At a ceremony to honor Debra Magpie Earling, the first Native American director of the University of Montana's creative writing program honored others.
Earling, a Bitterroot Salish tribal member, offered colorful blankets and other treasures to a line of people who had supported her and UM's writing students, and she most of all praised students for showing people the way to write the stories of their lives.
When her ancestor, Chief Charlo of the Bitterroot Salish, left the land, he left in exile. But the sorrowful story is changing in the midst of the brilliant force of students, she said.
"May Chief Charlo's sorrow be replaced with the magnificent hope and light that our students bring to us," Earling said.
Wednesday at the Payne Family Native American Center on campus, friends, family and community members gathered to commemorate the lauded author's appointment to head of the creative writing program.
Earling's novel "Perma Red" won the Western Writers Association Spur Award, WWA's Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for Best First Novel, a WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West, and the American Book Award, according to University Relations.
Salish elder Arleen Adams began the ceremony drumming and singing, shaking the bones of the ancestors, she said, and she thanked Earling for blazing a trail as the group stood in a circle with the new director in the center.
The faculty member wore a dark traditional Native dress with bright pink flowers and tall moccasins, and she held on one arm a lavender scarf with long white tassels.
Sherwin Bitsui, a visiting professor in poetry who has known Earling some 20 years, said she profoundly inspired him, and he's grateful to have her as a colleague and director of the program.
"Our child, you have returned to us," he said, reading the end of a poem.
A few years ago, UM identified programs of national distinction, and creative writing was one, said President Royce Engstrom. A program at that level needs exemplary leadership, and he said Earling would provide it.
"Your contributions to the creative literature of the West have been profound," Engstrom said.
As part of the honoring, Earling received a gift as well, one that made the crowd exclaim.
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Former creative writing director Bill Kittredge and writer and filmmaker Annick Smith offered her a present from author Lois Welch, a blanket whose late husband James Welch had received from Fort Belknap Tribe after writing "Fools Crow."
Around the community, students talk about the writing program, and all they want to do is study under Earling's tutelage, Kittredge said.
"It's changed their lives," Kittredge said.
People outside Montana talk about Earling as well, said Troy Felsman, member and secretary with the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal Council. When he tells people he's with the tribe, they want to know if that's Earling's tribe too, and he's proud to respond.
"You betcha it is," Felsman said.
Dean Chris Comer was among the people Earling herself recognized as a friend of the program, and he said he was pleased to see a Native American woman take the helm of an institution so regarded at the national level.
"With a long tradition of excellence, it is very exciting to see that tradition enhanced by new leadership – and especially from a woman like Debra Earling who represents the Native people who inhabited the land where UM now stands," Comer said in an email before the ceremony.
Other instructors joined the event, as did friends, family and community members. Faculty members typically lead the program for three years before passing the role onto another director.
Carol Kleinert recently moved to Montana from New York, and she participated because she wanted to witness a ceremony that was different than anything she'd seen before.
"I've never been an honoring ceremony, and I want to learn more about Native American culture," she said.
Lisa Teberg-Johnson wanted to offer support to a teacher who had put so much time and energy into her classes. Now with Humanities Montana, Teberg-Johnson studied creative writing with Earling a few years ago.
"She's clearly a very talented writer, and as a student, it was an honor to take classes from her," Teberg-Johnson said.