BLANK PAGES: When a culture is stored in memories

Story by Ash­ley Ner­bovig
Pho­tos by Meghan Nolt


THE EIGHT chil­dren paid almost no mind to the elderly woman sit­ting in the class­room. She barely moved, while sit­ting at the head of the long table with the stu­dents. Occa­sion­ally she’d focus on an unruly child before look­ing off back into the dis­tance. The teacher wan­dered around the room, warn­ing the stu­dents sev­eral times to be quiet.

When it came time for the chil­dren to prac­tice writ­ing their names, the old woman leaned for­ward to help them form their let­ters. She could reach the clos­est two stu­dents, while the rest were left to the roam­ing teacher. She rarely engaged the chil­dren beyond that. Her move­ments were slow, and most of the time she acted only as a sur­ro­gate for the teacher, who was over­run by yelling children.

The teacher turned off the lights in the class­room call­ing for quiet, and Geral­dine Doney, 88, reminded the boy sit­ting clos­est to her to quiet down, before return­ing to her role as class­room observer. The boy set­tled for a moment, but it wasn’t long before he had to be warned again, now by the teacher, to keep still and be quiet. Doney didn’t look at the boy, even though he returned to squirm­ing after only a few min­utes. Doney, who has been with the pro­gram for 17 years, is one of six fos­ter grand­par­ents work­ing at Fort Belk­nap Agency’s head­start program.

The fos­ter grand­par­ent pro­gram is a national orga­ni­za­tion with the goal of con­nect­ing chil­dren to the life expe­ri­ences of older mem­bers of their com­mu­nity. How­ever, watch­ing Doney, it appears her role is closer to that of a teacher’s aide than to an educator.

The kids seem dif­fer­ent than when I first started,” Doney said. “They seemed eager to learn when I first started.”Geraldine Doney helps kids learn how to write their names at Fort Belknap Head Start. Doney is the oldest sister of Rosemary Peak and has been a foster grandparent for 17 years. Doney often gets frustrated with the young kids because she says they lack patience and won't sit still. "Some of them listen,” she said. “That makes a difference. That's OK with me.”

She said she doesn’t relate to the younger gen­er­a­tion any­more. Many of them have to be forced to learn to par­tic­i­pate in tribal cul­ture; receiv­ing treats or prize money for learn­ing and par­tic­i­pat­ing in tra­di­tional dances. She said her own upbring­ing dif­fers too much from the chil­dren of today, who she thinks don’t have enough of an elder’s influ­ence in their lives.

Doney said she doesn’t feel like she can share sto­ries with the chil­dren like her elders did with her when she was a child. As more peo­ple age into the role of “elder,” some believe their cul­ture and way of life is becom­ing diluted.

How­ever, the Assini­boine and Gros Ven­tre tribes on the Fort Belk­nap Indian Reser­va­tion are uti­liz­ing sev­eral pro­grams to intro­duce the life­long expe­ri­ences of elders into class cur­ric­ula. They hope this will bal­ance stu­dents’ con­tem­po­rary lessons with tra­di­tional teachings.

CHERYL MORALES, a pro­fes­sor at the Aani­iih Nakoda Col­lege on Fort Belk­nap, focuses on teach­ing tra­di­tional plant usage and med­i­c­i­nal plant appli­ca­tion. Knowl­edge came from other elders and from read­ing. She said her mother was one of many Native Amer­i­can par­ents who never shared very much of her culture.

My mother, I don’t know what she knew of her cul­ture,” Morales said. “It was so ingrained in her not to teach it, so (her) chil­dren didn’t get hurt. I’m try­ing to learn the plants, but I didn’t learn much from her.”
She said a lot of her knowl­edge came from her aunt who learned it from Morales’ grandmother.

There are those gaps where fam­i­lies decided not to hand it down,” Morales said. “This idea that you may still suf­fer from knowledge.”

Morales said many stu­dents were left at board­ing schools until they grad­u­ated, or until they learned a skill. And those kids’ fam­i­lies lost much of their tradition.

Rosemary Peak enjoys working with the young kids and looks forward to her days at the Head Start program where she often reads books with the kids. Before coming to Head Start, Rosemary Peak volunteered at the high school. One of the reasons she left was because the kids were disrespectful.John Allen, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the hous­ing depart­ment at Fort Belk­nap Hous­ing Author­ity, said these chil­dren were lucky if they learned about their tra­di­tions at home. The treat­ment of Native Amer­i­can chil­dren at the board­ing schools led many par­ents to hide or dis­re­gard their own cul­ture for fear their chil­dren would be ridiculed by their teach­ers. This stereo­type per­pet­u­ated from the first gen­er­a­tion of par­ents at the board­ing schools, lead­ing to sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies either prac­tic­ing their tra­di­tions in secret or not at all.

Allen said he was lucky this wasn’t the case for him. His fam­ily prac­ticed the tra­di­tion of send­ing the old­est son to live with his grand­par­ents. He used to go with his grand­fa­ther and would fol­low him around learn­ing how to con­duct a proper sun dance and powwow.

Doney learned about the sun dances from her grand­mother. She remem­bered see­ing scars on her grandmother’s chest where she was pierced and tied to a pole and would dance and bleed for three days to cleanse her spirit.

Doney said she never learned the Assini­boine lan­guage, though her mother could speak it flu­ently. This was partly due to her mother’s lack of time and partly due to Doney being “tongue tied” when she tried to learn. But she got by and learned slowly. How­ever, when she was sent to the local board­ing school, the lan­guage of her peo­ple was finally lost to her.
Doney had only been in the school about a year before one of the nuns hit her for ask­ing a ques­tion in Assiniboine.

I remem­ber my mother ask­ing the nun, ‘You hit that lit­tle girl?’” Doney said. “After my mother heard about that, she pulled me out.”

Doney’s expe­ri­ence at the board­ing schools is mild com­pared to some of the treat­ment stu­dents received at schools across the nation. Accord­ing to a 2007 report, “Native Words, Native War­riors,” from the National Museum for Amer­i­can Indi­ans, the chil­dren there “were not only taught to speak Eng­lish but were pun­ished for speak­ing their own lan­guages … They were taught that their cul­tures were inferior.”

In a report drafted by the super­in­ten­dent of the Fort Belk­nap board­ing school in 1895, the edu­ca­tion of the Native Amer­i­can chil­dren at the school focused on lit­er­a­ture and music. How­ever, the largest sec­tion describes man­ual labor, which was the pri­mary focus at the time.

Details are care­fully made out each month so that dur­ing the year each boy receives instruc­tion in all kinds of work inci­dent to a farm and each girl receives instruc­tion in all kinds of house­work. At present the school has a gar­den con­tain­ing 12 acres. Two boys have been appren­ticed as car­pen­ters and two as black­smiths dur­ing the year. The girls have received instruc­tion in all kinds of house­work such as cook­ing, laun­dry, work of sick and sewing. Many of them are able to cut, fit and make their own clothes.”

Minerva Allen speaks to a class at Aaniiih Nakoda College about the traditional uses and health benefits of various plants. Allen coordinates programs at the senior center in Lodge Pole and is a published author. Her book “Nakoda Sky People” is a compilation of Allen's poems, Nakoda words and phrases, Native recipes and herbal medicines. MINERVA ALLEN, 78, is an elder of high stand­ing within the Fort Belk­nap com­mu­nity and has pub­lished sev­eral books on the cul­ture of the Assini­boine and Gros Ven­tre tribes. She occa­sion­ally works with the stu­dents in Morales’ class­room at the tribal col­lege. Dur­ing one of those evenings this spring, Min­erva set up Ziploc bag­gies con­tain­ing plant sam­ples in a cor­ner of the room and handed out pack­ets of infor­ma­tion with details on the plants and their dif­fer­ent uses.

Before the class, Morales asked the stu­dents to tell her which plants they are grow­ing in the green house on cam­pus. The five stu­dents in the class each men­tioned one to two plants, nam­ing com­mon things like laven­der and pep­per­mint plants, as well as more exotic ones, from marsh­mal­low to yakta to sagebrush.

Min­erva is part of a pro­gram at the Aani­iih Nakoda Col­lege, which brings elders in the com­mu­nity to come teach in the sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math classes. The pro­gram hopes to merge mod­ern edu­ca­tion with tribal traditions.

As the stu­dents talked, Min­erva attempted to set up the tele­vi­sion to play a Pow­er­Point presentation.

Any­one know how to work that thing?” Min­erva asked the class. “How do you turn it on? Or move it? Oh, with the mouse, huh?”

Half­hearted, some of the stu­dents attempted to direct her. Oth­ers didn’t even look up from the papers in front of them. It wasn’t until Morales returned that the lec­ture continued.

All tribes are med­i­cine peo­ple,” the elder told the students.

She read directly from sheets she brought to classGeraldine Doney helps Gregory Gardipee write his name at Fort Belknap Head Start. As a volunteer, Doney is an extra set of eyes and hands to help teach the kids. She says the kids today aren't as eager to learn as they were when she started at the school. . As she did, a few stu­dents checked their phones. One doo­dled on a piece of paper, slightly hid­den from Minerva’s gaze. How­ever as the lec­ture con­tin­ued, Min­erva began to lose the monot­one pro­fes­sor lec­tur­ing voice and started to sim­ply tell sto­ries of when the plants were used in the past.

She told of how gumweed once was used to cure vene­real dis­eases and which plants hunters would use while trav­el­ing to cure things like uri­nary tract infec­tions. The stu­dents perked up occa­sion­ally at these sto­ries. While no one asked ques­tions, their eyes locked on Min­erva, and their hands cir­cled images on their papers, anno­tat­ing them with details from the sto­ries she told.
Morales said she always tells her stu­dents, this is the time to ask the elders these ques­tions. The knowl­edge is untapped and there for the tak­ing. Morales said she hopes her gen­er­a­tion won’t make the mis­take of the past one and allow any of the knowl­edge still liv­ing with these elders to go to waste.

I tell my stu­dents that tra­di­tional plants were the med­i­cine of our time,” Morales said. “That mod­ern med­i­cine does not have the same prop­er­ties as the nat­ural plants. Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies take one active ingre­di­ent which tar­gets the dis­ease and leave the one that heals the body. The Indian peo­ple know which way is better.”

Morales is dis­ap­pointed she never had the edu­ca­tion directly from her grand­mother, but she is glad to pro­vide this oppor­tu­nity for her stu­dents. To give them the chance to learn their cul­ture before yet another gen­er­a­tion dies with knowl­edge still left to be passed down.

SEAN CHANDLER, direc­tor of the college’s Amer­i­can Indian Stud­ies depart­ment, brought elders into classes with help from the school’s dean. He hopes by bring­ing in these elders, even stu­dents who did not grow up with a strong elder pres­ence in their lives will be able to learn some of the traditions.

In the past, many of the elders were will­ing to come and speak with the stu­dents about how to inte­grate the elders’ knowl­edge with mod­ern sci­ence. How­ever, the pro­gram has also expe­ri­enced the loss of most of its active elders, includ­ing Joe Iron Man, who died in June 2013. Chan­dler described these deaths as a heavy loss for the tribe.

Chan­dler lis­tened to elders from a young age and said he learned the lan­guage from his grand­par­ents and par­ents. He said many of the elders he works with come from fam­i­lies who worked hard to pre­serve their culture.

They’re good role mod­els, their expe­ri­ence,” Chan­dler said. Many elders grew up with their grand­par­ents and learned much in the way of nat­ural sci­ence. “(They learned) to pick the right plants and prepar­ing foods. They could travel in the dark and look into the stars to find their way home. Some­times peo­ple think that Native peo­ple weren’t sci­en­tific, in mod­ern terms, but we laid the foun­da­tion for a very sci­en­tific society.”

Chan­dler believes the foun­da­tion for their col­lege is to bring that knowl­edge out of the elders and ensure it con­tin­ues to be taught.Philomene Hawley, known as “Grandma Tootsie” to the kids, volunteers at the Ramona King Head Start in Hays. The 92-year-old is the longest-serving member in the St. Vincent Healthcare Foster Grandparents Program at 29 years.

Some of the knowl­edge was lost in the past, how­ever. He said the elders liv­ing today are descended from par­ents who also attended board­ing schools.

There’s not one rea­son for this loss,” Chan­dler said. “The influ­ence of this Euro-American soci­ety, the board­ing school sys­tem broke down a lot of those rela­tion­ships between elders and their chil­dren. It’s all evolved into today. Just the influ­ence of our cul­ture in our local schools, we might fig­ure out a way to make it impor­tant again by help­ing stu­dents real­ize who they really are.”

He has hope. Chan­dler said the biggest prob­lem he sees is peo­ple can’t get the elders to talk about what they know. He said he often starts talk­ing to an elder, and, just by lis­ten­ing, they remem­ber things they thought were long gone.

Chan­dler said some­times he doesn’t feel the con­fi­dence to carry on all that tra­di­tion or that he will be able to carry the cul­ture with him when he becomes an elder. But he also believes it is the same way for every gen­er­a­tion, that the cur­rent elders must have felt the same way when their elders were dying.

You have to have a vast amount of knowl­edge, wis­dom, guid­ance,” Chan­dler said. “Maybe not all old peo­ple could be con­sid­ered elders, not in the way that they are knowl­edge­able of the cul­tural ways, but they’re still an elder.”

GERALD STIFFARM motions from east to west with his fore­arm. His face is stoic as he ges­tures it slowly to sym­bol­ize the sun’s jour­ney across the sky. The dusty light comes in from his win­dow fac­ing the gravel park­ing lot with soft Top 40 music com­ing from his radio.

The east, the direc­tion the sun comes from, it rep­re­sents new­born life,” Stif­farm said. He draws a cir­cle on a piece of printer paper, his ball­point pen scratch­ing out the words “Love” and “Courage” next to ani­mal names and dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics of life stages.

You are not an elder until you have seen your children’s chil­dren have a child,” Stif­farm said. “Then you have seen a com­ple­tion of the four quadrants.”

Stif­farm is of the old mind of elders in the Fort Belk­nap com­mu­nity. His infor­ma­tion was passed down to him from his grand­par­ents and par­ents but also from research and books. He believes much of the cul­ture of his peo­ple was lost dur­ing the assim­i­la­tion of native cul­ture into “white” culture.

Antone Rider helps his great-grandfather, Gilbert Horn, 90, remove the headset that helps him hear. Horn moved from his home in Fort Belknap Agency to the Northern Montana Care Center in Havre in February 2013. Stif­farm views the elders of the com­mu­nity as peo­ple who should still be sought out for infor­ma­tion and the back­bone of the Fort Belk­nap community.

Doney came from a fam­ily with a strong elder pres­ence. She felt con­nected to her grand­par­ents, often more than her own mother, who she said thrust a lot of respon­si­bil­ity on Doney to be a care­taker in the home, even at a very young age. Because of this, her grand­mother became like a mother to her in many ways. Her grand­mother lived with her for a short time before she died.

She would lay on the couch with her blan­ket up to her neck, and all that you would see is her pipe stick­ing out of her mouth,” Doney said.

But many things were lost for her, as she was too young for her grand­mother to pass on some of the greater traditions.

Me and some other kids were told not to go down to my grandmother’s house one evening,” Doney said. “But we went down and we were peek­ing through a win­dow, and there were all these peo­ple sur­round­ing this old man. He was chant­ing, and in front of him was a pipe. As he chanted, the pipe began to tilt up right. We were so scared, we ran away from the window.”

So even though Doney’s grand­mother was alive dur­ing the time when Fort Belknap’s native cul­ture was rich, Doney doesn’t know the secret to some of the older traditions.

For Doney, her clear­est mem­o­ries of the two of them are sit­ting together by the creek and enjoy­ing the sounds of the water, just her and her grandmother’s lit­tle stove to keep them warm. Doney would sit there for hours as her grand­mother puffed on her pipe, occa­sion­ally shar­ing sto­ries with Doney, but mainly they sat in silence together.

It was just how it was back then,” Doney said. “I just respected her was all. I knew from the time I was lit­tle you were sup­posed to respect your elders. I knew that much.”