BY JODI RAVE
Of Buffalo’s Fire
FORTINE, Mont. – I love western Montana where every bend in the road opens up to green coves of pine or sweeping views of majestic Rocky Mountain ranges. Depending on the time of day, light spills across streams and lakes reflecting the water’s timeless memories.
I’d recently been given the opportunity to make a weekend drive from Missoula to Eureka and Fortine near the Canadian border. It all started with a slightly unusual request from my cousin. It ended with me realizing that we could all do more to expand our personal horizons, particularly those of us with neighbors whose cultures differ from our own.
To begin: My cousin asked if I could help her husband find a Native person to say a prayer for Deerfest: Blessing of the Hunt. The prayer for the hunt was scheduled during a community fundraiser at Fortine near the Idaho and Canadian border. The area comprises the traditional Kootenai homelands now inhabited by mostly white people living a rural existence in the northernmost town in the state.
My question: When was the last time – if ever – that a Kootenai was invited into their traditional homelands to bless a deer hunt for a rural community of non-Natives?
The other twist here was that the prayer seeker was Kenny Lee Lewis, a member of the Steve Miller Band who doubles his guitar skills with a band called Hang Dynasty. October 2012 marked the second year Lewis organized Deerfest: Blessing of the Hunt. He owns a cabin near Fortine and has been uncovering the roots of his Mohawk ancestry, hence the prayer request. Finally, he wanted the prayer said after his fellow musicians played their first set at the firehouse along Highway 93 just south of Fortine.
My initial response: “What? Sorry… no. I can’t help.” I didn’t know the territory or the people. I did end up offering to make a phone call to my Kootenai friend, Velda Shelby. Fortine is in Kootenai country, it seemed appropriate to have a Kootenai address the hunter-Hang Dynasty gathering. This was beginning to look like a mission of goodwill. Shelby invited Mike Kenmille to meet with the Deerfest group. On Saturday morning, Oct. 13, Shelby and I started our drive north towards Fortine and the Kootenai’s Tobacco Plains.
The Kootenai nation consists of five bands, one in Idaho, three in Canada and one here in Montana. Shelby belongs to the Ksanka, or Standing Arrow band, a tight knit community based on the northern reaches of the Flathead Reservation on the west side of the Flathead Lake. While we were exploring the lake area near Eureka, she pointed out several businesses bearing the name Ksanka, her band’s name. The locals pronounced the name as K-sanka. The Kootenai’s pronounce it as Kuh-sunka.
As the blessing and band’s performance approached, Shelby and I soaked in the situation. A Kootenai had been invited by the bass player for a classic American rock band to bless a deer hunt for a mostly white community in rural Montana. After the first set, Kenmille took his place at the microphone. Although he is a fluent Kootenai speaker, he spoke English. He talked to the group for about 20 minutes thanking them for recognizing the Native way of respecting the animal before the hunt.
Kenmille moved a few of the locals to tears with stories of Kootenai life in a territory no longer their own. After he finished speaking, he was inundated with handshakes from young people and a number of old hippies — I think they’d be OK with that description. Shelby and I also found ourselves welcomed by a gracious and engaging community.
It was a unifying experience created by two people, Lewis and Kenmille. One man with an idea to bring two often disparate groups together- the other man who agreed to make it happen. On its face, the idea seems kind of crazy. This is Montana. American Indians and our white neighbors don’t typically don’t get together for community fundraisers or “blessings of the hunt.”
But this is exactly what happened in a small rural Montana community. Kenmille’s family and fellow Kootenai shared food, music and conversation with Fortine folks, a few who wore fringed leather jackets and wool trader coats.
The resounding response from all: “We should do this more often.”
Jodi Rave is an award-winning news reporter and opinion writer. After nearly 15 years of working in the mainstream press, she founded White Swan Media and is now the publisher of Buffalo’s Fire.