PABLO — Before leaving a community dinner on a recent night, Kaci Ducharme, 18, walked down the hall of Two Eagle River School to Kathy Tapia’s classroom. She reached to a top shelf, pulled down an incomplete star quilt and paced the room as she held it to her chest with wrapped arms.

“You’re not taking it home now, are you?” Tapia asked.

“No, I just wanted to hug it,” Ducharme said of the project she's worked on for three years as a gift for her mom.

Ducharme is one of about 120 students at Two Eagle River School, which started in 1974 as a GED program based in Dixon, about 25 miles away. More than 40 years ago, Clarice King, Joe MacDonald and other members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes decided that if the schools currently serving the next generation were failing to see all students through to graduation and on to college or stable careers, they would make it happen themselves.

One result of the landmark community effort was the establishment of the alternative high school, which now sits off U.S. Highway 93 in a building that opened in 1989. It serves students in grades 8 and up, focusing heavily on Salish and Kootenai culture lessons in addition to academic core classes, as a way to strengthen student identity and build teens’ confidence.

It is run by the tribes with additional oversight from the federal Bureau of Indian Education, the Montana Office of Public Instruction and a national accrediting agency. As a tribal school, it receives no money from the state and federal funding is, by comparison, limited.

Superintendent Rodney Bird, who taught at the school for about 20 years, said many teachers and staff members have worked there for decades, largely because of the family atmosphere.

“They could make more money going anywhere else, but they choose to stay here, which is a testament to them. They want to be here,” he said. “Cheryl Morigeau has been here 39 years. Kathy Tapia, 36 years. … Our language teacher, DJ Piapot, is a former graduate. He has a family now and came back to teach Salish language.”

Bird, who is Blackfeet but married into a CSKT family, said many of the teens at the school are the second or third generation of their family to attend. Most students are CSKT members, although not all are. Some have been white, others are CSKT descendants, and some have been members of other tribes, he said. Students are bused to the school from communities across the Flathead Indian Reservation, which spans about 75 miles from corner to corner.

Bird said the “cornerstone” of the school is culture and language.

“We use that as a way to build kids up,” he said. “They have Indian Ed for All in public school, and they might have a Native American week or month or day. Here, it’s every day.”

Several students said lessons about their heritage are among their favorite things about the school.

“We get to drum and sing. We get to make projects, make pouches,” Lawrence Mahkuk, 15, said. “It’s a good school.”

Josh Crumley, 15, emphasized the importance of the Salish class.

“We don’t have Spanish, French or any of those. We feel like it’s not what we should be teaching. Salish and Kootenai are losing their language almost every day, so they feel like teaching kids about their culture and their language is more important than teaching them some language almost everybody can speak,” he said.

He said Two Eagle River “is the best school I’ve ever been to,” in large part because of the welcoming atmosphere free of the kinds of cliques and racism, overt or subtle, that he saw when he attended public school in Polson.

“I’ve been bullied all throughout, from kindergarten to part of my high school years. This is more of a friendly place,” Crumley said, noting he is transgender and besides some minor confusion, has felt like his peers and teachers are trying “to understand more and more.”

Like Crumley, many of the students who choose to attend Two Eagle River faced challenges in area public schools, including bullying, delinquency or falling behind academically. Some have unsettled home lives or have faced minor criminal charges, such as for drug use.

“This is a hard school, but they’re just kids like the kids down the street,” Tapia said. “They just have seen and done a whole lot more than we ever experienced in our lives. They just want to be accepted and they just want somebody to care about what they do and how they are that day.”

Tapia's home cultures class is one way the school reinforces students’ Native American identity, connects them to the broader community and sets them up for little successes that can build confidence to take on larger challenges.

Making a star quilt is a yearlong project and results in something that becomes a prized family possession. Students also make moccasins or ribbon dresses they can wear for traditional community and school dances.

“For them, it’s an accomplishment to actually get something done. It gives them a purpose,” she said. “A big part of their school year is here. Friends help them quilt, or the staff members. Parents come in and help. There’s something about it that ties into your personal life.”

Another way the school builds a support network around students is with family night dinners held about once a month for students, siblings, parents and other community members. The school usually pairs the meals with a workshop or lesson for the families, such as helping older students fill out federal financial aid forms for college.

“We want everyone to feel a part of this school, that they have a place, that it’s their school,” he said. “It’s a good time for the kids to share with their parents and the community what they’re doing.”

At one such dinner last month, families lined the wall of the cafeteria and main lobby, waiting for a plate of barbecued pork, mashed potatoes, green beans and punch prepared by students earlier that day. The room buzzed with conversation, then quieted for a presentation about how to minimize the impacts of historical trauma, and then erupted with cheers as numbers were read from raffle tickets and winners picked up prizes. On one wall behind the tables leaned several tall frames filled with students' star quilts-in-progress.

As families left for home and staff began to gather trash bags, Ducharme turned toward Tapia’s room.

She confided to Tapia that she was struggling to balance schoolwork with personal challenges. They also talked about the traditional crafts she has started and stopped each time life got in the way, and then started again. The teacher reassured her they would be there waiting for her to finish them whenever she was ready.

As Ducharme walked out the door, Tapia asked, “We’ll see you?”

“Yeah,” the teen said. “See you.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.