My Story




(This is a preamble to Julie Cajune’s teaching unit, “Sxwiwis – The Journey.”)

In 1956 Brown v Board of Education was two years old and Elizabeth Eckford was one year away from being one of the first black students to attend Little Rock High School. Martin Luther King, Jr. had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott the previous year and Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated eight years earlier. Eight years later the Civil Rights Act was passed and eleven years after that the Indian Education and Self- Determination Act was passed. This was the world I was born into and grew up in.

We lived in what I perceived to be a huge house in Ronan, Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Ronan is located in about the middle of the reservation and while growing up, there was just a footpath in front of our house along side the highway. Behind our house was mostly open field where, for a time, my horse was pastured.

For the most part, our home was a household of women. I’m the youngest of six sisters counting Duretta, who lived with us after her mother died of cancer. My mother had married twice and divorced twice, so from the time I was three years old I lived in a single parent household. Sometimes one of my two bachelor uncles would live with us, sleeping in a make shift bedroom in the basement. They were probably as close to father figures as I ever had. They were both kind men and seemed to have enormous patience with all of “Opal’s girls.” We, in return, were patient with their flaws, which included consistent burning of our breakfast toast (we broiled it in the oven), and one’s love of social drinking, and the other’s burden of binge drinking that came on him after serving his country as a Marine in the war. He was a decorated veteran, including two Purple Hearts.

There was an old upright piano in our living room and I grew up hearing piano music. Many of our older relatives played the piano. Whenever family gathered at our house, someone would end up playing the piano and others would sing. My older sister Luana played regularly and often had me accompany her by singing along.

Along with piano music, I listened to loud and animated discussions at our kitchen table about tribal politics and world events. All of the older generation had strong opinions about what the tribe should be doing and the general state of affairs for Indian people. Some uncles and cousins had served on the tribal council. The most colorful council term was that of my uncle Thomas Bearhead Swaney. His fellow council members viewed him as radical and controversial. He could be confrontational and argumentative, but I believe that he was a visionary. My mother used to paraphrase Robert Frost in regard to her younger brother Bearhead, saying “He had a lover’s quarrel with life.” Bearhead was a fierce advocate for the environment and had little patience with people and organizations that valued money over the land and a clean, healthy environment. He was instrumental in securing Class I Air Quality for the reservation in the late 1970’s and worked in earnest to protect the Lower Flathead River. He vocally and politically opposed any additional hydroelectric dams on the river and led a successful movement against them. His activism was not always embraced by his fellow council representatives or by other tribal members.

Several relatives worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs locally and in Washington DC. The Bureau’s failures were a common topic in our house and I heard lots of ideas on how policies and programs should be reformed to give Indian people a real voice in their own affairs. I had a cousin run a political race for one of Montana’s two Senate seats. He was a very handsome and charismatic man, but he lost the race and didn’t attempt a second time.

My childhood was filled with stories of conflicts and challenges Indian people had to survive. Some of these I experienced personally, growing up as a mixed-blood Indian in a community where tribal members were the minority. When I was five or six I was playing in the yard of a white neighbor girl. Her mother came to the screen door of their house and told me to get out of their yard and go home. I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong and I went home feeling both sad and worried. I told my mom what had happened and she didn’t explain anything to me, but later I heard her tell my uncle about it and they remarked, “Those people don’t like Indians.” For the first time I wondered what was wrong with us? What was wrong with being Indian?

As I became a teenager, these kinds of sentiments became very familiar to me. I had also experienced being shamed for not being “Indian enough.” I was a light skinned Indian with freckles. I learned that there were kind people who were Indian and there were kind people who were white. I learned that it was easy to give in to hate and that it took courage to love. I watched my family negotiate a social landscape full of mines and traps with elegance and dignity. They did not give in.

Through all of this, there was the constant presence of my mother. Her love of justice and compassion was a steady diet in her daughter’s lives, resulting in us becoming social workers, counselors, and teachers. Mom was generous and gentle. But she was fierce in her love and advocacy for children. The best of who I am came from her, but I am far from the woman that she was. There are many things that she accomplished, including the transfer of tribal social services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She served on Indian parent committees before they were allowed to meet on school property. So much of what we now enjoy as Indian parents, grandparents, and educators did not exist one generation ago. We are standing on the shoulders and the work of our parents and grandparents.

My mother decided to go to college when she was forty-five. Her work as a secretary and bookkeeper brought in meager wages and I remember her remarking that many women did the work of their male bosses without appropriate compensation. My sister Kathy was attending the same university. While there she participated in the Trail of Broken Treaties. I remember watching the news shows and hearing a different story from Kathy when she would call from Washington DC and tell us what was happening. A few years later I enrolled in college and had the great fortune to take a Black Studies and a Federal Indian Law class, as a fellow student with my mother. I came to appreciate what an intellectual my mother was. She graduated with honors. After completing my freshman year, I married and moved to Oregon. I didn’t return to college until both my children were in school. I had taught both of them to read at home and became interested in teaching as a career.

My return to education was made possible through Salish Kootenai College (SKC). I was living back home on the reservation and I don’t think I would have moved off the reservation to go back to school. I completed my general education requirements at SKC and then explored the education programs in the state. My sister Luana was teaching at Montana State University and at first I planned to transfer there, but after reviewing the teaching programs I knew that the best one was at The University of Montana Western – in Dillon, Montana. Let me tell you there were few Indians in that town and few Indian students on campus. At times, I felt like a fish out of water. However, the education program was exemplary. Students worked with kids bussed in from rural schools under the watchful eye of faculty. I believe this afforded us practical experience to apply learning theory, and it helped each student determine early on if teaching was a good fit.

Following completion of my course work I came home to spend the summer on the reservation with my son and daughter. My student teaching assignment was scheduled for fall with a progressive school in Bozeman, Montana. Teri O’Fallon, the elementary principal from the school in Ronan, found out that I had returned home and began calling me about a position opening up there in the fall. I told her that I hadn’t done my student teaching yet, but she insisted that I come meet with her about the position anyway. I had great respect for Mrs. O’Fallon and decided to meet with her as a courtesy. She told me that she had successfully written a grant to implement a bilingual program with grades K- 4. I let her know right away that I did not speak Salish other than a few phrases. She told me that didn’t matter as there was funding to hire a fluent speaker to work with me. She said she was in desperate need of a tribal member teacher and that I was one of a select few. I reminded her again that I hadn’t done my student teaching yet. She had already figured out a way around that – I would student teach half the day and then teach the other half. Of course, I wouldn’t get paid because I wasn’t a certified teacher yet. Oh, and there was no classroom and no curriculum. I’d be in the hallway with two lunch tables and I’d have to create all of my lessons and materials. Hmm … what a deal? No salary, no classroom, no curriculum.

At this exact point in time I felt fully the generational responsibility of being an Indian – in particular a Salish Indian who had just completed an elementary education program. Who was going to do this if not me? “OK,” I said. “I’ll do it.” I had no idea the journey this decision would take me on.

The journey was both within and without. My first path was to search what I really knew about my own community within myself. That was a quick trip! I didn’t know very much. So my next journey took me to my community – to people who were generous and kind and a few who were not. I discovered anew people of grace like Frances Vanderburg, Roy Bigcrane, Annie Buntz, Vernon Finley, Lucy Vanderburg, and the late John Peter Paul and Clarence Woodcock. I knew these people but yet I really didn’t know them. Through my work as a teacher, I came to depend on these people to instruct and guide me. They each did in their own way with great kindness and lots of good laughter. The number of people who shared knowledge and encouragement with me is too many to mention. They know who they are. I have thanked them in different ways. I have tried to honor their gifts to me by giving their measure back and more to all the young people I’ve encountered in my work.

The bilingual program in the Ronan School stirred up all the issues of race and power that were covered with a thin veneer of politeness. News articles were written and rumors were circulated along with the local paper. I challenged one of the reporters to actually come to my classes and observe first-hand what I was teaching. She did and followed up with a fairly accurate report on the content and teaching practices that she witnessed. This did not however put an end to the controversy. I began to “receive” a steady stream of onlookers into my classroom. Soon I was asked to file my lesson plans a week early with the principal. This was a well-intentioned effort on Principal O’Fallon’s part to circumvent the continual disruption of my teaching. At one point, I was accused of teaching reincarnation and holding “ceremony” with my students. The reincarnation accusation stemmed from a school board member’s wife observing my class as we watched and discussed an animated story Great Wolf, Little Mouse Sister, part of a film series called Walking With Grandfather. I had to provide the film for the superintendent and the school board for review and determination of educational appropriateness. I did, and it was determined not only to be appropriate but an exemplary resource for its content lessons on generosity and compassion.

Holding “ceremony” was imagined when I conducted a culminating activity celebrating our names after an intensive study of name origins and naming traditions. This was prompted by a student’s request for me to give him an “Indian name.” My response to the student was that naming was a family responsibility and privilege, but also that we would conduct a study of our names and learn and share naming traditions. My culminating lesson was announcing each student’s name, meaning, origin and other information provided by the family. Then as a class we would say it was a special name and when we completed everybody’s name, we ate cookies I had made with their names written in frosting. Ceremony indeed! This took place in my teaching career in the early ‘90’s.

I am sharing this because these circumstances played an important role in my subsequent work and activism. I was astounded by the intense nature of the opposition to me as an Indian teacher and to my efforts to include local tribal history, culture, government, and literature in my curriculum. Honestly, I was not quite prepared for it. A tenacious group of parents coalesced and lobbied against the bilingual program and against Principal O’Fallon. Within a year, a tenured principal was demoted to a grant manager. After a year, she left the school and the community. Her leaving was an enormous loss of a brilliant educational leader. No one has filled her shoes.

There were however, many other people who were quietly supportive and hopeful for change. Let me give you a cherished example. At a school assembly with hundreds of community members in attendance, I was questioned about what I was teaching and the questioning turned into hostile confrontation. While I tried to field questions neutrally and with grace, a single teacher (white and male) came and stood next to me, smiled, and did not say a word. He did not need to. His act of quiet but visible courage was enough to bolster my own. I’ve not forgotten his situational heroism.

Teaching then led me on a journey of producing Indian education materials. The majority of this work focused on my own community. I worked for our Tribes’ Education Department as a Curriculum Coordinator for five years. When the Montana State legislature allocated funding to produce tribal history materials for Montana schools, I was hired by Salish Kootenai College to work on our reservation’s project. At the end of this two-year work, the Montana Office of Public Instruction hired me to create an educator’s resource guide to the materials produced by Montana’s seven reservations. During this time I also produced a curricular project for the Indian Land Tenure Foundation on Montana tribal land tenure.

During my professional career I came to rely upon the work of remarkable writers and scholars such as Vine Deloria, Jr., Oscar Kawagley, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Edward Said, Ronald Takaki, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Thomas King, Angela Wilson, Howard Zinn, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Robert Miller, and so many others. Many of these people became personal heroes of mine. I returned to their work again and again. One historian came to impact my work in a very personal way.

I had long admired and utilized Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. A friend and colleague of mine was working with me to develop and host a three-day seminar on Indian Education and the Teaching of History. I imagined out loud how great it would be if we could persuade Howard Zinn to come and speak. Well, my friend hunted down his email and gave it to me and said, “Ask him.” I thought, “Well goodness, Howard Zinn isn’t going to respond to someone like me here in Montana.” I emailed him anyway. He responded. Right away. He could not join us, but we emailed a few times and I shared what was happening in Montana, thinking it would be an encouragement. He was always timely, gracious, and generous in his response to an obscure Indian teacher from rural Montana. It was a marvel to me that a person of his stature would bother to communicate with some unknown educator in hinterland.

After working on the Montana tribal history projects, I was hired by Nkwusm, a preK-8th grade Salish language immersion school on the Flathead Reservation, in development and as a teacher supervisor. One day during summer break, I was at home in the early afternoon. The phone rang and the person on the line said that she was an assistant to a W.K. Kellogg Program Officer, and was calling because of the program officer’s interest in my work. Then she asked me “Isn’t that exciting?” I responded with, “I guess so. What work are you talking about and what does that mean?”

I came to find out that this meant funding the work of producing tribal history materials. This program officer had recently established US citizenship. At a celebratory party, someone gave her A People’s History of the United States. She read it. She was stunned. Then she picked up a magazine that had an article on my work on the Montana Tribal History Project and she told her assistant, “Find this woman.” After many phone conversations and work developing a proposal, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation provided a grant of 1.4 million to continue the work on tribal history materials. When I was notified that the proposal was unanimously approved and fully funded, my first thought was, “Now Howard Zinn’s work has particularly affected my life. I need to tell him.”

I sent him an email and thanked him first for his work, and second, for the human being that he was and told him the story. He responded right away with enthusiastic congratulations. I described the Parallel History project to him and my idea for a collaborative text by indigenous scholars with discrete stories and biographies at different points in history. Finally I asked if he might write something – brief or long – for that project. He replied that he couldn’t do any writing at that time, but in his characteristic fashion, he told me to use any of his writing that I thought might fit with the book. My last words to him were that he was a hero of mine and that I was so thankful he was in the world. The following week he passed away. I experienced a deep sense of loss and grief for this man that I never met in person. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to tell him what his life meant to me. I believe Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States, should be required reading in every American college and university. In addition to his marvelous work as a historian, Zinn was a remarkable human being who engaged in the struggles for social justice and human dignity beyond the pen, he participated in the Civil Rights movement, and continued as a participant throughout his life.

This brings us just about to present. The Parallel History project is almost complete. Twenty-four indigenous scholars have contributed to the text. It is a unique and remarkable collection of historic narrative. This project has introduced me to talented and genius people doing brave and essential work. I realize that there have been many, many gifts that have come my way through my work. I am thankful for each one.

There have been a few side journeys to other parts of the world where again I have met other people engaged in work that is compassionate, courageous, and brilliant. Sometimes when I feel discouraged I think about some of these people and their efforts and know that I am not alone in the effort to build a more humane world for children today and those yet to come. In the process I hope that I become more human, more compassionate, and more courageous. That too, is the purpose of this curriculum. The narrative embedded within this work is not included in our country’s “master narrative” of history. As we give voice to those that have been silenced, dismissed, or ignored, we restore all of our humanity. This broader, richer story of who we are belongs to all of us. It is our shared history.

While there are many challenges and difficulties ahead of us, beauty and goodness remain constants in this world. We must remember to look for them. I am reminded of both when I am in the presence of my grandchildren, a river, a mountain, my family, a poem, a really good book, a meal with loved ones, a classroom of children, and the living memory of my relatives and ancestors. It is in these moments that I experience deep joy.

My intention and wish is that at some point in these lessons teachers and students have a moment of experiencing beauty, compassion, joy, and hope. If so, then I will have done my job well.