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The importance of culture and history in sovereign tribal governance

“You will know you’re successful in life when other people ask you for your advice.” – Wisdom passed on by a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member to his son

In August, a group from the Bush Foundation, including three Native Nation Rebuilders, traveled to visit with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes near Polson, Montana, on the beautiful and vast Flathead Reservation.

In the Bush Foundation’s work with the 23 Native nations it serves, we are guided by research from Indian Country that indicates, when it comes to solving core issues, progress is greatest when tribes exercise their inherent rights of self-determination to create stronger, sustainable governing institutions that work best for their Native nations.

Over the last 30 years, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have become a success story for sovereign tribal governance, and we wanted to learn more about their journey. And so we came to “ask their advice.”

The Tribes have made great strides in multiple areas of governance, including health care, education, government, judiciary systems, self-sustained economic resources, and land management and acquisition. They have forged relationships with the state of Montana and its cities to make improvements in the lives of tribal citizens and non-tribal citizens alike.CSKT Tribal Council

This was my first visit to Montana. After we landed at the small Glacier Park International Airport, surrounded by mountains outside of the small town of Kalispell, I was anxious to make the hour drive south to Polson and get settled. We had a full agenda in the days to come, and I was impressed with the Tribes’ graciousness in providing us with such an in-depth learning experience given the many overwhelming stresses of their everyday duties and time restrictions guiding a nation.

The chairman was the first to welcome us, which was a great honor. In the two days that followed, a vast array of highly-educated speakers from different tribally-run programs and governmental systems took time out of their schedules to share their part of the story. It was fascinating, and I felt a sense of respect for their accomplishments, as well as their failures. They never stopped trying. They always moved forward, applying the knowledge they gained.

We were given a lot of information to process in a very short time, and I realized there was a common thread that ran through our entire visit: Culture and history matter. The Tribes have a strong voice here, thanks in part to the culture committee that was officially started in 1934. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal council relies on that committee and holds their insight in high regard when making decisions. 

One of my favorite moments during our travels was when we were listening to the culture committee speak to us. Suddenly, the door to the meeting room opened.  In walked an elderly man named Louie Adams, a former councilman, his hair grey and braided in two braids with a leather tassel hanging down. He had wisdom on his face and his eyes glinted as he spoke of his people and recalled stories of the past that were told to him by his elders.  His voice was low with a heavy accent, words thoughtfully chosen.  He spoke of a time when the elders believed in keeping the mountains pure and respecting the creatures that lived there. Mr. Adams is proud to be a part of the committee’s work in preserving the culture, as well as educating others so that the significance of their culture and history is not forgotten, in all aspects of tribal life, as they pave their way into the future. In that moment it became more evident to me than ever before that you cannot have one without the other. All the pieces make up the whole. Everything is connected, as it should be. 


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