To hope to understand the dynamo that is Julie Cajune, you need to understand her great-aunt Florence.
Because Florence had no kids of her own, “she kind of mothered everybody and grandma’d everybody,” Cajune said last week.
Cajune’s own grandmother, Florence’s sister, died when Julie was young. Florence made a lasting impression on her growing up in Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the youngest of six girls.
An educator, program director, collaborator, film producer, author and actor in her own one-woman play “Belief,” Cajune is in Washington, D.C., on Monday and Tuesday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.
She’s been invited to be part of a team that Cajune said includes two Indian scholars and a local educator from Missoula that will produce exhibits for a new initiative called “Native Knowledge 360 Degrees.”
“They’re trying to make it more innovative, more interactive, and they’re really committed to producing materials that are accessible nationally,” said Cajune, 59, who's now a mother of two grown children and three grandchildren of her own.
Not long after she gets back home to Arlee, she’ll fly away again for a week of instructing teachers and children at a school on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. It’s the third year of a training and support project that involves five reservation schools in four states in the American Indian Catholic School Network.
Before, between and after those trips, Cajune will work with scholars at the University of Montana on a project to create a manual for U.S. Air Force bases that will help them “engage in effective consultation" with tribes on whose traditional lands the bases are built.
“I’ve been writing sections of that manual, and we’ll do a trial training of our material in February” – at UM one day, and at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo the next. She said she looks forward to bringing together tribal elders and Air Force personnel in such settings.
Oh, then there are the films she has produced and the other books she is writing or editing – children’s book on horses and bison and a two-volume collaborative textbook called “Our Way: A Parallel History” that’s nearing completion.
The latter is comprised of essays by 24 indigenous scholars from Alaska, Hawaii and the Lower 48 that Cajune called together in Montana for three summers in a row a few years ago. In rented homes they worked together, sang together, ate together, prayed together and brainstormed on a unique, user-friendly book geared for college undergraduates.
"I said we have created an indigenous methodology for collaborating on a book," Cajune said with a laugh.
On the surface, none of this and the dozens of other educational projects in which Cajune has immersed herself during the past 20-25 years has much to do with her great-aunt Florence.
It’s when you look at how she has gone about it that you begin to see the connection.
Florence becomes a central figure in the final act of “Belief,” the one that pulls the audience out of a dark world and reminds them “how much goodness there still is in the world,” Cajune said.
Once you meet people like Florence, you never forgot them, she said.
“They have this huge capacity to be generous and kind and decent and open to everybody,” she said. “She loved life, even though she had a hard life.
“The older generations in our tribe were like that. They didn’t get bitter, you know what I mean? People can go through hard times and make a choice to not get bitter, and that’s how Florence was.”
A child of the turbulent late 1950s and ‘60s, Cajune could choose to remember her childhood for the racism she encountered as a wide-eyed, mixed-blood Indian in a Flathead Reservation community where tribal members were the minority.
She could dwell on the shame she felt growing up as a light-skinned Indian with freckles for not being “Indian enough.”
Like many people on the Flathead, Cajune is a descendant of the Scottish trader Angus McDonald, his son Duncan, and Duncan’s Nez Perce wife Red Sleep. Cajune altered the beginning of “Belief” the last time she performed it, on the Isle of Skye in McDonald’s homeland of Scotland in September.
Two young local musicians provided the background music of the "McDonald Waltz" as she drew the Scottish audience into her performance.
“I said my life’s a confluence of water – salt water from the North Atlantic around Skye, lake water from the Missanabie (Cree) land, so that’s my dad, and river water from the Salish and Nez Perce,” she said. “And this water all mixed together and made me who I am, a mixed-blood Salish woman whose eyes have now turned green.”
Those green eyes did generate remarks.
“I guess,” Cajune said, affecting a brogue, “that’s the Scottish coming out in me.”
The childhood she prefers to remember is one of riding horses with friends, surrounded by five sisters everyone called “Opal’s girls” for the mother who instilled in them a love of justice and compassion.
“The best of who I am came from her, but I am far from the woman that she was,” Cajune said.
In a poignant part of “Belief,” Cajune calls back her “little girl spirit.”
“You know, kids believe in love, they believe in family, they believe in other people,” she said. “They believe they can do anything. Everything is possible. My childhood had a lot of that, but it had a lot of other things.”
She remembers something she heard from Faith Spotted Eagle, a 65-year-old grandmother and activist in South Dakota who works with women who’ve had trauma in their lives. Once you’ve experienced bad things long enough, "it’s like the part of you that has the ability to believe everything’s possible … that person separates from yourself,” Cajune said. “She said, ‘I help bring that person back.’ ”
In one part of the play, Cajune talks to herself as if she is a little girl who has been hiding. She tells the girl she is going to take care of her now.
“It’s kind of recovering yourself, but you have to choose to do that,” she explained. “And that’s hard, because when you choose to believe in life or hope or anything, then you’re vulnerable to disappointment or discouragement.”
In 2009 Cajune was named one of “50 Visionaries Changing Your World” by the Utne Reader for her years of work preserving the Salish language and integrating culturally responsive education materials into general school curriculum.
“I tell people she was for Indian Education for All before it was cool,” joked Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and the first American Indian woman elected to a statewide executive office in Montana.
Cajune received the 2014 distinguished alumni service award from Montana Western in Dillon, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1994. She was signed up to do her student teaching in Bozeman back then when she got a call from Teri O’Fallon, the elementary principal in Ronan.
O’Fallon had successfully written a grant to implement a bilingual program in grades K-4 and needed a tribal member teacher to teach it. It was a small pool to draw from. She convinced Cajune to accept the position, though Cajune spoke little Salish, with the understanding that she'd have help from someone who did and could complete the student teaching requirements while she was at it.
Cajune said she had no classroom to teach in, no curriculum to teach from and no pay to show for it.
“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,” she wrote later. “Who was going to do this if not me?”
She reached out to a host of “people of grace” in the Salish community who knew more than she did. But Cajune said she was “astounded” by the vitriol she and the new program encountered, and the opposition eventually succeeded in quashing it.
Those events, she said, “played an important role in my subsequent work and activism.”
Juneau was a one-person Indian Education staff at the Office of Public Instruction in Helena in 1999. She came to rely heavily on Cajune to get the program up to the levels the 1972 state Constitution called for. Cajune brought together Montana tribes in a pioneering consortium to build standards and guidelines for Indian education in public schools.
“I looked at her as sort of a mentor in those early days,” Juneau said. “She just has this vast knowledge and deep wisdom about Indian things and Indian culture and how it should be talked about.”
Cajune's humor, even in conversations that would otherwise seem confrontational, has a way of rubbing off on others.
"I've watched her speak at different events and she just has a knack of telling people hard truths," said Juneau. "They come to the realization that bad things happen, but it's time to sort of come to a reconciliation. It's just really interesting how she does it."