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It was, as speaker after speaker reminded the crowd, a very new building in a very old place.

The University of Montana's new Payne Family Native American Center, dedicated Thursday in daylong ceremonies, sits on land that was once the territory of the Salish and Pend d'Oreille nations.

"We gather here as people at the crossroads of our ancestors, whose bones and tracks we walked over today," said Salish elder Tony Incashola, who spoke after an early morning "walk home" across campus by hundreds of members of the Indian tribes within Montana.

"Their sacrifices, their pain, everything they did was so that we could be here today," he said.

It was a day steeped in the traditions of those ancestors.

Joe Medicine Crow, a Crow war chief who counted coup on German officers and stole their horses during World War II, led veterans in tapping the new building - the only Native American center of its kind in the country - with a coup stick, just as warriors once did when a new lodge, or tepee, was raised.

Medicine Crow was wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, which he received last year.

Members of the tribes who live on each of Montana's seven Indian reservations, as well as the landless Little Shell Band of Chippewa, sang their flag songs as the eight flags were raised, making the new Native American center the only other place in Montana, along with the state Capitol, where all are displayed.

As they sang, Arleen Adams, the first person to graduate from UM's Native American Studies program, in 1997, shielded her face from the blinding sunshine with an eagle-wing fan.

A quote from Adams is among several carved into the side of the new building.

"Remember the bones and dust of our Salish ancestors," it reads. "Remember all they have given up for you. Honor them and give back to this land your goodness and kindness."

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Reno Charette, coordinator for Native American programs at Montana State University-Billings, addressed that same theme of giving back in the name of Bonnie HeavyRunner, for whom the new building's soaring glass rotunda is named. Charette handed out $20 bills to Native American students Thursday, just as HeavyRunner had done when Charette was struggling to balance her studies with motherhood.

"You must promise to do the same when you're financially able," said Charette. "Bonnie paid it forward by sharing her education. Bonnie paid it forward by walking the talk."

Speaker after speaker paid tribute to HeavyRunner, who launched the Native American Studies program at UM and died in 1997.

HeavyRunner had a vision, UM President George Dennison said Thursday morning, that the University of Montana should hold a central spot in Indian education because of its location in the heart of Indian Country. Indeed, the new Native American Center's prominent location on the last open spot on the UM Oval underscores that importance, he said.

It signals "our intent to ensure that the University of Montana fulfills its obligation to educate all of the people of Montana, not just some," Dennison said in remarks during afternoon ceremonies in front of the new building.

In those remarks, he paid tribute to four people - HeavyRunner, Salish Kootenai College founder Joe McDonald, Blackfeet traditional chief Earl Old Person (who gave Dennison his father's name, Fast Buffalo Horse) and Terry Payne of the Payne Financial Group, for whose family the building is named. All, Dennison said, "enlightened me about the responsibility of the University of Montana" to its Native American students.

Those students wandered the building in little groups Thursday, hushed at first, then later raising their voices in song.

"It really kind of gives me a lump in my throat," said Arthur Weatherwax, 27, a social work major who is Blackfeet.

"I can't even put it into words. This is just a wonderful day for me, to know there's a place where all of the tribes can unite," said Kathy Monroe Aubrey, an English major who is also Blackfeet.

The students listened to speeches by Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the landmark class action suit that last year won $3.4 billion for hundreds of thousands of Indian people whose trust funds were mismanaged by the federal government; Gov. Brian Schweitzer; and Jon Swan, a Chippewa Cree UM alumnus now with the Boston Consulting Group.

"Like many Native people," said Cobell, "I have had the fear that we Natives would become the forgotten people." The building, she said, stands as "a glorious reality, an omen for a better Montana."

It's a reality that now must be put to use, said Henry Real Bird, the Crow Nation member who is Montana's poet laureate.

"Thought is how you become a human being," he reminded those who attended what was likely the first teaching session in the new building. "Get up and go to school."

Missoulian city editor Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or at gwen.florio @missoulian.com.

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