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Pat Pierre's Birthday Party celebrates life and education

By Adriana Fehrs

Arleen Adams, Pat Pierre, and Darrell Whitworth stand together as the birthday party commences. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Arleen Adams, Pat Pierre, and Darrell Whitworth stand together as the birthday party commences. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

CAMAS PRAIRIE - The old salmon colored gymnasium usually sits empty but on January 28, it was bustling with friends and family ñ all there to celebrate Pat Pierre’s 85th birthday, his longevity and contributions to NKWusm Salish Language Institute.

As you entered the gym “Happy 85th Birthday Pat Pierre” was scrolled across a banner on the far wall. The place smelled of wood and food, while a crowd of around 100 family and friends are shuffled around trying to find a seat. It was a happy gathering of the masses; half of the attendees are Pat’s relatives, and the other half are friends from NKWusm, Two Eagle River School, and the community.

Pat Pierre smiles as he stands with the students of Nk??usm while Stephen Smallsalmon helps the children sing “Happy Birthday”. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Pat Pierre smiles as he stands with the students of Nkkusm while Stephen Smallsalmon helps the children sing “Happy Birthday”. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

According to Pat, this was the first party bash he has had at that gym. It has been two years in the making. Nieces of Alan Pierre, Pat’s youngest son, orchestrated the happy celebration, and Pat was especially happy that the gathering was for something joyous. Charley Mitchell, Pat’s Nephew, said “It is so good to see everybody smiling and happy, most of the time when we have this many people gathering it is for something unhappy.” Alan Pierre says there were several obstacles they had to overcome before they could throw the party. They had get permission from the owners of the gym to use the facility. Then they had to get the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to provide port-a-potties and paper products. A concern of having enough food for the party guests was an issue; the party was then turned into a potluck. With about twenty-two grandkids, reaching out to Pat’s large family was also no small feat. Word ñ of-mouth and flyers were used to inform the family members of the party. Alan says, “It was really a group effort (to plan the party).”

Stephen Smallsalmon holds the microphone for the youngest students of Nk??usm so they can sing “Happy Birthday” to Pat Pierre in Salish. Pat smiles, as he looks onward while standing with the other students of Nk??usm. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Stephen Smallsalmon holds the microphone for the youngest students of Nk??usm so they can sing “Happy Birthday” to Pat Pierre in Salish. Pat smiles, as he looks onward while standing with the other students of Nkkusm. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Stephen Smallsalmon was the first to get on the microphone - he called up the children from NKWusm, the ones that have been taught by Pat himself, to sing happy birthday in Salish. No one was happier to hear the kids sing than Pat; he smiled while listening to the children sing to him. The friends and family of Pat know how important his role has been in teaching Salish to the community. Alan Pierre, Pat’s son, says “ [Pat] is unique because he knows the original dialect of the Salish language; only a few can do that.”

The two powerhouses of Nk<sup>w</sup>usm, Pat Pierre and Stephen Smallsalmon, stand together and reminisce of olden times. (Adriana Fehrs photo)The two powerhouses of Nkusm, Pat Pierre and Stephen Smallsalmon, stand together and reminisce about old times. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Pat Pierre takes the microphone. He reminisces of how he grew up in Camas Prairie, and that’s why he chose that building. Pat says, “This is my homeland”. He once thought that gymnasium was the biggest building in the world back when he was attending Camas Prairie School in the first grade. Sine then, the world has drastically changed; some things are better, like for his health, but also saw a drastic decline in tribal members speaking the Salish language.

Pat, a teacher at NKWusm for over ten years, has been lauded by many for his efforts towards teaching our youth the culture and language of the Salish. Mary Matt, a language teacher at Salish Kootenai College who has known Pat for nearly ten years, says, “he is such a strong leader, and he is always available to speak the language, and the more you are around him the better you are (in all aspects).” Alan Pierre says “The whole family is proud of him for taking it on to teach the language; we just want to tell him we love him and we look up to him for a lot of guidance,” and “that most people would describe Pat as “[A] very strong, traditional person; somebody you could ask a question and get an answer”.

Pat Pierre speaks to his family and friends about his youth, and how he chose the hold his birthday party at the Camas Prairie gymnasium to celebrate in the same place where he grew up. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Pat Pierre speaks to his family and friends about his youth, and how he chose the hold his birthday party at the Camas Prairie gymnasium to celebrate in the same place where he grew up. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Next on the agenda is singing. The crowd stands as the drumming begins. The sound of the honor song fills the gym, an honor song made just for Pat, and it ends with them incorporating “happy birthday Finally, after another honor song, and the echoes have faded, the crowd dispersed.

Louis Adams, a respected elder and speaker of the Salish language, lead us in a prayer before the meal. Then Alan Pierre informed the people that it was time to eat. Soon a line stretched the whole length of the gym. While in line, a small roar emerged from the line of people ñ all of it as laughing and conversation.

Adria Green stands with her children in the buffet line, anticipating the great home cooked food, and birthday cake. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Adria Green stands with her children in the buffet line, anticipating the great home cooked food, and birthday cake. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Soon the line is gone and everyone settles into his or her seat. Pat talks about his upbringing and how that has influenced him. He says that when he was young all the Native American children spoke Salish, and it carried on that way until the late 50’s. He remembers how more and more children were pulled into the school system and that’s when he watched the native language disappear. He feels that “the schools pulled them out of their identity”, and “ a lot of our kids are lost, they have no identity, they are lost, and we want to bring the identity back.” Pat explains that at NKWusm, they are not only teaching the youth the Salish language, but their culture, which is helping to restore their identity. His goal is to teach, “Everything I have learned, I want [the children at NKWusm] to know, to live in it, and to walk in it.”

A great way for the family to reminisce on Pat Pierre’s life, a slideshow of pictures was shown – some consisting of Pat in his youth. (Adriana Fehrs photo)A great way for the family to reminisce on Pat Pierre’s life, a slideshow of pictures was shown – some consisting of Pat in his youth. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

After the attendees are done eating, the slideshow begins. The lights are dimmed, and photos of Pat, in his younger days, and various family pictures are projected onto the curtain of the stage. People laugh and smile while they view the pictures. It seems as though it ends almost as fast as it began, even though twenty minutes had passed.

Pat Pierre stands with the drummers, and his grandchildren, as they sing a special honor song newly composed for his birthday. (Adriana Fehrs photo)Pat Pierre stands with the drummers, and his grandchildren, as they sing a special honor song newly composed for his birthday. (Adriana Fehrs photo)

Soon after, the family and friends of Pat begin to part ways. Family members, who have only just met that day, say their good-byes. They take pictures, laugh, and hug outside the gym before they climb into their vehicles and take off.

For the end of the party, Pat has some words of advice for all of our fellow tribal members: “Regain our identity!”

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