Char-Koosta News

The Official Publication of the Flathead Nation online

June 17, 2010

The Spirit of Agnes Vanderburg lives on at Valley Creek

By B.L. Azure

SKC professor Frank Finley led students et al on a nature walk and identified various plants and their usages. (B.L. Azure photo)
SKC professor Frank Finley led students et al on a nature walk and identified various plants and their usages. (B.L. Azure photo)

AGNES VANDERBURG CAMP — They say you can’t turn back the hands of time but apparently no one told that the Salish Kootenai College Native American Studies program and their students. Last week with monsoonal rains pouring down, crackling lightning in the sky and thick rumbling thunder serving as Mother Nature’s chorus, a group of SKC students, faculty, presenters and children journeyed up the Valley Creek drainage to set up their annual cultural learning camp at the Agnes Vanderburg Camp.

The cultural learning camp located approximately eight miles from the blacktop of U.S. Highway 93 got its genesis from the late Agnes Vanderburg. It was her belief that the cultural ways of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people were being lost with each tick of the clock. Something had to be done to stop the erosive tick of time before all the ways were lost.

The time intensive traditional skill of hide tanning was taught at the SKC camp and everyone got into the mix. (B.L. Azure photo)
The time intensive traditional skill of hide tanning was taught at the SKC camp and everyone got into the mix. (B.L. Azure photo)

In 1981 the revered Salish matriarch smashed the clock and established the cultural learning camp deep in the Valley Creek drainage. Through time it became known as the Agnes Vanderburg Camp and the spirit of Agnes lives there. Her message continues to waft through the air like the soft rustle of the quaking aspen leaves that are part of the forest there.

SKC faculty member Eva Boyd and master basket weaver was by the side of Agnes 30 years ago when the camp was established and has been there every year since except 1985 and 1986. She and master beader Rachel Arlee Bowers were on hand last week to guide the students in their quest for cultural knowledge.

“This week is our college week,” Boyd said. “It is all linked to the cultural things that we teach at SKC.”

Boyd who teaches basket weaving at the SKC camp was taught her craft-artistry by her grandmother as a youngster. “My yaya told me that she would show me how to weave baskets,” Boyd said. “She said, ‘You might not want to do this now but you will always remember how.’”

Caroline Rogers from Idaho taught the SKC students how to make traditional Indian flutes. (B.L. Azure photo)
Caroline Rogers from Idaho taught the SKC students how to make traditional Indian flutes. (B.L. Azure photo)

The yaya basketry seed was planted and it eventually blossomed. Boyd said she went on with life, raising a family, making a living. Then in the late 1970s, her yaya’s words echoed across the years and sure enough, Boyd said she remembered what she was taught and has been teaching others since. It is her mission.

The basket weaving artistry was nearly lost when Boyd approached Dr. Joe McDonald, President of Salish Kootenai College and the late SKC Vice-President Jerry Slater with the idea of incorporating cultural learning at SKC.

“They understood what I was trying to do and told me to run with it for a year to see how it goes,” Boyd said. “That was a long time ago and we are still running with it. The time here has been pretty good. I am really thankful to Joe and Jerry - and Agnes.”

This past November, Boyd was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Montana and recognized by the Montana Arts Council for her life’s work of preserving and passing on the cultural ways of the Salish people.

Rachel Arlee Bowers is well known for her beading expertise and she passed her knowledge on to all who are interested at the SKC camp. (B.L. Azure photo)
Rachel Arlee Bowers is well known for her beading expertise and she passed her knowledge on to all who are interested at the SKC camp. (B.L. Azure photo)

Many of those cultural ways were available for SKC students as a part of their final week of class.

The students had to pick two of the many traditional cultural hands-on learning activities or projects available for them. There was hide tanning, hand drum making, nature tours and plant usage, flute making, basket weaving, beading, arrow head making, dye making, Native jewelry, all being taught with the laid back ambiance of times long gone.

SKC faculty member Frank Finley led a group of students - young and not quite so young with children in tow - through the lush underbrush of the thick pine, cedar and fir forest. Finley pointed out the various forms of vegetation, identifying them by their scientific name, common English name and Salish language name.

Most of the plants the students, et al trekked through had more than one use beyond the visual. Many of the plants Finley pointed out were used by the Salish and Pend d’Oreille people for medicinal or ceremonial purposes, for dyes or food sources.

SKC botany professor Frank Finley led the nature field trips and answered questions from folks of all ages about the vegetation they were trekking through. (B.L. Azure photo)
SKC botany professor Frank Finley led the nature field trips and answered questions from folks of all ages about the vegetation they were trekking through. (B.L. Azure photo)

Dogbane bark could be peeled and strands of stringing bark fibers could be used to fashion rope; the cedar bark could be used for baskets and its roots for thick thread used to lace the baskets’ sides together; yarrow for medicine, wood pitch for glue and fire starter; berry bushes and apple trees for food; and on and on.

“Some of the edible plants are more valuable for other uses such as dyes,” Finley told the students. He said he learned a lot about the various uses of plants by tribal people from his father, Octave Finley, before he went to college to earn a degree in botany. “It was tacit learning, hands-on learning. You can read about some of this in science books but you really need to get into the thick of things and learn hands-on. This is kind of therapeutic for me.”

It was therapeutic for all at the Agnes Vanderburg Camp. The soft sweet teaching ways of Agnes live on and she continues to sooth the soul of those who venture up Valley Creek to learn. Time can be turned back and last week it stood still.

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