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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 13, 2002 - Issue 65


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Honors for 'Yaya'

by Sherry Devlin of the Missoulian
credits: Photo by Tom Bauer/Missoulian
ARLEE - Felicite McDonald did not know she was a teacher, until her children and grandchildren and then her great-grandchildren told her so.

But she is proud to tell the stories that the old people who raised her once told, McDonald said Thursday, after dozens and dozens of children - many of them gray-haired - honored their "yaya" at the opening of the 104th Arlee Fourth of July Celebration.

This year's powwow, which continues through Sunday, is dedicated to Felicite "Jim" Sapiye Pierre McDonald, a Bitterroot Salish elder who will be 80 years old in November and who has devoted herself to carrying on the cultural teachings of her elders.

As the Mad Bull Lake Singers chanted the honor song, McDonald led a procession around the powwow arena, recognizing each new family member or friend with a smile, a hug and a tip of her eagle feather. Grown men stooped to whisper their thanks. Little girls in jingling dresses hugged her waist. Teen-age boys in the full-feathered regalia of fancy dancers wrapped her in their arms.

"We just feel so fortunate that she is here to continue teaching us," said Clara Charlo, one of 14 children born to Felicite and Louie McDonald. Twelve of the children survived infancy: Clara, Billy, Ben, Maxine, Violet, Joyce, Lorraine and Louis (the twins), Arnie, Patrick, Phillip and Lisa.

So far, she has 32 grandchildren, many of whom have children of their own.

And no one could possibly count or name all the other young people who grew up thinking of McDonald as their "yaya," or maternal grandmother, Charlo said. "She just kept on adding to the family."

"She set us straight," said Lloyd Irvine, a tribal council member on the Flathead Indian Reservation who presented McDonald with a blanket decorated with buffaloes and American flags. "If it wasn't for ones like Felicite, a lot of us wouldn't be here to do what we do."

"This is a beautiful, beautiful woman," said Alec Quequesah, master of ceremonies at the Arlee powwow for the past 18 years, all of which he has made camp with McDonald and her children. "We are all blessed to be part of Jim's extended family."

With each new child or grandchild or great-grandchild who joined her honor dance, McDonald danced with more certainty and pride, stepping higher as she made her way around the circle in her turquoise scarf and white dress.

"I feel funny about being recognized," she said later. "I am honored, though. I didn't realize I was teaching. I didn't realize. It just seemed natural. I was raised by old people and learned everything from them."

McDonald was born in Arlee in 1922 to Baptiste Sapiye Pierre and Agnes Finley. She was raised by her mother and her stepfather, "Honest John" Pilko, and by her grandparents, Isabel and Eneas Granjo.

She was called "Jim" after her paternal grandfather, "Bitterroot Jim" Sapiye, who was one of the only Salish people who returned to live in the Bitterroot Valley after the U.S. government forcibly removed the tribe to the Flathead Reservation in 1891.

Quequesah told the crowd at Thursday's opening ceremony that McDonald never got much education at the Indian boarding schools, but earned her Ph.D. in traditional Salish language, culture and history.

"When we were setting up camp, I told Jim that I never knew she had a Ph.D.," Quequesah said.

"What the hell is a Ph.D.?" McDonald replied. "I think it means post hole digger."

McDonald taught Salish language at Two Eagle River School in Pablo during the 1980s and continues to work for the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Cultural Committee as senior adviser and translator, teaching language and culture, helping to compile dictionaries, and interpreting oral and written histories.

She misses the traditional ways of her parents and grandparents, she said. Her family always followed the Salish people's seasonal cycle of hunting and gathering. They dug bitterroots in the spring near where South and Reserve streets intersect in Missoula. In the summer, they dug camas, then picked serviceberries, huckleberries and chokecherries.

Every fall, her family packed their string of horses and headed over the Jocko toward Seeley Lake to hunt, camping at Placid Lake and along Morrell Creek where the Double Arrow Ranch is today. Her heart is still there, east across the Mission Mountains, when the cool, crisp air comes in the fall, McDonald said.

And she still, whenever she gets the chance, rides her horses.

On Thursday, a steady stream of great-granddaughters curled into her lap, resting between dances, whispering little stories of their own. Each wore a piece of McDonald's beadwork, as did her grandchildren, children and "unofficial" children.

"Jim is with us, wherever we go," said Quequesah, his hand covering his heart. "She does so much for us, and all she wants for herself is the love."

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