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River Honoring: Tribal environmental expertise passed on to the future stewards of Mother Earth

By B.L. Azure
Char-Koosta News

The ladies with the SPCC Elders Council talk about the various ways the Salish people adapted the natural world and used its bounty in various ways. From left are Virgie Woodcock Brockie, Mary Jane Charlo, Dolly Linsebigler and Shirley Trahan. (B.L. Azure photo) The ladies with the SPCC Elders Council talk about the various ways the Salish people adapted the natural world and used its bounty in various ways. From left are Virgie Woodcock Brockie, Mary Jane Charlo, Dolly Linsebigler and Shirley Trahan. (B.L. Azure photo)

LOWER FLATHEAD RIVER — Water is life. Without it, life — as we know it — would not exist on Mother Nature’s earthy landscape. This year, following years of draught followed by recent slow recovery, Mother Nature has been generous in her dewy gifts to creation in western Montana.

The spring foliage along the Flathead River is in more shades of green than can be counted on two hands worth of fingers. The Flathead River that is begat by trickles of snow- and glacial-melt in the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains is a wide turbulent swath of green-blue water rushing westward to the Pacific Ocean. The sun is high and hot in the cloudless blue Big Sky with birds chirping competing with the sounds of rushing water. It is as if Mother Nature decided to tease creation with a preseason taste of what lies ahead this summer.

The Native games site at the River Honoring always gets the young blood a pumping, especially the field hockey game called shinny. (B.L. Azure photo) The Native games site at the River Honoring always gets the young blood a pumping, especially the field hockey game called shinny. (B.L. Azure photo)

All that was needed to finish the natural masterpiece was the sounds of young children. The 31st Annual River Honoring ensured they were on hand by the busloads with their unbridled enthusiasm to learn important hands-on lessons about the planet they live on and the responsibility to take care of it — especially the water of life — for those yet to come. Without water there would be no everything.

“Recently there has been a lot of information out there about how precious water is; the value of water is beginning to come into the public mindset,” said Germaine White, CSKT Natural Resources Department Information and Educational Specialist. “It is essential to life, there is no substitute for it. You can live without a lot of things but you just can’t live very long without it. Water is life.”

More than 1,000 fourth- and fifth-grade students from throughout the Flathead Indian Reservation area attended the two-day environmental awareness event last week.

Various forms of technology help wildlife and wild-land specialists do their jobs. This aerial communication helmet is one example that peaked the interest of the youngsters at the River Honoring. (B.L. Azure photo) Various forms of technology help wildlife and wild-land specialists do their jobs. This aerial communication helmet is one example that peaked the interest of the youngsters at the River Honoring. (B.L. Azure photo)

“With the River Honoring we want to create a new generation of people who will be stewards of the environment,” White said. “When they learn about the river, the importance of the water, the importance of a healthy environment they will take care of it and its precious resources.”

White said the River Honoring used to include upper grades students but eventually focused on the fourth- and fifth-grades because it is an ideal age to educate students about things like the environment.

“At that age they really take things in. All their senses are operational, they are so curious,” White said, adding that hands-on learning is a potent route to educational sustenance. “Experiential education is first-hand learning that they’ll easily remember. The students here are so incredibly fortunate to come here and hear first hand these valuable lessons.”

Things got a little misty at the Air Quality station where students learned about the effects of land pollution runoff caused by rain. (B.L. Azure photo) Things got a little misty at the Air Quality station where students learned about the effects of land pollution runoff caused by rain. (B.L. Azure photo)

Humble beginnings.

“The River Honoring started out small and simple,” said Tom Smith, Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee historian. “(The late) Clarence (Woodcock) started this in 1986. It was a small gathering then, Clarence would be amazed at what it is today. He would be amazed by the number and quality of the presentations, the quality of the participating programs and the presenters.”

The first River Honoring was held in the fall of 1986. It had the support of Salish Kootenai College and President Dr. Joe McDonald. There were a number of people involved but Woodcock and McDonald were the driving forces. The hope of all involved was that the River Honoring would become an annual event that highlighted the role the Flathead River played in the history of the Tribes and its continuing significance. It was the Tribes’ highway to the west, a blue-green ribbon of water that linked the various bands of the Pend d’Oreille/Kalispel peoples from western Montana to Cusick and Usk in Washington.

Tony Berthelote of the Salish Kootenai College Hydrology demonstrates the various forms of water flows and the resulting erosive effects. (B.L. Azure photo) Tony Berthelote of the Salish Kootenai College Hydrology demonstrates the various forms of water flows and the resulting erosive effects. (B.L. Azure photo)

It took a few years for the River Honoring to fulfill the hope of those wanting an annual edition. The second River Honoring was held in the fall of 1992. The following year it was decided to change educational effort to a younger audience of learners and to switch the River Honoring from the fall to the spring. Due to time constraints for planning and implementing the seasonal switch it was decided to wait until the 1994 spring before forging ahead with new-focused River Honoring. It’s been an annual and much anticipated event since.

Smith said that beyond the environmental awareness the River Honoring teaches he hoped the youngsters walk away with the importance of Elders in the social fabric and the respect they teach and respect they earn.

Forestry discussed healthy and unhealthy forests and how to maintain healthy forests and how to deal with an unhealthy forest landscape. (B.L. Azure photo) Forestry discussed healthy and unhealthy forests and how to maintain healthy forests and how to deal with an unhealthy forest landscape. (B.L. Azure photo)

“The foundation for everything else is the Elders,” Smith said. “I really like the interaction between them and the kids. It is really sweet, they really like the Elders’ stories because they talk about the history of this place.”

White said she feels the future is in good hands with the type of young learners at the River Honoring. A future that that Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ various environmental-related program specialists map out with their ode to the river and the natural environment.

“This is so much fun, it’s uplifting to witness. I get an incredible sense of hope for the future, an incredible sense of joy for these young people and the future generations because we have done everything we could do to educate them about the environment of the world they live in and their responsibility to be good stewards,” White said. “If we’ve done our job these young people will leave here with a sense of the value of a healthy environment.”

George McLeod, NRD Water Resources, demonstrates how water flow speeds are calculated using the appropriate equipment. (B.L. Azure photo)  George McLeod, NRD Water Resources, demonstrates how water flow speeds are calculated using the appropriate equipment. (B.L. Azure photo)

The 20 stations on the two loops at the River Honoring, included Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee (Ladies), Water Resources, Fisheries, Water Quality (Aquatic Invasive Species), SKC Hydrology, Mission Valley Backcountry Horseman, Division of Fire, Fish and Game, Tribal Health, Native Games, Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee (Men), Wildland Recreation, Wildlife, Air Quality, Salish Kootenai College Art, The Peoples Center, MSU Extension Office, Energy Keepers, Forestry and Water Quality (Aquatic Invasive Species).

The schools that attended, included Arlee, Charlo, Dayton, Dixon, Hot Springs, Nkwusm, Polson Linderman, Polson Middle School, Ronan Middle School, Pablo Elementary School, Ronan K.W. Harvey, St. Ignatius, Valley View, Lolo, Clinton, Lakeside and Mission Mountain Enterprise.

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