Another successful River Honoring in the books
By B.L. Azure
The Flathead Reservation Extension Office station at the River Honoring is always a fun learning experience for youngsters like this Nkwusm young ones. (B.L. Azure photo)
LOWER FLATHEAD RIVER — It is what it is. The Flathead River Honoring is the largest, most comprehensive and longest running environmental awareness and responsibility educational endeavor in Montana. The annual event began in 1986 and has been fine tuned since to become a common — and much anticipated — component of the learning experience for the participating schools and students on or near the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was conceived, nurtured and grown in-house.
The River Honoring offers up some good hands-on experiential learning opportunities, like sucker smooching, not found too many other places. (B.L. Azure photo)
“Before this started we didn’t look out there to see what was going on similar to this,” said Tom McDonald, manager of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division. “I don’t think there was anything out there similar to what we envisioned so we developed our own model. Our intent from the beginning was to make this a perpetual, common place learning experience. It is now something that people look forward to every year. We didn’t anticipate the interest that sprouted outside of the reservation. There are times we have to turn away school requests to participate. Our growth and acceptance is similar to the Head Start Powwow. It’s an institution.”
The National Bison Range returned to the River Honoring after a couple of years hiatus and the inquisitive ponied up to the bison skeletal puzzle. (B.L. Azure photo)
McDonald has been associated with the River Honoring since the get-go. He said the River Honoring has undergone a few changes through the years. It used to be held in the fall now it’s the spring. It used to be geared to older students now it is aimed at the fourth and fifth grades. It used to be located in a couple of other locations before settling at its present site. It used to last three days not it’s a two-day affair. There used to be one big loop now there are two loops with 10 stations each.
“We started out small as a community awareness thing then we opened it up to the schools. As we grew early on we realized we needed a better site to accommodate the buses. They can’t go off the main roads so that is one of the reasons we are here close to the county road,” he said. “It is centrally located for reservation schools.”
Les Bigcrane got plenty of answers to the questions he asked of his captive audience at the River Honoring. (B.L. Azure photo)
An estimated 1,000 fourth and fifth grade students from throughout the Flathead Reservation and some surrounding communities took part in the experiential learning experience.
“This is very good for kids. We started out with older kids then we became aware that different age groups learn differently,” said Terry Tanner of the Wildland Recreation program. “We’ve come to believe that fourth and fifth grade students are prime for this type of learning experience. We get most of them for two years. The key is to get them early with key messages. We tell them about the importance of environmental caretaking and the sanctity of Mother Earth. They do learn and they retain what they learn at this age the rest of their lives.”
It wouldn’t be a complete River Honoring without the Native games like shinny. (B.L. Azure photo)
The River Honoring combines the Flathead Tribes and related community resource specialists and educators for presentations at approximately 20 stations. The educational programs demonstrate projects and activities that educate students about the river and its ecosystem.
“We want to mix western environmental education with our cultural environmentalism practices. They go together well,” McDonald said. “It has helped with the kids’ awareness of the environment they live in, their place in it, an awareness of who they are and an awareness of their environmental responsibilities.”
McDonald said the young Indian kids can look to the tribal presenters as role models and perhaps settle on an education and career in the various environmental programs within the CSKT Natural Resources Department or elsewhere.
“All these great people out here at the stations are great role models,” McDonald said.
The CSKT stations include, Fisheries Program, Wildlife Program, Wildland Recreation, Water Quality, Air Quality, Forestry, Health Education, and Fire as well as traditional games.
The Division of Fire station is the one to be at when the sun beats the heat down on un-shaded bodies. (B.L. Azure photo)
The Backcountry Horsemen group, the National Bison Range, Ancestral Skills and Technology, Salish Kootenai College, Bonneville Power Administration, Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee also had stations.
McDonald said the CSKT NRD specialists and professionals still make in-school presentations but that can be difficult at times due to scheduling. The River Honoring brings the big show not under one tent but in many tipis at one sublime location along the banks of the Lower Flathead River.
“We still go to the schools but we do have a hard time getting staff to schools when they want them there,” McDonald said. “Now we do this here in a couple of days and cover it all. It is a good investment of staff time.”
The time investment has produced a savory brain feed that others have emulated.
Margene Asay talks about the perils of smoking or chewing of tobacco at the THHS Fitness Centers station. (B.L. Azure photo)
“We started something here that others see the value of,” McDonald said. “Now there are other schools in western Montana doing similar environmental learning efforts.”
Tanner and McDonald said the tribal elders told them they have responsibilities to their fellow tribal members and the populace at large.
“The elders told us that this was one of our generation’s responsibilities,” Tanner said. “They have had us on their shoulders and pushed us forward with this. It has taken us a lot of years to get to this point, we’re moving smoothly towards the future.”