By Carly Flandro
On one side of the Ninepipes Museum in Charlo, at the heart of the Flathead Reservation in Northwest Montana, the display is dominated by Indian jewelry, blankets and traditional beaded moccasins. On the other side, it’s a collection of cowboy hats and paintings of white men on horses.
Indians and settlers have lived side by side on this reservation for 100 years, but at the museum – and in the community – the division between them is still evident.
This year is the centennial anniversary of the Flathead Indian Reservation being opened to settlers. In 1910, under the Homestead Act, settlers were allowed to claim land that had been set aside for the Kootenai, Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribes. Though the natives and non-natives didn’t share cultures, beliefs or lifestyles, they now share this history – which both groups are striving to preserve and re-tell.
Bud Cheff is in his mid-70’s, but when he gives a tour of the Ninepipes Museum – which he constructed and financed – he’s like a young boy, starting a new story before the last is finished.
Cheff, who has spent his life collecting the artifacts, pictures and paintings that fill the museum, walks to a glass case and looks at a shotgun inside. He squints, pointing out notches that have been carved into the gun’s leather handle. Each represents a buffalo killed, he says. Many of the notches have worn away by now, but there used to be more than 30.
That was in a different time, when wild buffalo roamed Montana from Pablo to Ravalli County, the last free-roaming herd in the country. Those buffalo were eventually captured and sold to Canada to make room for homesteaders, Cheff says.
“It took ‘em about seven years to catch them all, though,” he says, a small smile growing from the corners of his lips.
Cheff, who wears cowboy boots and a hat, is white, but grew up learning Indian traditions. His father used to go out with the natives to dig roots, gather herbs and hunt for pine nuts. That background has made Cheff integrate well with natives in the area.
“I don’t think there are any prejudices here,” he says.
Ruth Swaney, who’s affiliated with the Salish tribe, doesn’t agree.
She grew up on the reservation, attending school with white children during the 1970s. One day, in particular, she says she’ll never forget. Her little brother had been growing his hair out so he could braid it. Several boys started harassing him and a teacher came over to see what was happening. When she found out, she violently grabbed Swaney’s brother by the hair.
“That’s all your long hair is good for,” the teacher said before releasing him.
Swaney’s also seen prejudiced natives – including her father, a formal tribal chairman.
“Do you know what the Indian problem is?” he would ask when speaking at different events. “It’s 210 million white people.”
The crowd would gasp or cheer, depending on who was in it.
But the disconnect between the reservation’s co-existing races isn’t always so obvious, she says. There are subtle separations, including the physical location of homes. Indians tend to live in government housing, while white people live together in more expensive neighborhoods. The two groups also attend different social events that identify with their cultures. For example, Swaney attends pow-wows, where she doesn’t see many white people.
These daily divisions and tensions are the aftermath of profound changes; for the native people, 1910 was the year they began to lose their culture, language and land.
“Changes to our lifestyle occurred so rapidly that the adjustment is still going on today,” she says.
For her two daughters, it seems the reality of those adjustments was most harsh in their teen years. Both attended Ronan High School, where interaction with white teens was unavoidable.
Catherine Addison, 22, remembers feeling intimidated and outnumbered by the white students. So, whenever she could, she would hang out with other natives. Though she was a student athlete with a 4.0 GPA, Addison says she was accused of being a “gang member” and restricted from hanging out with more than two or three people at a time.
Nearby, her 2-year-old daughter plays with some toys. Addison looks at her and says she’s already worried about how she will be treated in high school. She knows her daughter will be smart, outspoken, tall and dark-skinned. It’s sad, Addison says, but those traits make her worry. Her daughter will stand out and be a target for harassment.
Addison and her sister, Marianne Addison, 25, have learned the painful history of their people from their own reading and from their mother, but it’s not a history they are bitter about.
“We can look back and be hateful,” Marianne says. “Or we can acknowledge it and be aware of it, and then get better.”
She and her sister are both mothers, and they too will pass their people’s history to the next generation.
Many other young people who live in Montana may not have had the opportunity to learn the history of the Flathead Reservation. Julie Cajune, a former educator and tribal member, is trying to make sure they do.
Cajune recently received a $1.4-million grant to write books and create a film about the history of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, making the information more accessible for Montana teachers and students in particular.
Natives and non-natives have both been trying, through museums, books, or otherwise, to tell their stories. Usually, they do so separately. This year, however, in acknowledgment of the 100-year anniversary of the homesteading act, the two groups agreed to tell their history together with commemoration events.
Lois Hart, the president of the Polson Flathead Historical Museum, began planning for the events two years ago, and asked the tribes for their support. They agreed at first, then decided they wanted no part in the commencement.
“We wanted the unblemished history to be told unfettered once and for all,” says Rob McDonald, the spokesman for the Salish-Kootenai tribes. “But it was not coming together that way, and people were on the verge of being very upset. They were afraid it would turn into the whitewashing of history and become a celebration of the beginning of the tribal holocaust story.”
Hart has since decided to scale down the event, which she is calling a “Polson Centennial,” acknowledging the creation of the town with the Homestead Act. The centennial will take place through August and was kicked off with a July Fourth parade and ice-cream social.
“I admit the tone is different than when it was going to be a commemoration,” Hart says. “But I won’t use the word celebration. The lives of the homesteaders were not easy, and a lot of our (historical) programs will be sobering.”
To McDonald, trying to plan the event together was like filling a room with gunpowder and looking for a way not to start a spark.
On the Flathead Reservation, it seems history can be volatile.
Maybe Cheff understood that when setting up the displays in his museum lobby, and knew that – while this hundred-year history is best told under one roof – it still needs to be told from opposite sides of the room.