Kalispel elder sees heritage returning

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USK, Wash. – “Look up on the wall and you will see 22 photos. Sixteen of those young men were veterans of World War II. When they returned home I would say that 98 percent of them were alcoholic,” Francis Cullooyah explained. “It changed our way of life here on the reservation. The war exposed them to alcohol and the things that were to be passed on to their children never happened.”

Alcoholism was once a major problem for the tribe, with the alcoholism rate reaching more than 90 percent. That rate has been reversed so that very few still have the problem. “Our children are very happy now and it’s gotten to where we can give them a good life. It’s one of the things that make it worthwhile and to be proud of whom we are,” Cullooyah said.

Cullooyah is an elder of the Kalispel Tribe, a noted storyteller and historian and one of the few tribal members who speak the Native language fluently. He was a young boy when World War II ended and those soldiers returned to the reservation. “I looked up to these men and lived their way of life. I thought that was the way of life, to be boozing all the time. But I never got to really learn anything from them. A couple of generations went on like that. I’m fortunate today to be sitting here. There were maybe 12 or 13 of us that ran around together, all the same age. I’m now 62, and of that group of friends only four are left. The rest went by way of alcohol.

“We were fortunate that our grandparents were still alive. They helped us with the cultural things, the songs, winter dances and ceremonies they passed on to me as a young person. I’m very fortunate to carry those things with me. Today we’re really pushing, hoping we can get our culture back. We know we’re not going to get it back the way that it had been; but the beliefs, the stories, the history, the way of life we had – that we can translate to these young people today. We have begun that process, language being the first and foremost in importance.

“It’s important for us to know who we were back then versus today. Now we’re kind of mixed up. We don’t really have any idea of what we were or who we were. Everything was simplistic in our way of life. “

Cullooyah described what it was like when he first left the reservation and went to school. “I saw all the nice clothes, the sandwiches that were wrapped and all those things. I looked at my frybread and venison sandwich. A lot of my schoolmates used to trade me,” he laughed. “I didn’t realize for a long time I was poor.”

“We depended on the rivers and the mountains and all the animals, from the trapping to the fish to the roots that were available during the seasons. It was everywhere, in the streams, the lake bottoms and the river bottoms. Everything we had as far as what we used for food was readily available to us. We harvested all through the summer months and had kind of a collection point where all the bands used to get together at a certain point and time.

“I really believe that our way of life today has only been evolved since the late ’60s and even through the ’70s. We shared things. We knew if somebody was short on supplies and we’d get together and help one another. Nowadays everyone seems to have everything. We don’t visit one another anymore.”

The Kalispel Reservation is quite small and doesn’t have its own school, so young people from kindergarten through 12th grade go to classes in public schools in the nearby community of Cusick. Approximately 82 Native youths attend school, a figure that represents about 30 percent of the entire student body.

Speaking about the school district, Cullooyah said, “I think we’ve already made a difference. Our tribe has close relations with the school district. Like anywhere else, there were prejudices against Indian kids because we were different. The way of life we live is different and people didn’t understand. We attend funerals and we take our children. We have memorials for people and we take our children.

“Finally we’re able to communicate with the schools. We go there and teach our language. That just began in 2005. We’ve made things possible with our language curriculum that we’ve done. We have four or five certified teachers that are able to go into the classroom through a memorandum of agreement with the Washington State Education Department.

“Our old ways are important because we still utilize our sweat lodges, still do our winter dances, still do ceremonies for honorings, still gather our traditional foods. That’s important to us, to let our young people know who they are and where they come from. Never let them forget that.”