POLSON — Sitting quietly next to the tiny speaker emitting the sound of a pounding drum, Salish Chief Victor Charlo watched a room filled with youngsters learn a game that’s been a part of his life for about as long as he can remember.
With fists wrapped tight around the different colored “bones,” the sixth-graders from Polson Middle School stared each other down as they tried to guess which hand held which different colored stick as they took part in the school’s third annual Native American Heritage Day celebration earlier this week.
For many, it was their first chance to play a game that members of the Salish and Kootenai tribe have traditionally learned as children and often played with zeal throughout their lives.
“When we were kids, we played it all the time,” Charlo said, with a smile filled with memories. “We would have our own little powwows. We would make our own dance outfits that included pop-tops wrapped around our legs that served as our bells.
“And then we would just dance like crazy,” he said. “When we finished dancing, we would play stickgame for hours.”
A game of chance and intuition, a round of stickgame can quickly become a loud affair as teams sing songs passed down through the generations to distract their opponents while playing at annual powwows across the country.
“It’s a gambling game,” Charlo said. “If one side had the bones, they would be singing up a storm and really whooping it up. They would do everything they can to be the winner.”
The Polson classroom was much more subdued as the youngsters learned the intricacies of the game.
It was just one of many activities featured at the celebration that began with an assembly that, for the first time, included an honor song, an introduction to the Salish and Kootenai regalia by Charlo’s daughter, Claire, and a round dance that offered the entire student body a chance to show off their moves.
For the Native American students at the Polson school, the day held special meaning.
It’s an opportunity “for all of us to share the beauty of our culture with everyone at the school,” said Claire Charlo.
For this day, the focus was on the more than half the student body who belong to the Salish and Kootenai tribes.
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“Having a cultural understanding is the key to combat ignorance and racism,” Claire Charlo said. “If we don’t understand each other’s culture, it can lead to misconceptions that can feed into biases. That’s why this day is so important …the better that we understand each other’s culture, the better that we all can get along.”
And so for a day, tribal community members and their children shared their knowledge about traditional Native American games, pictographs, cradleboards and storytelling. Students learned about the tribes’ efforts to protect wildlife crossing highways and the restoration of indigenous plants that have played an important role in tribal life for centuries.
Polson Middle School teacher Amy Williams has been an organizer of the event from its start.
She’s seen firsthand what it can do.
“I know there are a lot of students here who really look forward to this day,” Williams said. “It offers them a chance to share a piece of their lives with other students. It’s another way to create relationships and build community.
“I’ve seen kids walk through the halls with their heads held high on this day when the focus is on their culture,” she said. “It’s just been a huge hit right from the beginning.”
Its start came after a teacher training offered by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that opened a door for educators working on the Flathead Indian Reservation. While educating teachers about Native American culture was welcomed, the talk soon turned to creating something similar for students at the middle school.
“To live in a place and not understand it was an issue that we wanted to address,” Williams said. “We decided that one way to do that was to find a way to allow our students from our community to share their knowledge.”
In the first year, most of the people who hosted the different activities were part of Humanities Montana. But that’s changed now. Most of the presenters are community members, and Salish and Kootenai students often find themselves at the front of the classroom offering their knowledge to their peers.
Victor Charlo smiles as one young person teaching stickgame broke out in a dance and let loose a whoop.
“That’s the way it needs to be done,” he said. “I want it to be taught in the same way that I learned it. I want that passed down to generations to come. … It’s really a simple game, but it’s complicated too.”