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The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

October 21, 2010

Lake County school history recounted in new book

By Lailani Upham

A photo from the chapter, "District No. 28 Forms at Arlee." The photo is taken of the school in Arlee by Indian Agent and Truant Officer Mr. Branson, who was known for many of the photographs taken of the schoolhouses throughout the Flathead Reservation and Lake County during the 1930's. Caption reads: "The Brown Building of Arlee." [1935 Flathead Reservation Report, Branson] Arlee-03. The brown building had an addition constructed in the front of the building years later, and still stands today along highway 93 in Arlee as a community center. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)
A photo from the chapter, "District No. 28 Forms at Arlee." The photo is taken of the school in Arlee by Indian Agent and Truant Officer Mr. Branson, who was known for many of the photographs taken of the schoolhouses throughout the Flathead Reservation and Lake County during the 1930's. Caption reads: "The Brown Building of Arlee." [1935 Flathead Reservation Report, Branson] Arlee-03. The brown building had an addition constructed in the front of the building years later, and still stands today along highway 93 in Arlee as a community center. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)

PABLO — Some might think the history of Lake County schools began in little country school buildings, which is somewhat the case, but the most accurate account of education in the area began in the stories of how the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille people taught their children to live in this area, according to a new book coming out this week, called “Lake County School History, Volume I, Once in Missoula County: One Large District Becomes Many,” by the Lake County Country School Historians and Joyce Decker Wegner, retired Lake County Superintendent of Schools.

The Lake County Country School Historians is a membership of 105 members who consistently attended meetings over the years to conduct the research, photos and writing of the book. The group is now known as the Flathead Reservation Area Historical Society.

In the forward, Dr. Harry W. Fritz, a professor of the Department of History at the University of Montana states. “Why is Lake County special? Well, the county was not created until 1923. Before that, it was part of southern Flathead county and northern Missoula county. But county boundaries are not particularly important to this study. Lake County is the home of almost the entire Salish/Kootenai (Flathead) Indian Reservation. Lake County School History is also a history of the Indian education in Montana.”

In the book the story begins at the creation of the Flathead Reservation in 1855, in the Council Grove Treaty negotiation with the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille people and the United States government. After the signing of the treaty, tribal people were located in the Bitterroot Valley but did not completely relocate until around 1891.

Between these years the book describes the education systems developed for Indian children, from the catholic missions to government agency schools operating on the reservation to far off government boarding schools to finally public schools.

(R to L) Joyce Decker Wegner, retired Lake County Superintendent of Schools and Gale Decker, Lake County Superintendent of Schools hold a manuscript dated back to 1923 of school officials and teachers. (Lailani Upham photo)
(R to L) Joyce Decker Wegner, retired Lake County Superintendent of Schools and Gale Decker, Lake County Superintendent of Schools hold a manuscript dated back to 1923 of school officials and teachers. (Lailani Upham photo)

Prior to this Dr. Fritz points out that the educational practices of Native peoples were mainly training for boys and carrying on the oral stories of each tribe.

Decker-Wegner states the uniqueness that Flathead Reservation has to other Indian reservations, and that is the fact that the land was allotted and opened up to white settlers in 1910. “Very quickly, the whites, with their local governments and economics, became the majority on the Indian land. This book is our story of how our schools impacted mixed communities.”

The scene shifts with the coming of the white settlers, Fritz states. “The Jesuits taught Indian children at the St. Ignatius mission as early at 1858. Government agency schools operated on the Flathead Reservation at Jocko, Ronan, Polson, and Camas Prairie. The Northern Pacific Railroad secured a contested right-of-way across the southern edge of the Reservation, and built the towns of Arlee, Ravalli, and Jocko (later Dixon).”

The first mission school was in 1856 and by 1858, the St. Ignatius Jesuits established the Industrial Boys School, the first resident school for Indians in the entire Northwest.

A photo from the book &quote;Lake County School History, Volume I," from Part A. Education Prior to 1911, caption reads: "Indian man (unidentified) explaining teepee pictures." [K. Ross Toole Archives, UM #86-0034] EBFR-21. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)
A photo from the book "Lake County School History, Volume I," from Part A. Education Prior to 1911, caption reads: "Indian man (unidentified) explaining teepee pictures." [K. Ross Toole Archives, UM #86-0034] EBFR-21. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)

According to Decker-Wegner, by 1864-65, the Montana Territorial Legislature created The Common School Act, where the tribes and the U.S. government signed the treaty with government responsibilities to provide education to the people of the Flathead Indian Reservation. “It is a story of imposed American assimilation, often at the expense of the traditional culture of Indians. Treaty education responsibilities were partially carried out first through the missions then in agency schools, and finally through the public schools,” she states.

Arlee School District 28 was the first public school district established in 1897 on the Flathead Reservation, according to Dr. Fritz. He states, “Most of the early schools were racially mixed, and the record of accommodation seem good. But the United States, insisting full assimilation, created off-reservation boarding schools for Indian students. Those most affecting CSK children were Carlisle in Pennsylvania, Haskell Institute of Kansas and Chemawa in Oregon.”

In the book, Johnny Arlee, CSKT tribal member and now an elder shared his story of attending Chemawa Indian School, a school his father had attended as well. Arlee started off at the Ursuline School from first grade to age 12, then he went on to Arlee Elementary, a public school. “It was worse than the boarding school, I thought. It was strict, I don’t know. I guess I had it made at the Ursuline’s, I was a leader. The Arlee School was right close to home, but going to the public school was different. The teachers...I did have some bad feelings with teachers. I don’t know if it was prejudice or what it was. I felt that other Indian students felt it too...that we were treated funny. Maybe that’s why I went off to Chemawa. I think somebody suggested that for me, maybe Mr. Branson the truant officer.

In the book, Mr. Branson totes Arlee and two other girls, Delores Courville and Rose Redhorn to Chemawa. “That was a really nice trip. I was scared of him at first,” Arlee said. The trip ended up being a pleasant memory for Arlee. His account at the far-off boarding school was of mischievousness and eventually he was sent back to the rez, back to Arlee public school. However, this time around it was the High School, and liked it there, he states.

The story of the opening of reservation to white settlers, many of them being second-generation immigrants poured into a land that was without public education. Many of the communities pitched together to build their own schools every four miles throughout the reservation, according to Decker-Wegner. “It is a story of how the people worked through two counties, Missoula and Flathead, to create school districts that quickly merged the education of the settlers’ children and tribal children.”

A photo from the chapter, "Early Education and Reservation Formation," the caption reads: "Cecille and Christine Curley and Violet Tellier, May 6, 1920." [The People's Center Collection 68C.817] EBFR-11. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)
A photo from the chapter, "Early Education and Reservation Formation," the caption reads: "Cecille and Christine Curley and Violet Tellier, May 6, 1920." [The People's Center Collection 68C.817] EBFR-11. (Copyright 2009 by Joyce Decker Wegner)

Decker-Wegner gives many conflicting recollections of the students on both sides. “These stories reflect our diversity, our intermingling and intermarriage, and our struggles to educate our children to succeed in this place we all love and call home.”

The book is a collection of 13 years of research that will be a two-volume collection will be available for purchase as early as Monday, October 25 at the Lake County Courthouse form 10 am to 4 pm. The price of the book is $29.95 each or $25 if more than one is purchased. The proceeds will go to printing the second volume.

Dr. Fritz concluded in his forward that, “The volumes are a masterpiece or local lore and memory. They are important not just as nostalgia, but because they tell critical stories of race, cultural, and education vital to the larger history of Montana.”

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