MOIESE — He sat beneath the swaying ponderosa, enveloped in the subtle sounds of nature — the light breeze rustling the leaves, the birds, the flowing river. In the distance, there was an echo of children laughing. His regal presence demanded, without asking, the complete attention of the group of Arlee fourth graders who waited for him to speak. Then, Tribal Elder Pat Pierre began to tell a story.
He told the story of a juniper tree he planted in his yard, years ago. It was once a small plant, but now, Pierre said, the tree takes over his whole house and he can sit in its shade on a hot day. He can harvest its leaves and berries — juniper is “good medicine,” Pierre said.
In Native American tradition, Pierre still depends directly on the gifts of Mother Earth, hunting, fishing, gathering roots and herbs.
“Mother Earth is a provider. She provides our food and all of our needs — everything — and because of that, we need to protect her the best way we know how,” he said. “As long as I give back, I can keep taking. That’s not happening out there. They keep taking and they keep taking. Big industry doesn’t care.”
Pierre asked his audience, “What will happen if Mother Earth says, “I have no more to give?”
“We would die,” the group replied.
“Without air, what would happen to us?”
“We would die.”
“Without water, what would happen to us?”
“We would die.”
“Without Mother Earth providing for us, what would happen?”
“We would die.”
“That’s why we have to respect it.”
The turquoise water of the Lower Flathead River was the subject of the day for between 800 and 1,000 Flathead Indian Reservation-area third and fourth graders who visited its white clay banks at the Woodcock campsite for the annual River Honoring.
“We want to make sure that kids experience firsthand the value and beauty of the river,” CSKT Education and Outreach Specialist Germaine White said. “When they learn experientially, that’s when students really get it. When they spend the day out here, and they have a great time, they understand this is a place they want to bring their families, they want it to be like this for their kids too.”
The 2011 River Honoring consisted of 18 educational stations offering lessons on fish, water, air quality and wildlife, but it wasn’t limited to the fields of science. The Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee provided historical and cultural groundwork and an appreciation of the river’s significance as a provider and a place of peace.
“When it began in 1986, there were a number of forces that came together with a great concern for the damming of the river proposed at Buffalo rapids,” White said. “Many of the elders knew that the value of this river is far more than any economic gain that might come from dams.”
Community members were invited to the first river honoring, which included a feast of stew, river float trip, prayer and a sort of open mic forum for those who wanted to tell stories, voice concerns or pay tribute to the river. In 1994, the event’s target audience shifted toward the younger generation when organizers decided that the potential for increasing awareness and instilling a favorable land use ethic was greatest during the early school years.
“We are here for one purpose,” Pierre said to the group. “We are here to honor this great river that provides life. As you go about and you listen to all the presenters, listen carefully because they have something to tell you.
“None of us is promised tomorrow. Never take anything for granted.”