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New Tribal Education Department director Julie Cajune's education journey wends through Civil Rights, local opposition and into success

By Lailani Upham
Char-Koosta News

Julie Cajune, CSKT Tribal Education Director recounts her journey living on and off the Reservation and becoming an Indian educator. (Lailani Upham photo) Julie Cajune, CSKT Tribal Education Director recounts her journey living on and off the Reservation and becoming an Indian educator. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — Julie Cajune, the newly hired Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Education Department director, reflects on her life’s journey in education as a Native girl and woman.

Cajune was born as America fought for civil rights.

In 1956, the United States Supreme Court landmark ruling in the Brown vs. Board of Education declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just led the Montgomery Bus Boycott a year earlier, and eight years later the Civil Rights Act was passed. Another 11 years followed when The Indian Education and Self-Determination Act was passed.

While segregated social patterns were being battled in communities and courts in southern America, Cajune, the youngest of six, was in earshot of stories of conflicts and challenges Indian people underwent on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The little-big house with an open field occupied with mostly woman and where a horse roamed the open field near Ronan, Cajune was hearing her own family’s discussion of civil rights.

Cajune’s upbringing was, for the most part, in a single-parent home. Although her mother, Opal, had married twice and divorced twice, Cajune’s two bachelor uncles, who lived with them and slumbered in a make-shift bedroom in the basement, were probably as close to father figures as she ever had.

“They were both kind men and seemed to have enormous patience with all of ‘Opal’s girls,’” Cajune said.

An old upright piano was a lively fixture in their living room.

“I grew up hearing piano music. Many of our older relatives played the piano,” Cajune said. “Whenever family gathered at our house, someone would end up playing the piano and others would sing. My older sister Luana played regularly and often had me accompany her by singing along.”

The piano music accompanied loud and animated discussions coming from the kitchen table about tribal politics and world events.

“All of the older generation had strong opinions about what the tribe should be doing and the general state of affairs for Indian people,” Cajune  said. “Some uncles and cousins had served on the tribal council. The most colorful council term was that of my uncle Thomas “Bearhead” Swaney.”

Bearhead Swaney’s fellow council members most often viewed him as radical, she said.

“He could be confrontational and argumentative, but I believe that he was a visionary,” Cajune said. “My mother used to paraphrase Robert Frost in regard to her younger brother Bearhead, saying ‘He had a lover’s quarrel with life.’”

Cajune recalls her uncle Bearhead as a fierce advocate for the environment and had little patience with people and organizations that valued money over land and a clean, healthy environment.

The old timers of the reservation may recall Bearhead as an instrumental force in securing Class I Air Quality for the Flathead Reservation in the late 1970s, Cajune said.

Cajune reveres her uncle, her mother, other relatives and Indian leaders as her mentors and influence in shaping who she is.

The conflicts of simply being Indian in this era also shaped who she is.

“My childhood was filled with stories of conflicts and challenges Indian people had to survive,” Cajune said. “Some of these I experienced personally, growing up as a mixed-blood Indian in a community where tribal members were the minority.”

Cajune recalls a time when she was five years old playing in a yard of a white neighbor girl. “Her mother came to the screen door of their house and told me to get out of their yard and go home,” Cajune said. “I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong and I went home feeling both sad and worried. I told my mom what had happened and she didn’t explain anything to me, but later I heard her tell my uncle about it and they remarked, ‘Those people don’t like Indians.’ For the first time I wondered what was wrong with us? What was wrong with being Indian?”

In her teens years the racial sentiments grew too familiar even on the flip side.  “I also experienced being shamed for not being ‘Indian enough.’ I was a light skinned Indian with freckles,” she said. “I learned that there were kind people who were Indian and there were kind people who were white. I learned that it was easy to give in to hate and that it took courage to love.”

However, through it all was the constant presence of her mother Opal’s love. Her love, justice, and compassion were a steady diet in all her daughters’ lives. The result was the girls growing up to become social workers, counselors, and teachers. “Mom was generous and gentle, but she was fierce in her love and advocacy for children,” Cajune said. “The best of who I am came from her, but I am far from the woman that she was.”

A few of Opal’s accomplishments Cajune mentioned were the transfer of tribal social services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes; and serving on Indian parent committees before the groups were allowed to meet on school property.

“So much of what we now enjoy as Indian parents, grandparents, and educators did not exist one generation ago,” Cajune said. “We are standing on the shoulders and the work of our parents and grandparents.”

Cajune’s mother, Opal, did not go to college until she was 45 years old. “Her work as a secretary and bookkeeper brought in meager wages and I remember her remarking that many women did the work of their male bosses without appropriate compensation,” Cajune said. “My sister Kathy was attending the same university. While there she participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties. I remember watching the news shows and hearing a different story from Kathy when she would call from Washington, DC and tell us what was happening. A few years later I enrolled in college and had the great fortune to take a Black Studies and a Federal Indian Law class, as a fellow student with my mother.”

During these college years, Cajune said she came to appreciate what an intellectual her mother was. Her mother graduated with honors.

After Cajune finished one year of college, she married and moved away from her homeland to Oregon and did not return to college until both her children were in school. While raising her children she taught both to read at home; this act launched her interest in teaching as a career.

Cajune contributes her opportunity to return to college to her sister-cousin Ellen Swaney and Salish Kootenai College. Swaney convinced Cajune to consider taking classes at SKC, where she completed general education requirements and she started to explore other options around the state. “My sister Luana was teaching at Montana State University and at first I planned to transfer there, but after reviewing the teaching programs I knew that the best one was at The University of Montana Western – in Dillon, Montana,” she said, adding that the Dillon campus was scarce with Indian students. “At times, I felt like a fish out of water. However, the education program was exemplary,” Cajune said. “Students worked with kids bussed in from rural schools under the watchful eye of faculty. I believe this afforded us practical experience to apply learning theory, and it helped each student determine early on if teaching was a good fit.”

After completing her course work at Western, Cajune travelled back home to the Rez for the summer with her son and daughter. The following fall she was scheduled to student teach in Bozeman. However, destiny had other plans.

Teri O’Fallon, the Ronan Elementary School principal, found out that she returned home that summer and called her about a position opening up at Ronan schools in the fall. With no student teaching under her belt, O’Fallon insisted she come meet with her about the position anyway. Cajune said she had great respect for O’Fallon and decided to meet with her as a courtesy.

 “My vision for the Tribal Education Department is to proactively leverage the enormous assets of our community to:
• develop a K-12 tribally specific curriculum;
• build authentic relationships with local schools that model shared leadership and power between the school and Indian parents and the Tribes – this will be a process and not an event;
• reinvigorate our annual PIR Day with local educators to provide day long strands of learning that teachers select to gain deeper knowledge and understandings relevant to their educational journey;
• support education staff in their essential presence in schools to demonstrate and communicate that our community cares about each student;
• collaborate with community to identify strategies and activities that build a sense of belonging and belovedness within all of our kids.
These things can only be accomplished through collaboration. I believe the remarkable assets in our community can be leveraged to accomplish much more than the goals of a single department.”
Julie Cajune
CSKT Tribal Education Director

The conversation was about the implementing a bilingual program with grades K-4. Cajune was not fluent in Salish and knew only a few phrases. “She told me that didn’t matter as there was funding to hire a fluent speaker to work with me,” Cajune said. “She said she was in desperate need of a tribal member teacher and that I was one of a select few.” O’Fallon became Cajune’s new boss and set up a plan so half her day was student teaching and the other half to teach language. “Of course, I wouldn’t get paid because I wasn’t a certified teacher yet. Oh, and there was no classroom and no curriculum,” Cajune said. She recalls the deal with no salary, no classroom or no curriculum. “I’d be in the hallway with two lunch tables and I’d have to create all of my lessons and materials.” But her passion got her through it.

“At this exact point in time I felt fully the generational responsibility of being an Indian — in particular a Salish Indian who had just completed an elementary education program,” she said. “Who was going to do this if not me? ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll do it.’ I had no idea the journey this decision would take me on. The journey was both within and without. My first path was to search what I really knew about my own community within myself.”

Cajune admitted this part of the journey was a crash course. “I didn’t know very much,” she said.

“So my next journey took me to my community — to people who were generous and kind and a few who were not. I discovered people of grace like Frances Vanderburg, Roy Bigcrane, Annie Buntz, Vernon Finley, Lucy Vanderburg, and the late John Peter Paul and Clarence Woodcock. I knew these people, but yet I really didn’t know them,” she said. “Through my work as a teacher, I came to depend on these people to instruct and guide me. They each did in their own way with great kindness and lots of good laughter. The number of people who shared knowledge and encouragement with me is too many to mention.”

The bilingual program at the Ronan School wasn’t all roses as hidden thorns revealed themselves. “It stirred up all the issues of race and power that were covered with a thin veneer of politeness,” Cajune said. “News articles were written and rumors were circulated along with the local paper. I challenged one of the reporters to actually come to my classes and observe first-hand what I was teaching. She did and followed up with a fairly accurate report on the content and teaching practices that she witnessed. This did not however put an end to the controversy. I began to receive a steady stream of onlookers into my classroom. Soon I was asked to file my lesson plans a week early with the principal. This was a well-intentioned effort on Principal O’Fallon’s part to circumvent the continual disruption of my teaching.”

“I was astounded by the intense nature of the opposition to me as an Indian teacher and to my efforts to include local tribal history, culture, government, and literature in my curriculum,” she said. “Honestly, I was not quite prepared for it.”

Cajune recalls a tenacious group of parents lobbying against the bilingual program and against Principal O’Fallon. “Within a year, a tenured principal was demoted to a grant manager,” Cajune said. “After a year, she left the school and the community. Her leaving was an enormous loss of a brilliant educational leader. No one has filled her shoes.”

It wasn’t the end though.

“There were, however, many other people who were quietly supportive and hopeful for change,” Cajune said. She remembers what she called, “a cherished example.” During this time, a school assembly met that included hundreds of community members in attendance. “I was questioned about what I was teaching and the questioning turned into hostile confrontation,” she said. “While I tried to field questions neutrally and with grace, a single teacher (white and male) came and stood next to me, smiled, and did not say a word. He did not need to. His act of quiet but visible courage was enough to bolster my own. I’ve not forgotten his situational heroism.”

Teaching then led Cajune on a journey of producing Indian education materials. The majority of her work over the years focused on her own community. She worked at the CSKT Education Department as a Curriculum Coordinator for five years. When the Montana State legislature allocated funding to produce tribal history materials for Montana schools, Cajune was hired by Salish Kootenai College to work on the Flathead Reservation’s project. At the end of this two-year work, the Montana Office of Public Instruction hired her to create an educator’s resource guide to the materials produced by Montana’s seven reservations. During this time Cajune produced a curricular project for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation on Montana tribal land tenure.

“During my professional career I came to rely upon the work of remarkable writers and scholars such as Vine Deloria, Jr., Oscar Kawagley, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Edward Said, Ronald Takaki, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Thomas King, Angela Wilson, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Robert Miller, and so many others. Many of these people became personal heroes of mine,” Cajune said.

“There have been a few side journeys to other parts of the world where again I have met other people engaged in work that is compassionate, courageous, and brilliant. Sometimes when I feel discouraged I think about some of these people and their efforts and know that I am not alone in the effort to build a more humane world for children today and those yet to come. In the process I hope that I become more human, more compassionate, and more courageous,” she said. “As we give voice to those that have been silenced, dismissed, or ignored, we restore all of our humanity. This broader, richer story of who we are belongs to all of us. It is our shared history.”

While there are many challenges and difficulties ahead, Cajune says, beauty and goodness remain constants in this world. “We must remember to look for them. I am reminded of both when I am in the presence of my grandchildren, a river, a mountain, my family, a poem, a really good book, a meal with loved ones, a classroom of children, and the living memory of my relatives and ancestors. It is in these moments that I experience deep joy,” she said.

Focusing her energy on the opportunity to bring a better life to the young on the Reservation is what she says is her, “True joy.”

“I believe that through collaboration and integrity the CSKT Tribal Education Department will make a real difference in the cultural and intellectual education environments and institutions on our reservation,” Cajune said.

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