PABLO – Did you know the Gros Ventre Indians of Montana call themselves the A’aninin?
As Luke Mills, a Salish Kootenai College elementary education major explained it to Native American students from C.S. Porter School in Missoula Friday, the Gros Ventre name came from a serious communication problem.
“The tribes all had their own language,” Mills told the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. “They used a sophisticated form of sign language” to communicate with other tribes.
The A’aninin people lived by a waterfall, so to identify them, members of other tribes would put their hands palm-down in front of their chests, then push them forward and downward to mimic water going over a cliff.
But when French explorers got the same sign language when they asked to what tribe the A’aninin belonged, they didn’t interpret it as “the people who live by the waterfall.”
No, Mills said, what they saw, as the hands curved outward and downward over the Indians’ stomachs, was “big belly.”
So they named them the Gros Ventre (say “grow-vaunt”), which literally translates from French to “big belly” or “potbelly.”
There was a lot of cool stuff to be learned on this, C.S. Porter’s second annual trip to the SKC campus – and a lot of cool ways to learn it.
Thirty-three of the 44 C.S. Porter students who are Native American, or of Native American descent, made the trip.
The collaboration between the Missoula middle school and Flathead Reservation tribal college initially began when SKC brought education majors to C.S. Porter to observe classrooms, according to C.S. Porter teacher Maeta Kaplan.
But when Kaplan met Doug Ruhman of the SKC education faculty while both were on a Fulbright-Hays teacher education trip to China, Ruhman suggested they switch things up.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you come up and see us?’ ” Kaplan says. C.S. Porter already had a “pull-out” day where its Native American students spent a day immersed in traditional and cultural activities.
“He wanted to make it a culminating project for his pre-service teachers,” Kaplan says.
So in the McDonald Activity Center on Friday, the C.S. Porter students divided into small groups of four to five kids and moved through eight stations.
Seven of the stations represented the seven Indian reservations in Montana. Mills was one of the SKC students staffing the station representing the Fort Belknap Reservation located midway between Havre and Malta, and home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine people (Assiniboine also is a misnomer, Mills told the kids).
Elementary education major Willy Bass directed the eighth station, which also proved quite popular. On the gymnasium floor, Bass taught the kids a traditional Native game called shinny, which is kind of like hockey without ice or skates, and uses a ball instead of a puck.
The game could get extremely physical, but the men were not allowed to knock the women around like they did other men, Bass told the kids.
“Shinny taught the men respect for women,” Bass said, and after the young students were panting after a few minutes of shinny played on half a basketball court, he asked them to imagine what it would have been like to play it as it once was – with hundreds of people chasing the ball on fields a mile or more long.
Back upstairs at the other seven stations, there were other treats to be had, from frybread to elk jerky.
At the hometown reservation station, college students such as early childhood education major Rachael Big Sam and elementary education major Jeff Smith armed the middle school students with Nerf dart guns. As they told the kids about the Flathead Reservation and its tribes, the youngsters were invited to shoot the Nerf darts at a reservation map projected on a screen and try to hit the spots being discussed, such as Chief Cliff north of Elmo.
“We integrated a game with the knowledge to help them pay attention, and make it a little fun,” Smith said.
Sixth-grader Cameron Mason, who said he’s of Salish, Kootenai and Chippewa descent, honed in on the meanings of the Crow flag he was taught at the Crow Reservation station. Sage Plumage, a seventh-grader who said she is Gros Ventre, remembered learning that the Cheyenne people have the smallest tribe in the state.
And eighth-grader Tonja Kicking Woman highly recommended the elk jerky, and said Mills’ stories about how the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre got their names had stuck with her.
“It’s a lot of fun, and you learn a lot about all the tribes,” said Kicking Woman, who was on the first trip last year as well.
Midway through the stations, the students broke for lunch and a tour of the Pablo campus.
“One of our goals is to get these kids interested in SKC,” Ruhman says.
The tribal college offers bachelor’s degrees in several areas, including elementary education, early childhood education and secondary science education, plus many more two-year associate degrees, as well as certificates of completion.
In fact, C.S. Porter’s campus tour was due to stop at SKC’s Highway Construction Training, where the kids would have a chance to operate the college’s heavy equipment simulators.
Ruhman will be happy if some of these C.S. Porter students show up at SKC in the next four to six years to continue their educations, and happier still if some go after education degrees.
“Native teachers are under-represented in the state, which is not necessarily surprising,” he says. “Education has not always been a friend of Native peoples, but that’s changing.”
While the college educates both tribal and non-tribal members, and both were represented in the SKC students involved Friday, Kaplan says it’s important for the C.S. Porter students to see other Indians pursuing higher education degrees.
“One of the real benefits that I hadn’t thought of, but Doug obviously had, is how the kids would respond to being here” on campus, Kaplan says. “You know how you can watch a child and sometimes see what they’re thinking? Last year, I could see some of them saying to themselves, ‘I could do this.’ ”