FVCC celebrates American Indian Heritage Day
By Alyssa Nenemay
For a grand finale, the group sang an honor song and encouraged guest to participate in a dance. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
KALISPELL — The Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) welcomed Salish elder Alec Quequesah and his family drum group to perform in honor of American Indian Heritage Day. The group sang honor and round dance songs and shared information on Salish culture.
“Like everything, our songs come from the earth. They have been here forever. Sometimes when you’re out there you can hear it in the wind. Our songs have different meanings: some are for celebration, or ceremony, and some are for honoring. They are a gift,” said Quequesah.
A displayed sign welcomed all guests. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
American Indian Heritage Day takes place on the fourth Friday of September. Designated by the Montana Legislature in 1997, the law requires that schools throughout the state provide activities to educate its students on Montana’s rich and unique tribal cultures and histories.
Attended by over 50 people, Quequesah’s performance gave a first hand account of life as a tribal person. Having grown up in St. Ignatius, Quequesah is a Salish language instructor at Salish Kootenai College. The last survivor of 18 children, the elder said he grew up in a non-English speaking household and attended the Ursulines Catholic Boarding School as a child.
Back (L-R) Amelia Stanger, Carlin, Frank Stanger, Linda Ferris, (Front L-R) Charlie, Alec, and Tom Quequesah make up the family drum group that performed. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
“When I was growing up, I only knew one English word: ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t know what people were saying to me at school. Someone would say: ‘hey can I have your food?’ and I would say: ‘Yeah.’ They could have asked: ‘Are you a knucklehead?’ and I would said: ‘Yeah,’” Quequesah said jokingly.
One of the last fluent Salish speakers on the Flathead Reservation, Quequesah taught the audience how to say “lem-lmtsh,” which means “Thank You.” The elder encourage the crowd to learn more about Montana’s aboriginal languages. “If you learn the alphabet you can learn to speak Salish–at least how to say words. That’s how I learned to speak English was the alphabet,” he said.
Quequesah joins his sons Tom and Charlie in an honor song. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
The drum group sang five songs. Guided by the beat of the elk hide drum, the men led the verses with power, the women’s high pitch tones gliding in to finish the tune in unison. “Our drums are always made out of elk or deer hide. Whatever we don’t use for the big drum is used to make hand drums. As Indian people, we don’t like to waste. We use everything. It’s a lot of work to have a group–we take care of our drum like a relative. We never use moose hide to make a drum because it will take your voice away,” Quequesah explained.
Salish elder Alec Quequesah was invited to give and informative presentation at the Flathead Valley Community College in honor of American Indian Heritage Day. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)
As the presentation came to an end, guests of all ages were given an opportunity to get in on the fun when Quequesah and his group lined up with hand drums to sing round dance songs. The elder instructed the crowd to line up in a circle and dance to the music.
“The circle is very sacred to us. It’s the way we live–it’s how we pray. When you dance today, make sure you keep the circle tight. In our way every gap represents a person who will not be there next year so stay close as you dance. And if you do not know what a round dance is, it’s something like a square dance without the corners,” he said.
“I’m so glad that Alec was willing to come and share his family’s talents and knowledge with us–everybody knows him,” said FVCC’s Multicultural Affairs coordinator Mick Stemborski. Stemborski planned weeklong informative events on Native American culture including the performance, which featured a soup and fry-bread luncheon. “I think everyone who attended really got something out of it.”