RONAN — The Flathead River swelled with winter’s runoff as 22 teepees were posted along its bank for the 32nd Annual River Honoring. Roughly 1,000 local fourth and fifth grade students learned about one of the area’s major water sources and its ecosystem.
“There are some things you can’t teach about an ecosystem as unique as the Flathead watershed; it really needs to be experienced,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Natural Resources Division Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Program manager Tom McDonald said.
It was a bittersweet opening ceremony for the two-day event as the late Patrick Pierre was recognized for his years spent teaching about the river’s tribal history and culture. A large golden eagle soared circles over 50 guests as Willy Stevens sang a seven directions honor song in place of Pierre.
Colleague and fellow QÍispé elder Stephen Small Salmon discussed Pierre’s legacy: “It’s going to be hard time without Pat here; he would always come to pray for us all and the river,” he said. “He was our elder, our teacher, our friend. He knew so much about our people’s lives on the river and he enjoyed sharing that with people.”
Séliš and QÍispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola talked about the tribes’ cultural perspective and connection to water. “Our elders taught us to protect and respect the natural world and we never took that for granted,” he said. “Our value system was not to ask what can the water or land do for us? But rather, how can we live in harmony with life around us? That’s what we’re here to do – to teach what used to be a common knowledge.”
Protecting the river’s cultural significance reached a new milestone as Ronan District Tribal Council representative Carole Lankford announced that tribal attorney Jordan Thompson has been working with a Yale University legal team to write a “Cultural Waterways” ordinance.
Still under development, the ordinance outlines a management plan and provides additional protection for cultural resources and uses of the reservation’s waterways. “Much like the tribes worked to provide additional protection for the Mission Mountain Tribal Wilderness, this ordinance would ensure that the river could continue to be recognized as a cultural resource for future generations,” Lankford said.
In accordance with recent traditions for the River Honoring opening ceremony, the CSKT Natural Resources Department collaborated with the Wild Wings Recovery Center and released a rehabilitated golden eagle into the wild. “Animals are very sacred to us as Séliš and QÍispé people,” Incashola said. “We were taught that everything we needed to learn as humans would come from the animals. For us, the eagle is special because he was chosen by the Creator to be the leader for the sky world. We can learn a lot from the leadership traits of the eagle.”
This year’s River Honoring included over 25 stations hosted by tribal and non-tribal organizations. Students had the opportunity to learn about traditional games, wildlife, traditional tools, Salish language, and fisheries among others.