she could find. And the Salish-Kootenai Cultural Committee kept her hanging for months. She'd heard elders were arguing over whose version was correct, or whether such tribal knowledge should be shared with the wider world.
Tribal elder Tony Incashola had finally phoned, saying the list she'd sought had been approved for release. He offered to put it in the mail. She said no she'd drive over.
"After months and months of waiting, I got really discouraged, on a really personal level," Cajune recalled a year later, reaching for a tissue to wipe away a new tear. "I opened the envelope and read the names and started to cry. I saw they have given me over 100 names. I had only asked for 30."
Consider Silver Bow Creek, near present-day Butte. It sounds Indian, but most archives say white miners named it during the 1860s Gold Rush. Today, Silver Bow Creek forms the headwaters of the largest Superfund toxic-waste cleanup project in the nation. It's where the miners of Butte dumped their tailings of arsenic and mercury and lead as they dug for gold and silver and copper.
Cajune's map depicts that country through different eyes the vision of a people who left generations of knowledge in the names they gave their landmark s. The Salish called that creek "The Place Where You Shot Fish In The Head."
"Reading those names, it was an overwhelming feeling of cultural loss," Cajune said "What we had was so rich. It was beyond adequate. All the times I'd sat with elders and heard them talking about so many fish in the rivers you could walk across on their backs. There was such an abundance of resources, and their knowledge was so deep. We were self-sufficient in such a powerful and magnificent way.
"This collective history belongs to everyone in our community," Cajune said. "But because of a consequence of history, not everybody in our tribe has access to it. When you think of thousands of years of knowing that things are always going to be there - a place to dig camas roots or find tool material - you depend on those places. That's what I felt in their words, a really deep affection for those places."
Denise Juneau heads the Montana Office of Public Instruction's Indian Education Department in Helena. She said her guiding philosophy in developing Indian Education for All was summed up in the initials W.W.J.D: What Would Julie Do?
Books, posters, DVDs, music collections and guidelines from the Tribal History Project have been arriving in Juneau's office for months. Juneau passes them on to Julie Cajune, who takes them to her home in Arlee. While Cajune has an office at Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, she said so many people are interested in her progress, she can't get any work done there. So she takes it home.
There she transforms them into lesson plans teachers can use to reintroduce Montana's seven tribal nations to its thousands of public school children.
The Indian Education for All campaign has a two-sided goal. The obvious half is to make Montana's American Indian heritage more accessible, not just for social studies, but in science and gym and poetry and math class.
The more subtle effort is to close what teachers call the Indian achievement gap. Nationwide, just over half o f American Indian high school students graduate, compared with more than three-quarters of the population as a whole. In Montana, Native American students have regularly failed to make adequate yearly progress on school districts' No Child Left Behind federal tests.
The idea is, if you went to school every day and no one ever talked about people who looked like you or your family, you'd think this was a place you're not meant to be. Poverty and unemployment rates already cripple Montana's reservation communities. Invisibility shouldn't be added to the burden.
By studying how feathers improve arrow accuracy in physics class and reading James Welch's "Fools Crow" in literature class, Indian Education for All should put Montana's tribal residents on the same cultural threshold as Galileo and Mark Twain. Juneau said a big part of the Montana Tribal History Project has been simply compiling bibliographies of reliable resources for Indian knowledge.
"Teachers want to do craft activities," Cajune said. "That's what's out there in the commercial sites - tag-board tipis, paper-bag vests, anything with feathers on it. That isn't a meaningful alternative."
Cajune has been doing this kind of work for more than a decade, since she was plunged into creating a Salish language class as a brand-new student teacher in Ronan. She's led conferences where fellow Montana educators naively asked about the proper way to make "Sioux dream-makers" (actually dream-catchers, a Chippewa artwork), totem poles (which come from the Pacific Coast) and wampum (bead money used by tribes in New England).
"I want them to see Indian people have persisted into the 20th century. A lot of teachers in New Hampshire don't know that. From the time Europeans colonized America, the policy has gone from genocide to assimilation. It's remarkable Indian people have persisted with their languages and culture. Five hundred years later, Indians are still Indians."
And it starts with the names. The names start the sto ries, and the stories reach across time and culture to bind families.
"A story can change your life," Cajune said. "If that's true, what's that mean for me as a ya-ya - a grandmother? What stories should I be sharing as a sister or a daughter or a friend? If you could only tell them 10 stories, if there was some law, what stories would you choose to tell your children?
Town's Salish name speaks volumes
Julie Cajune's home sits a few miles from the town of St. Ignatius, a Flathead Reservation town renowned for its ornately painted Roman Catholic mission church. On her Salish map, it's called Snyelmn: The Place Where You Surround Something.
That name refers to a Salish hunting tactic, where men would build a temporary corral and chase deer or elk herds inside. In a single word, the name connotes a landmark, a food source, a harvesting method and a time of year when such tactics are effective.
"Now, it is like that place describes us as Indian people," Cajune said. "We are surrounded geographically, politically, socially and spiritually. We could literally and figuratively refer to the reservation as 'The Surrounded Place.' "