ST. IGNATIUS — Food for the palate and revitalization of the tribal tongue were food for thought at the recent Séliš QÍispé Culture Committee Elders Committee meeting, in particular the food sovereignty and the tribal language revitalization efforts and their importance for mapping a healthy future for the Séliš, Ksanka and QÍispé people.
Representatives from Salish Kootenai College and researchers from the University of Montana were in attendance to inform the Elders Committee on what they are doing to help ensure that a healthy physical and metaphysical future is attainable for the tribal people of the Flathead Nation and beyond.
UM Research Project
The University of Montana research project is focused on the resilience to the impacts of prenatal substance use in a tribal setting. The research project is working with the Flathead and Northern Cheyenne nations. The end results of the research would also be applicable to Indian Country in general.
They want to look at and evaluate innovative programs in Montana American Indian communities that are changing the narrative and approach to dealing with the long-term developmental impacts on young children exposed to prenatal substance use.
The project team has been given the green light by the Tribal Council, and is working with the Tribal Health Department, Early Childhood Services and the Department of Human Resources Development. They have also established a community advisory team to help them navigate the research and give feedback.
Dr. Erin Semmens, UM faculty and research team leader, and researcher Helen Russette, a member of the Rocky Boys Nation and doctoral student, as well as Niki Graham, UM Community Engagement and Outreach Resource coordinator, and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes tribal member met with the Elders Committee to inform them of the project and to get their blessing, which they got.
“This project focuses on our youth and identifies what is working well, what makes us good and strong,” Graham said of the one-year project. “We want your feedback.”
One of the things working well on the Flathead Reservation is the incorporation of the tribal language revitalization effort in the local tribal and public education venues that begins at Early Childhood Services.
Contained in the language is the spiritual and physical connection to the cultural ways that sustained tribal people for ions until the encounters with the Western ways of the Manifest Destiny bulldozer.
The researchers will be focused on the 0- through 3-year-old age group including those enrolled at ECS and those not.
If you want to save the children you have to save the language. If you want to save the language you have to start with the children.
“I’m in support of this opportunity to get data on learning the language and its effects,” said Arlee District Tribal Council Rep. Myrna Dumontier and former Early Childhood Services (ECS) language teacher at The Nest, the 0-to 3-year-old pre-school in St. Ignatius. “There is no data now that exists that shows the effects of our kids growing up learning the tribal language. This research will help our kids grow up strong. It will validate our tribal language programs.”
That assessment was echoed by Salish Elder Lucy Vanderburg.
“Language is an important part of our culture, our traditions and activities,” said Vanderburg, a Salish language teacher who has worked with ECS and other language preservation efforts on the Flathead Reservation. “ECS teachers incorporate the (tribal) language in songs that helps kids learn different words while singing. The smiles on the faces of the little kids singing, provides an endless sense of joy. They have a chance to identify with their culture and family lines by participating in the language. It’s vital. It’s important. If you want to save the language you have to start with the kids.”
“Every nationality has its own culture and language. A lot of that was taken away from us. It robs us of the ability to be who we are,” said Séliš QÍispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola. “This will help us regain and maintain the true ways of our people.”
The researchers will spend the next year meeting with the aforementioned tribal programs and appropriate staff, and tribal community members to assess the substance use issue and gauge the effectiveness of the tribal programs and efforts related to alleviating and/or eliminating the negative effects of such usage.
Arlee District Tribal Council Rep. Shelly Fyant is spearheading the effort to establish a healthy food produce system on the Flathead Reservation that, according to the initiative envisions a tribally managed food system that provides access to healthy foods as a part of maintenance of tribal sovereignty.
“A tribal nation that cannot feed itself is not truly sovereign,” Fyant said.
Fyant said the Flathead Reservation agriculture enterprise is ripe with foodstuffs to wean locals from dependence on the mass produced food products in stores and fast food — both are laden with unhealthy food products that can lead to health problems such as obesity and diabetes.
Fyant conducted an unofficial food-source inventory in the Jocko Valley and found that there is bison, beef, pork, chickens, eggs and milk available. There are also medicinal plants as well as seasonal garden produce available.
To that end is the creation of a tribally owned farm program that produces year-round access to locally produced foodstuff for reservation tribal members.
The other arm of the food sovereignty mission is to restore traditional knowledge that supports sustainable Indigenous agriculture education beginning with curriculum in Early Childhood Services, then K-12, and then college level.
Among the many goals are the baby steps of getting the locally produced foodstuff to the tribal populace. The initial deliveries would be to various tribal programs that provide food and meals to tribal people. That would include food programs at Early Childhood Services and in the Elders meals services.
Once that initial goal is met then it would be expanded to include foodstuff for reservation tribal and public schools, the commodity program, SNAP and then directly to tribal families via various programs.
After that would be making surplus foodstuff available to the local and off-reservation markets to generate revenue.
That would require the establishment of tribal farms in all the larger reservation communities to supply the system.
Fyant said when she heard about the potential of the president shutting down the U.S.-Mexico border the first thing she thought about was food sovereignty. Mexico is the largest supplier of vegetables and fruits to American markets. Without those supplies, American consumers pay higher costs for those products if available or go without.
Another potential breakdown in food supply is the delivery system. According to research most stores in America have about three days of food on inventory.
Then there is the looming potential devastation of agriculture production areas due to the change in climate.
All drive home the need to be self-sufficient when it comes to food supply.
Patrick Yawakie, a Salish Kootenai College senior, is working on creation of a food plan that features the foodstuff that the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere relied on since creation. They include the natural flora and fauna foods that were available as well the flora that were altered by experimentation by Indigenous people to create better product and the domestication of wildlife.
“Domestic wildlife and agriculture have always been a part of the tribal ways,” Yawakie said. “Natural foods have sustained us since creation. We want to ensure that wild traditional plants are being protected and stored in a national registry.”
Michael Billington of SKC is working on gathering natural and wild seeds from plants that nurtured Indigenous people since creation as part of the food sovereignty effort. “It is part of the plan to step away for the present food system that has it roots in colonial America,” he said. “There is no reason that people here can’t supply their own food.”
According to research on the Flathead Reservation tribes, Yawakie said that early Indian agent Peter Ronan observed that the tribal people were adept at growing large gardens for self-sustenance. They also subsistence hunted, fished and gathered natural foods.
“A long time we didn’t have money; there were lots of large gardens then, people knew what they were eating,” said Pend d’Oreille Elder Stephan SmallSalmon. “Now when we buy food we don’t know what we’re eating. To me it’s about the taste, fresh is better but now people have money but don’t have the time for gardening because of work. How are we going to change that? We should be creating gardens for the people.”
“We need to start with the kids for the change in the ways we eat,” Fyant said. “They’ll educate their parents.”
“Traditional use of foods needs to come back to ensure our children grow up in a world better than what we grew up in,” Yawakie said. “When we move back to the traditional ways where each age group has certain responsibilities it will provide us with the opportunity to show the other way, the traditional ways of sustenance before it was taken from us.”
Plant that seed in the minds of the young ones and it will grow.