Theresa Chandler Walker Lamebull was still teaching when she died in 2007 at 111 years of age. Her subject was A’aniiih, or White Clay, the language of the A’aninin (Gros Ventre) people and one of the world’s most endangered languages. By the 1990s, Theresa Lamebull was one of only a dozen people to speak the language fluently. Her willingness to share her knowledge of the White Clay language became the foundation for its recovery.
Theresa Elizabeth Chandler, or Kills At Night, was born to Kills In The Brush and Al Chandler in 1896 in a tipi near Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Raised by her grandmother, Sharp Nose, for the first few years of her life, young Kills At Night was fully immersed in White Clay culture. She then lived with her mother and stepfather, White Weasel, until she was twelve and the federal government mandated she go to school. Without the option of a day school, Theresa attended St. Paul’s Catholic boarding school in Harlem, Montana. She long remembered the fences that surrounded the mission school to keep children from running away and returning to their families.
Mary Ann Pierre was about ten years old in October 1891, when American soldiers arrived to “escort” the Salish people out of the Bitterroot region and to the Jocko (now Flathead) Indian Reservation. With her family and three hundred members of her tribe, Mary Ann tearfully left the homeland where her people had lived for millennia. The Salish left behind farms, log homes, and the St. Mary’s Mission church—evidence of all they had done to adjust to an Anglo-American lifestyle. Nearly eighty-five years later, Mary Ann Pierre Coombs returned to the Bitterroot to rekindle her people’s historical and cultural connections to their homeland.
The Bitterroot region and the Salish people share a long mutual history. Salish travel routes to and from the Bitterroot testify to centuries of regular use as they moved seasonally to hunt bison and trade with regional tribes in well-established trading centers. Linguistic studies of the inland Salish language reveal ten-thousand-year-old words that described specific sites in the Bitterroot region and testify to the tribe’s knowledge of the region’s geography and resources.
When Lewis and Clark entered the Bitterroot in 1805 in destitute condition, the hospitable Salish presented the bedraggled strangers with food, shelter, blankets, good horses, and travel advice. In 1841, Jesuit missionaries established St. Mary’s Mission at present-day Stevensville, and many Salish adopted Catholicism alongside their Native beliefs.
In 1855, Washington territorial governor Isaac Stevens negotiated the Hellgate Treaty with the Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai tribes. The necessity of translating everything into multiple languages made the negotiations problematic. One Jesuit observer said the translations were so poor that “not a tenth . . . was actually understood by either party.” While the Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes retained tribal lands at the southern end of Flathead Lake, the fate of the Bitterroot was not clear. Chief Victor believed the treaty protected his Salish tribe from dispossession, as it indicated a future survey for a reservation and precluded American trespass. However, the Americans claimed the treaty permitted the eventual eviction of the Salish at the American president’s discretion.
When the confederated Salish, Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai tribes needed more information on historical events, cultural customs, or the Kootenai language, they did not look in a library or on the web; they asked Adeline Abraham Mathias. A member of the Ksanka band of Kootenai—or Ktunaxa—people, the elder lived her entire life on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Over the span of her lifetime (1910-2007), she witnessed how the influx of non-Indians profoundly altered her people’s homeland. The great-granddaughter of a Kootenai chief, Adeline Mathias was the recipient of cultural, spiritual, and historical knowledge, which she in turn passed along to the next generation of Kootenai people.
Atliyi “Adeline” Paul Abraham was born near Dayton, Montana, in 1910, the same year the fertile valleys of Flathead Indian Reservation were opened to homesteading. The arriving farmers transformed the diverse riparian habitat into a patchwork of fields and altered the course of rivers to suit their irrigation needs.
More profoundly, the newcomers brought different social and cultural ways that, over time, threatened the continuity of the Kootenai, Salish, and Kalispel (Pend d’Oreille) languages and way of life. In just three generations, the number of fluent Kootenai speakers fell to only a handful of individuals, one of whom was Adeline Mathias. Continue reading “I Was a Strong Woman”: Adeline Abraham Mathias→
“We in the Native American community know that the warrior of old no longer exists. So we ask ourselves, ‘What do we have left?’ We have individuals who are culturally aware, who realize the value of getting a ‘white man’s education’ and utilizing that to the benefit . . . of the community. They have the ability to turn this whole negative picture of cultural genocide around.” Bonnie HeavyRunner spoke these words in praise of her sister, Iris HeavyRunner, but she could have been describing herself.
One of thirteen children, Bonnie HeavyRunner grew up in Browning on the Blackfeet Reservation, where she experienced the daily reality of poverty, relatives struggling with alcohol addiction, and the sudden loss of family members. At a young age she vowed to stay sober and remain true to her cultural values. Her personal integrity became the foundation of her determination to improve the lives of American Indian people by being an advocate for Native and women’s issues while building cross-cultural bridges. As the director of the University of Montana’s Native American Studies program, she worked tirelessly to bring about greater cultural awareness of American Indians while making the academic world more hospitable to Indian students.
HeavyRunner earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Montana in 1983 and then a law degree in 1988. One of only a few women in the School of Law in the 1980s, HeavyRunner was also the only American Indian law student in her class. She went on to become a clerk, and then a judge, on the Blackfeet Tribal Court, but she did not forget the cultural isolation she had felt at the university. Many Native students dropped out of school because they experienced such a wide gap between themselves and the non-Indian culture of the university community at large. HeavyRunner wanted to change that. Continue reading Bonnie HeavyRunner: A Warrior for Diversity→
“Thanksgiving Day is over and we have Women’s Meeting Sale at Elling Rogenes and it is quite enjoyable when there are so many Norwegians together,” Rakel Herein wrote in her daybook in 1917. Two years later, a March entry reads simply, “Have had Women’s Meeting. . . . Yes it was extremely delightful.”
Herein arrived in Carbon County in 1899 as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Norway and married a local Norwegian immigrant sheep farmer within the year. Translated years after her 1943 death, her scattered, terse daybook documents the birth and growth of five children and a lonely, despairing life. This context makes her descriptions of Red Lodge’s St. Olaf Lutheran Church women’s group—“delightful” and “enjoyable”—that much more telling. Herein yearned for the companionship and support of women who understood how hard it was to immigrate to a foreign, male-dominated western landscape. She found that companionship and support within the Women’s Meeting.
Herein’s Women’s Meeting was one of hundreds of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Montana women’s groups. Montana women gathered whenever they could under a wide range of banners: to pursue education, art, community improvement, children’s activities, homemaking, health, their families’ occupational interests, and church growth and stability. Typically, these women’s groups supported the status quo, celebrating their members’ primary roles as mothers, wives, and daughters; yet for the women themselves, they were lifelines leading out of their homes and into a larger world. Continue reading “Becoming Better Citizens of Our Adopted Country”: Montana’s Ethnic Women’s Groups→
A custom among many tribes, the giveaway—and the love and gratitude it represents—strengthens social bonds through reciprocal acts of generosity. Similarly, the tribal tradition of adoption to replace lost family members helps heal broken hearts and builds family ties. These culturally prescribed acts of generosity and love were central to the life of Belle Highwalking, a Northern Cheyenne woman.
Belle’s mother died giving birth to her in 1892. The Cheyennes pitied the motherless child and considered Belle poor, for a mother provided material and emotional sustenance. Belle’s grandmother took the infant to nursing mothers to be fed until Belle was able to drink milk from a can.
As a young girl, Belle traveled on horseback with her grandmother to visit relatives on the Crow Reservation, where she recalled first experiencing a giveaway: “They gave us many fine gifts. . . . They sang songs for the different Cheyennes and gave out the gifts—shawls, quilts and dress goods. Some received horses. . . . When I arrived home, an old man, Braided Locks, gave me a beautiful shawl. He said, ‘My granddaughter helped me drive the horses very well and I will give her a shawl that I received as a gift.’”
Born in 1872 on the South Fork of the Sun River, Julia Ereaux was the daughter of a French immigrant, Lazare “Curley” Ereaux, and his A’a Ni Nin (White Clay—also known as Gros Ventre) wife, Pipe Woman. Julia, whose White Clay name was Sweet Pine, grew up in a bicultural family and was fluent in French, English, and Gros Ventre. She became a rancher and a newspaper correspondent, even as she served as a Fort Belknap tribal council member, promoted traditional indigenous arts, and worked to prevent the spread of tuberculosis on the reservation. A founding member of one of the first Indian women’s clubs in Montana, Schultz devoted her life to the well-being of the A’a Ni Nin people.
By the time Julia was born, her parents had already lost two children to a smallpox epidemic that took the lives of hundreds of American Indians in what is now north-central Montana. Along with several other mixed-heritage families, the Ereaux family settled near Augusta and took up farming. They were so poor, Julia later recalled, that her mother had to cut and thresh the grain by hand.
Julia received her schooling at St. Peter’s Mission School, an Indian boarding school in the Sun River Valley, which was attended by many Blackfeet and Métis children. Run by Ursuline nuns, the school also employed two famous Montanans during Julia’s years there: Mary Fields, a former slave who worked as handyman and gardener for the school and who became Montana’s first female postal carrier, and Louis Riel, one of the Métis leaders of the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. Continue reading Julia Ereaux Schultz, Health Advocate and Cultural Champion→
The legacy of a nineteenth-century Apsáalooke grandmother lives on in the traditions of the Crow people today. Born in 1856, Pretty Shield belonged to the last generation of children raised in an intact Apsáalooke culture. Just thirty years later, the tribe faced the loss of their indigenous identities and cultural heritage as well as their lands. Thus, by the 1920s and 1930s, as she raised her grandchildren, Pretty Shield confronted a twofold challenge: first, to bring them up in the poverty of the early reservation years; second, to instill in them a strong Apsáalooke identity during the era of assimilation. She was well aware of the difficulty—and importance—of her task.
Pretty Shield herself had enjoyed a happy childhood. Her elders taught her how to harvest plants, preserve meat, cook, and sew. They guided her spiritually, educated her, and brought her up according to the traditions of the Apsáalooke worldview. Too soon, these happy years gave way to the destructive forces of American colonization.
In 1872, smallpox killed hundreds of Crow people, including Pretty Shield’s beloved father, Kills in the Night. At the same time, American military campaigns against other Plains tribes threatened all intertribal trade and safety while the extinction of the bison destroyed tribal economies. Reduced to poverty and starvation, tribes were forced to relinquish more and more of their homelands. Between 1851 and 1904, the Crows themselves lost 35 million acres. The U.S. government outlawed indigenous ceremonies, mandated that Native children attend government or mission schools, and sent emissaries of assimilation onto the reservations to enforce American policies. Many Crows converted to Christianity, took up farming, and sent their children to be raised at boarding schools, where their Apsáalooke identity succumbed to white American values and a wholly different relationship to the natural world. Continue reading Pretty Shield’s Success: Raising “Grandmother’s Grandchild”→