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The education and international adventure of Dean Nicolai

By Lailani Upham

Dean Nicolai with fiancé, Shanley Swanson, and son Sage pictured in Norway. The Nicolai family lived in Norway from 2010 to 2012 and consider it a “second” home. “They (Norwegians) treated us so well,” Nicolai stated. (Courtesy photo)Dean Nicolai with fiancé, Shanley Swanson, and son Sage pictured in Norway. The Nicolai family lived in Norway from 2010 to 2012 and consider it a “second” home. “They (Norwegians) treated us so well,” Nicolai stated. (Courtesy photo)

PABLO — The journey has taken him from Arlee to the tip of the world and back, but Dean Nicolai recently received a second master’s degree in Anthropology at the University of Montana.

Nicolai, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member who graduated from Arlee High School in 1991, says he did not consider he would go on to college, let alone get two master’s degrees.

“I was a C student, never thought it would happen – getting a college degree.”

In the Spring of 2002 Nicolai started classes at UM in the political science program.

“I was working as a laborer in Frenchtown building houses. One morning no one showed up except me. It hit me - ‘What am I doing here? Maybe I should go to school,’” he said.

The next day he told his boss he was taking the day off to enroll in classes. That one day changed his life; it was the end of laboring and beginning of study that eventually brought him from Montana to Norway to research and use his Rez ball moves internationally.

Nicolai said he started out in political science but found it was not his fit, and the next quarter took some anthropology classes and he was hooked.

He received his undergraduate in Anthropology in 2007, and the following year his second B.A. in Native American Studies.

The academic journey did not end with two bachelor’s degrees but he went on to receive two master’s degrees. In his first year in graduate school the opportunity of lifetime came for not only Nicolai, but for his entire family.

Nicolai, and his fiancée Shanley Swanson were selected on a cooperation fellowship with the University of Montana to study abroad at the University of Tromso in Norway in the Indigenous Studies program.

“The UM Native American Studies had a collaborative project with the University of Tromso. The University of Tromso Sami Studies Center and UM Native American Studies jointly applied for a four-year grant from the research organization in the Norwegian university system; the grant came in in 2008, and it provided for fellowships for up to six UM students to earn Master’s degrees in Indigenous Studies, in addition to faculty workshops alternating between the US and Norway,” stated UM Native American studies Professor Kate Shanley and project director.

“Sami people are the Indigenous people of Norway. We will be producing an anthology of articles comparing the Sami people’s history and culture with that of Native American peoples of Montana. Dean Nicolai and Shanley Swanson were selected based on their having earned NAS degrees with high grade-point averages,” Shanley added.

Nicolai stated he was grateful at the opportunity including his life-partner and son, “I wanted us all to go as a family. The opportunity was there and we jumped at it.” He said he felt his son soaked up the experience for a lifetime, “Sage the most out of it,” he said.

Sage, 10, attended the Norway public schools in the second and third grade and learned the language fairly quick, said Nicolai.

“He made a lot of friends there, and even got a family to offer a place for him to stay if he wants to go back for a year.”

Nicolai said his son became he and Swanson’s own personal interpreter while living there. “He learned the language pretty quick and is fluent.”

He said the first time he noticed his son’s fluency in Norwegian was when the family had taken a taxi and Sage had to give directions for his mom and dad. Nicolai added that the taxi driver and his son had a conversation all the way to the destination.

While in Norway, Sage starred in a documentary called “Eagle Boy,” by a film student they had met while at Tromso.

The film is still being showed at certain film festivals, and Facebook page. However, receiving copies on DVD are not accessible at this point says Nicolai.

“In addition to being a great student and a hard worker, Dean is a great father and partner. It was a huge accomplishment to live abroad as a family for two years, but together we did it,” Swanson shared.

Nicolai worked for CSKT Tribal Preservation as a cultural resource specialist full-time while attending school full-time from 2006 – 2009.

Nicolai’s master’s thesis while in Tromso was on the laws and practices of cultural preservation of the Salish Medicine Tree, located in the Bitterroot.

Nicolai runs the court. (Courtesy photo)Nicolai runs the court. (Courtesy photo)

Nicolai stated in his abstract for his thesis called, Exploring Indigenous Methodological Perspectives in Cultural Resource Management: The Case Study of the Ram’s Head Medicine Tree, “This thesis suggests that the state of cooperation between Native American peoples and the archaeological community today is a product of historical circumstances. The historical situation is characterized by the frustration felt by Native American communities as to the treatment of cultural resources. Two questions were posed: How can an indigenous methodological perspective operate effectively within state and federal Cultural Resource Management (CRM) frameworks concerning the identification, evaluation, assessment, and treatment of cultural properties? How are the laws and practices that regulate indigenous and scientific communities in the practice of archaeology and CRM, adaptable to the ideals of an indigenous methodological perspective? This thesis aims to clarify distinctions between western scientific and indigenous methodological perspectives within the practice of cultural resource management. The basis of the discussion is centered on authority and cultural values, and illustrated in the case study of the Ram’s Head Medicine Tree. A landscape perspective is utilized as a bridge for understanding, which accounts for scientific and traditional knowledge systems. Ultimately this thesis suggests that an indigenous methodological paradigm concerning the research and management of traditional cultural properties can contribute to archaeological knowledge and understanding of indigenous peoples within the western scientific archaeological community.”

“He represented his tribe well in Norway, sharing his culture, his family history, and the laws and practices of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes with students, faculty and academics from all over the world,” stated Swanson.

Nicolai’s thesis cover, which resembles a best-selling book cover, shows a picture of his grandmother, Harriet Whitworth, his great-grandmother and his great-great grandmother standing at the Medicine Tree with Chief Charlo.

Nicolai played basketball in high school and said he felt this competing days were over; however, not only did an academic chance knock at his door, a basketball break fell in his path as well.

“I wasn’t planning on playing ball, but ended up on a semi-professional league,” he said.

Nicolai played for Varden’s a Norwegian international basketball team for the duration in Norway.

He was invited to a “training,” and found out it was a try-out and was immediately picked for the team. “I thought I was just going to play at an open gym,” he said. When he arrived he thought the players and coach took open gym pretty serious. One of the basketball managers told him to put on his shoes and show them, “What he’s got.”

“I played for SKC in 1999, it had been awhile I played organized basketball and I didn’t ever think I’d play competitive again.”

After seeing a few moves the coach was enthralled with his “Rez” moves and placed him on the team.

Native ball was not new to coach Mikki Jackson, an African American from Lawrence, Kansas; Nicolai said Jackson played ball with some Natives that went to Haskell, so he instantly took a liking to Nicolai.

Nicolai coached basketball for a local team of fourth to sixth graders as a service to playing on the Eurobasket team. “His kids loved him, although sometimes the language barrier made it difficult for him to communicate with them,” Swanson said.

Swanson adds, “I feel like it is inspiring and relevant for today, as more and more Native youth become involved in higher education, especially those that take that education back to their communities and work for the good of their tribes.”

Now that his decade of studies and research has brought him back home Nicolai says his next goal is teach and work with tribes in cultural preservation.

“I want to encourage students to work in the field (archeology and tribal preservation),” he said.

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