BELKNAP - Minerva Allen tells a story about Inkdomi, the Assiniboine
trickster god, and the day he discovered red berries floating in
Being powerful and prideful, Inkdomi grabbed for the berries, only
to see them vanish. He got soaking wet trying to get the berries
out of the stream, but no luck.
he looked up in frustration and saw the bull berries growing on
a branch overhanging the water. He'd been hasty and got reflections
instead of the real thing.
Indian stories into books can be a similar exercise.
Fort Belknap Community College, Allen has been telling stories to
fellow teacher Sean Chandler's video camera. As one of the few remaining
fluent Assiniboine speakers on the Fort Belknap Reservation, Allen
is a living chapter of the Montana Tribal History Project.
trickster stories live all over Montana. The Oglala know him as
Inktomi, a consonant away from Allen's Assiniboine language. To
the Blackfeet, he's Napi. The Gros Ventre call him Niant. The Salish,
Crow and Cheyenne call him Coyote or Old Man Coyote.
Aesop's fables in ancient Greece or Anasi, the spider-man of West
Africa, Inkdomi's stories usually have a moral or lesson.
supernatural," Allen said. "He can do things no ordinary
person can do. But he does all these things so students can learn
not to do that."
Knowing stories is one thing. Telling them is another. And where
Native American stories are concerned, lots of rules and traditions
don't mesh with the public-school classrooms that await them.
look to people like Allen for help.
was raised by her grandparents, a practice common among Montana
tribes where certain children are chosen to learn the deep traditions
of the clan. She grew up to become a teacher and helped create one
of the first native-language classes for children in the Hays Elementary
School system in the 1970s.
a board member of Fort Belknap Community College, is one of fewer
than a dozen fluent Assiniboine speakers on the reservation. She's
on the fence separating jealously guarded old ways and the education
of unborn generations.
Inkdomi stories were only told in the fall and winter months,"
Allen said. "With modern times, you don't have to follow the
rules that much. Besides, it's been done so much that it's never
tribes want stricter standards.
Cajune, director of the Salish Kootenai College Tribal History Project,
hopes that teachers will stay within the rails of a similar cold-weather
tradition. Her living-room window looks out at the snow-covered
front of the Mission Mountains, but she said that wasn't enough.
tradition for Coyote stories is they can't be told until after the
first heavy snow, or when the trees pop at night," Cajune said.
has to be really cold. You're supposed to put them away at certain
times. In Cheyenne tradition, they can only be told at night. That's
tough for teachers. I don't know how to address that."
said there could be several reasons for the cold-weather rule. Scarcity
increases value. Limiting favorite stories to wintertime was a good
incentive to keep kids behaving when they're stuck inside a tepee
during bad weather. And the anticipation makes them easier to remember
role, new challenge
With her own tribal history material published, Cajune has moved
to a new role. She's working for the Montana Office of Public Instruction,
turning all those tribal-college history materials into classroom
lessons. And she's encountered another problem.
work that I did was based on generations of work already done, all
at the expense of the tribes," Cajune said.
30 years of collecting interviews, 10 years of filming. I don't
have the right to turn it over to the state. Had people thought
this would become state property, nobody would have talked to me."
remains a sensitive issue for tribal historians. It's hard enough
for many clan elders to pass on their oral tradition to someone
who hasn't earned the right of transfer, as the Blackfeet call their
still is the idea that one more remaining Indian possession might
become a trinket in some white school's trophy shelf.
time is erasing the knowledge.
Belknap videographer Sean Chandler was nearing the end of his video
interviews when an elder named Josephine Mechanace called him. She
gave him a demonstration of Assiniboine breadmaking.
week later, she died.
knew these DVDs were for educators," Chandler said. "But
we looked at it from a different aspect.
first people who should benefit from this are our own people. We're
getting mixed reactions. People were under the impression that we
were building a curriculum that gets plopped on a desk. We felt
that was way too limiting. If you knew how our history and culture
were attacked and stomped on, you'd understand."
not to do
Nobody wants another Dusenberry book.
Dusenberry was an acclaimed scholar with Montana State University
in Bozeman and Northern Montana College in Havre from the 1940s
to 1960s, working with many tribal nations in the state. He was
credited with developing some of the first college courses in Indian
literature and helped found MSU's Museum of the Rockies.
wrote his anthropology doctoral thesis on "The Montana Cree:
A Study in Religious Persistence." His biography notes that
he was adopted into the Flathead tribe in 1937 and made part of
the Northern Cheyenne Council of Forty in the 1950s.
spent years visiting Chippewa and Cree communities and wrote detailed
descriptions of their sacred Sun Dance ritual.
on the Rocky Boy's Reservation, Dusenberry's name is a watchword
for what not to put into the tribal histories. Stone Child College
cultural programming chairwoman Louise Stump explains the problem
with Dusenberry's Sun Dance writings.
the tribe's "The History of the Chippewa Cree of Rocky Boy's
Indian Reservation" has several mentions of the Sun Dance,
the book only brings up the time a Montana governor tried to ban
it or newspaper accounts of upcoming dances.
been burned a lot of times," Stump said.
tribes and nations do ceremonies for big, huge prices. Especially
in Europe. We don't want fake medicine people selling fake credibility
by claiming they know the secrets of our rituals. We frown on that."
Dusenberry's depictions of the Cree Sun Dance have earned him special
ire at Stone Child.
things should be for tribal members only," Stump said.
man was told not to write about our Sun Dance ceremony. He went
ahead and made a lot of money. Then he died of head cancer. The
tumor attacked his head."