Montana historian records Flathead life

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CHARLO, Mont. - What started as accidental finds during his childhood have sparked over half a century of collecting local artifacts for Bud Cheff Jr. As a result, a Montana museum bears the fruit of his efforts.

The Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana in Charlo, one hour north of Missoula under the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, contains well over a thousand artifacts, photographs, paintings and original documents. The detail and variety of this accumulation provide an in-depth look into the lives of the Salish-Kootenai on the Flathead Reservation, especially from 100 years ago.

Cheff has supplied the majority of the items for this four-room, 12,000-square-foot museum, entering its sixth year of operations. In addition to acting as the museum's president, he also wears the title of tribal historian because he can relay stories about both the paraphernalia and the Salish-Kootenai traditions.

"When I was 10 years old and our car broke down, my sister and I hiked back and found a war club near Columbia Falls," Cheff, 66, recalled about the first incident that sparked his interest in history. "We could imagine Indians dying after the battle because this is where Eneas Conko (a local elder) told us about."

A year later, another fortunate find near Glacier National Park almost solidified Cheff's destiny as a historian. An old trading post burned down and while he and his brother were sifting through the rubble, they struck a pocket where some artifacts weren't turned into cinders. They discovered arrowheads, belt buckles and brass items, a memory Cheff still clings to today.

"I can still see how part of the wall was standing, and it was my brother who saw an arrowhead and then we started digging."

Cheff's father was a gifted outdoorsman who has written two books during the last decade, "Indian Trails and Grizzly Tales" and "The Woodsman and His Hatchet", and when tribal elders visited, they noticed how the younger Cheff would remain present. Even when the topics might not have been of interest to other children, Bud Jr. patiently stayed.

"Ever since I was a little boy, I learned the history and listened to Dad and the elders. They'd talk in broken English, with Indian (language) and French and I could understand more than I could talk."

One of the objects in the museum that gives Cheff the most pride is an eagle-feather headdress offered to him by George Kickingwoman, one of the last of the old medicine men in the area. Like the elders before him, Kickingwoman respected Cheff's work and wanted his items to be preserved at Ninepipes. A painting of this medicine man hangs beside the well-decorated headwear, acting as a living shrine.

Objects not directly offered to or obtained by Cheff have still made their way to the museum. An original letter from Charlie Russell dated 1920, now matted and framed under glass, was purchased at an auction and donated to the collection.

The letter, handwritten six years before Russell died, shows a behind-the-scene glimpse of the business side of the arts, one that wasn't too pleasant. The legendary artist wrote a short, yet particularly biting and sarcastic reply to author Frank Linderman who used Russell's illustrations in the book "Indian Old-Man Stories." Clearer versions of the texts appear below both letters.

The main room displays a tribute to another artist, E.S. Paxson. Complete with an original easel and painting supplies, including brushes and bags, several of Paxson's portraits line three walls. On the floor is the one attempt by Paxson at sculpting, a two-foot tall depiction of Sacajawea, the Indian guide and lone female member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. The cross behind her is a cradleboard and papoose that remain unfinished.

Paxson's items were acquired 25 to 30 years ago by Cheff at costs that were reasonable. Now a limited budget and the museum's 501(c)(3) non-profit status constrain funds for other purchases in competition with the open market.

"Our museum could never buy these items now because of how much money they're worth," Cheff said. Interest by dealers has pushed prices of century-old Indian objects up by as much as tenfold, Cheff estimates.

Stepping around the corner, a visitor is bombarded by pictures and frames. Over 200 photographs, almost all in black and white and dating back to the turn of the 20th century, evidence the everyday conditions on the reserve and rural Montana. Cheff points out how fortunate the Flathead Reservation was to have two skilled photographers situated there at the time.

"The photos bring visitors closer to history. They'll see the artifacts and then to see the people, makes the history real."

The photography room is divided evenly in half, the right side with Indian pictures, the left side documenting cowboy and rural lifestyles. That's one reason, Cheff says, that the name of the museum incorporates early Montana and isn't just about Indian history.

The photos capture a significant event from the Mission Valley, the four-year buffalo round-up to drive the animals out of the area when the land was being surveyed and divided into private ownership. The last of the bison were loaded onto trains and transported out of the country only a few years before, ironically, the national government established the National Bison Range in nearby Moiese.

"The federal government wanted them out of here and it took five years. But the U.S. government wouldn't buy them so they were shipped to Canada before later they were brought back," said Cheff.Cheff would like to house more of his thousand photos in the museum. Plans exist to triple the size of Ninepipes by adding an upper and a lower floor that would include a larger art and photo gallery. However this expansion idea, slated to be completed in 2004, has not started.

Whatever the future holds for the museum, Cheff places utmost importance on protection of the artifacts, and fire is in the forefront of his concerns. While it was a blaze that started his collection, he has seen this type of disaster destroy his father's and grandfather's homes and with them, irreplaceable objects. But his precautions to preserve the museum surprisingly don't include an automated watering system.

"There are no sprinklers because the chance of a fire isn't that great, but the chance of a sprinkler malfunctioning and ruining stuff, I'd sure hate to see that," Cheff said, with a fire extinguisher in sight.

A series of life-size dioramas, weapons collections plus stuffed and mounted animals fill the remaining two rooms. Showing the everyday lifestyle of Indians and settlers, they capture activities from religion to riding horses.

Retired, Cheff laughs about how the time and effort to maintain the museum is the equivalent of a full-time job. Still, as he was anointed by the elders of the Salish-Kootenai, he hopes to pass along the skills and interests of history to his three children.

"It's a turn-on when I see somebody interested in the old things and the more people who enjoy it, the more apt it will be to preserve the history."

While the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana is closed for January, February and March, tours are available on request. The museum, at 40962 Highway 93, Charlo, Mont., can be contacted at (406) 644-3435 or on its Web site at www.ninepipes.com. When the museum re-opens in April, it will show for six weeks a traveling exhibition of the bi-centennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition sponsored by the Montana State Historical Society.