CSKT River Honoring teaches children about the landscape

MOIESE, Mont. (AP) — A sun-filled field along the Flathead River outside Moiese was home to all kinds of students studying this week.

Science and science classes combined with cultural activities and traditional games such as double ball, which make some students literally run and scream for joy.

They all play a part in the River Honoring of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which brought in some 400 children a day on Tuesday and Wednesday for the largest turnout since 2019.

The goal is to teach the kids about the river and natural resource programs, said Stephanie Gillin, CSKT information and education specialist, and “in everything we do, we try to integrate culture.”

The presentations therefore range from wildlife to forestry and water quality. They hear from Séliš and Q’lispé elders and scientists and experts from Salish Kootenai College and tribal departments. The Mission Valley Backcountry Horsemen are also coming.

Students learn about river species from the Tribal Fisheries Program, including the ability to handle and identify fish. They discover how to measure snow cover and how runoff fills the water table on which the farmers and ranchers in the area depend.

Instructors designed the experience to send students home with “respect for the area, respect for the land, respect for the river, because ultimately they will be the caretakers of our future,” Gillin told the Missoulian.

“(They’re getting) the knowledge of how lucky we are to live in the area we live in, and how to protect it,” she said. They like to think in terms of future generations, she said, and want to give them the information they need to improve on their predecessors.

The celebration goes back 35 years and usually brings schools from inside and outside the reserve. It was postponed in 2020 and returned in 2021 with fifth-graders from reservation schools and fewer presentations. It was limited, but Gillin said it was necessary.

“If we hadn’t had it two years in a row, that fifth grade class would have missed completely,” Gillin said.

This year they invited fourth- and fifth-grade classes all over the reservation. Some schools, such as Dayton, Hot Springs, and Nkwusm Salish immersion school, are small enough to take their entire student body.

“Returning to the events at full capacity is not only good for the students, but also for the teachers,” she said. They are outdoors with plenty of room to move around. Wednesday it was clear and warm.

This year the Honoring has about 10 presentations, each in two loops. The Pierre Loop is named in honor of the late Pat Pierre, a Salish elder who worked on the culture committee. The other is for the late Pablo “Chib” Espinoza, the chief gamekeeper.

One of the most rambunctious stops on the Pierre Loop was for ‘run and yell’, a traditional game played mainly by women and children. It was open to everyone on Wednesday.

It is also one of the most popular, designed for fun and exercise. Naomi Robinson said they explain its purpose in a nomadic way of life and the importance of safety in numbers when traveling.

“Women and children generally have to walk and carry the family belongings, so we had to be strong enough to keep up with the main group and that’s why we play these kinds of games to build our stamina and make us stronger,” she said.

In this version, they all cried out en masse and ran to see who was furthest before running out of air. The screams were loud, the sprints were all from one group of Pablo Elementary.

When the drumming signaled it was lunchtime, their teacher Edward Ness said the students were reacting to the celebration after two years of more limited options.

“Having this field trip, and just being outside, gaining cultural knowledge — they enjoy that sort of thing,” he said.

The introduction to the traditional game of double ball, not unlike lacrosse, involves a run-down on nutrition.

Paul Phillips and Hannah Lampry, fitness specialists at Tribal Health, surveyed children about traditional food sources: blueberries versus imported sugar-packed fruits; the healthy energy of natural foods versus processed foods; how fresh food does not contain more calories than you can burn on a normal day.

“We had no choice then,” he said. “You had to be active to survive. Today we have to make the choice to be active every day.”

Running was important for many reasons, including delivering important messages quickly over long distances. Exercise comes in the form of this game, which is age-appropriate.

Just like in football, two goalposts made of sticks are set up on the field. Phillips delivered a double ball, which is made of two bags filled with bison hair, which the players can pick up from the ground with a stick and with enough practice as Phillips has thrown for a pass or a goal.

Divided into boys and girls, the team pressed for the ball, and as it landed on the ground, a procession of sticks descended until someone picked it up, holding it up on the stick made a pause for it.

A student wandered back to take a break. Not long on the sidelines, he grabbed his stick and went back inside for more.

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