Salish Kootenai College Visit

ARRIVING ON DAY 1

We arrived in Missoula, Montana on Sunday May 9 on this leg of our video project. It is Mother’s Day and we headed north to Polson to set up our base camp for the next three nights on the southwest side of Flathead Lake. We were only 80 miles away but took longer than expected through the rain and stopping to take the time to capture the picturesque landscape going along roads lined with Salish and Kootenai-translated street signs leading to the reservation. Between the rustic structures surviving in the valley between the mountains to the lake that frames the land in-between, we took the time to photograph the atmosphere. Standing outside the car after trying to photograph an eagle we spotted, I am filled with awe as my senses are filled to the point that the shutter is not taking photos anymore, and I find myself looking up with sprinkles of rain tapping my head.

We finally arrive at the KwaTaqNuk Resort hotel on the lake and are greeted by the warm welcoming smile obscured by a burly mustache of Tribal Council Secretary Steve Lozar. The active tribal member and avid hockey player gave us the run-down of the reservation’s history, the present-day activities and the future of this culture-rich setting in Western Montana. Lozar addressed issues that spanned water management, the hydro-electric dam, ecology, historical treaties, claiming back tribal lands, relations with neighboring tribes, the importance of St. Ignatius hospital, energy production, economics, gaming, healthcare, SKC, the confederation of the tribes and much more useful information. He was absolutely informative to us and spoke with ease as numerous people passing by respectfully greet him or wave as they walk by.

DAY 2

The wind is howling and crashing the waves on this brisk, gusty morning. We wake up to the magic hour of freezing temps, only to be warmed by the dramatic light of the sunrise with Glacier National Monument way far in the horizon’s haze. Jonas, looking for more on the lake, finds his way onto an airboat vessel with Captain Dave Kluttz and a group of researchers studying the invasive plants, fish, shellfish and barnacles plaguing the body of water in the middle of the reservation. I remained on dry land planning our Monday, which started with rescheduling and weather delays.

We received a heartwarming welcome to the SKC campus, a gem of the Tribal College system dug deep under the canopy of 60-ft Ponderosa Pines in the town of Pablo (also known as Little Blackfeet, a reference to the small village of Blackfeet tribal descendants.) Lois Slater, Tracy McDonald and Alan Addison gathered our selected students for us and treated us to Indian tacos and an informal meet-and-greet for us all. We walked and toured our way through the campus and the student housing facilities. We met non-traditional students enrolled to “make themselves a better opportunity and to make (themselves) better Native American women.” We had a traditional straight powwow song performed on a hand drum for us by a Native student, a single parent who teaches children lessons in powwow and tradition while attending classes, a grandmother learning how to work on a computer, and a non-traditional college student starting with history and language to cover “basics” towards a degree. No matter what the field, the common theme among the students here is success, and success comes within and within the family. As they see the college grow within the community and course offerings expand, they believe Salish Kootenai College is a place where they can complete their dreams of accomplishment and leave with confidence, evincing pride for their school and for who they are.

After the final interviews we head towards the River Honoring ceremony at a camp 20 miles south of our location along the Flathead River. The river that brings life, power and energy to the people of these confederated tribes is lined with teepees as the days-long event receives its kick-off blessing. We took the time to talk with some of the elders, introducing ourselves, sharing stories and sharing our Think Indian shirts. The cool evening was late but we took the time to harvest every bit of that’s evening’s light; pushing every ray until we could only rely on the ambient light of dusk to guides us back to pavement through ranchland on gravel-topped dirt roads.

DAY 3

After a long Monday, we are up early in anticipation of the morning’s wonderful light along the lake and mountain range, only to be greeted by overcast skies and a great breakfast. This morning we go to the Tribal Council offices, located within walking distance to the school, to sign up for their twice-a-week meeting agenda for the day so we can introduce ourselves. We sign in and are introduced by Tracy within the neatly designed council chambers. It is much like any other council benches, with the exception of the towering, vaulted design. From the outside, the tall cylindrical architecture looks like a drum and inside, the pine lodge-poles tower up like tepee poles, meeting at a skylight centered directly above the aesthetic, glazed stone décor and floors that sat a stone table beneath where we spoke to the Council from our seats and microphones. We thanked the members and told them bout our video project and they responded by expressing their appreciation what we do at the College Fund and what do to make the life of Native American students better.

It is our last full day in Montana and we had a great opportunity to meet environmental scientists, chemists, counselors, student leaders and those inspiring to do so. We had a great interview with Tribal College President Dr. Joe McDonald, future educators, an aspiring nurse and single parents making the grades in advance courses while including their children with them in their extracurricular activities of school and life.

We learned that people are here to make a difference; to be themselves as they move through academia. With top-notched facilities, this place is well ahead and well on its way to bigger and better things. Many of these students we met will continue on to post-graduate studies and pursue their relative fields of interest. We wish them all the best and it was an honor to meet everyone on this trip.

We chased eagles, stopping the rental car for interesting vantage points as we headed out. Jonas and I have had some time to drive together and get to know each other more. (Jonas works at a location in Portland, Oregon, so we don’t normally have this opportunity.) We ate at strange hours and work really long days with a lot to do in a short amount of time. It was worth the effort, even with the failed attempts to photograph animals and birds that caught our eyes. I feel blessed that we did capture the essence of what makes this place special. We are now leaving, but learning, as we work to provide what we can do make a difference. Educating the mind and spirit.

To the students, staff, community, tribal members and the State of Montana–thank you for your incredible hospitality, kindness, beauty, inspiration and assistance. It was you combined with all the elements of communication, willingness and weather that all come together to make this a memorable and remarkable experience.

-Jaime Aguilar, jaguilar@collegefund.org

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