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PABLO – Le Khuong peered at the elaborately designed clothing displayed behind glass at the People's Center, and he wondered.

"Back then, how can they find the material to make clothes?" said Khuong, of Vietnam.

The Native Americans sewed those dresses and beaded those crowns as early as the 1600s, said Patrick Chief Stick, who led the tour. And he had a simple answer for Khuong about the source of the material.

"They hunted," Chief Stick said.

Nget Kan Davith of Cambodia pointed to a skull behind another glass case, and he wondered about its significance. Could it be spiritual?

"What is the meaning?" Davith said.

The bone came from a ram, Chief Stick said. The animal provided food for the people, and its horns served as cups.

On Tuesday, some 20 students and young professionals from Southeast Asia traveled to the Flathead Indian Reservation as part of an environmental exchange through the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.

The group with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative is here for roughly a month with a program through the U.S. Department of State.

"Ours is unique in that it is very experiential," said Deena Mansour, director of the Mansfield Center. "We really rely on the community to contribute to their learning."

The program is in its sixth year, and it's part of the Mansfield Center's mission to support relations between the United States and Asia.

The tour brings emerging leaders from Southeast Asia to Montana. It allows the young visitors to learn from each other, and it exposes Montanans to different cultures and societies, too.

"If you know each other's people better, then you're going to be able to negotiate better and collaborate better," Mansour said.

The curriculum included reading "Community and Politics of Place" by Dan Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula and state legislator.

The schedule was packed with a public policy discussion on natural resource management, a raft float down on the Clark Fork River, a leadership workshop on intercultural conflict resolution, a visit to Glacier National Park, and more. 

***

At the People's Center, Bill Swaney talked with the group about the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille tribes.

Swaney, head of the tribal education department for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said people often refer to reservation land as being given to Native Americans, but the concept is different than typically presented.

"We weren't given anything. We kept this piece for ourselves," Swaney said.

The tribes "reserved" the piece, thus, the term reservation. There, the reservation is 1.3 million acres, and not even close to one of the largest in Montana, Swaney said.

One visitor wanted to know if people could leave: "Is there any possibility for the new generation of Native Americans to get out and live a normal American life?"

Said Swaney: "Can I be as polite as possible and say, 'Why would I want to do that?' "

People certainly are free to leave, he said, and in the past, a government program moved Indians from their homes on reservations to urban areas, such as Chicago.

"Well, most people literally didn't survive that," he said.

They didn't have a support system in place, he said. At this point in history, it's a personal choice people make, and he himself prefers to stay.

"I want to be here. I want to contribute to my people," Swaney said.

***

After the lecture, the group headed to an open field at Salish Kootenai College, where they learned to play Native games.

There, Paul Phillips explained the way to play stick ball and double ball, as well as the community relationships players develop, and the different roles men, women, children and elders have in the games.

A man can bump another man to try to win, but a strong young man wouldn't throw an elbow at a child or an elder, for instance. Even if he gets a face full of dirt and his lip is bleeding, a man isn't going to retaliate against a child or woman in the community, he said.

"That's the rule of respect," Phillips said.

After the lesson, the teams raced around the target, a fish atop a pole in the field, and tried to throw a small object, maybe the size of an egg, so it struck the target.

Phillips had taught them a war cry in the beginning, a shout used to intimidate the other team.

He told them their first shout wouldn't have scared anyone, but as the game went on, the shouts grew louder, as did the laughter among the players.

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University of Montana, higher education