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Agnes Vanderburg’s Outdoor School for Traditional Indian Ways

Agnes Vanderburg eating a small bulb.

Agnes Vanderburg enjoys a camas bulb that she has roasted in a pit in a demonstration for folklorists as part of the Montana Folklife Project. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1981. Camas bulbs have a place in United States history as a food that helped sustain members of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they traveled through the Northwest.

“A lot of things come out of my chest,” Agnes Vanderburg explained in 1981 when folklorist Kay Young asked about her reasons for starting a school to pass on her knowledge of Salish Indian traditions (recording at the link, go to 1:50 minutes). She had felt frustrated at carrying knowledge that was disappearing as Indians adapted to American culture, carrying a wealth of knowledge inside her, “in my chest” as she put it, that was meant to be passed on. She began what she called her “outdoor school” or “camp” on the Flathead Reservation in 1971. Students found it by word of mouth. She says she was willing to teach anyone who wanted to learn because she didn’t want the knowledge she learned growing up to perish with her generation. In the 1970s and 1980s students included European Americans who were looking for ways to reconnect with the land. But it also included Indian students — mainly of the local the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreilles or Flathead peoples. She taught both children and adults a wide variety of skills.

As part of the Montana Folklife Survey Project, folklorists from the American Folklife Center interviewed this remarkable woman and took photographs of her and some of her students at the outdoor school on the Flathead Indian Reservation near Arlee. (To find all these, it is easiest to search on “Vanderburg.”) Although Agnes passed away in 1989, the school still exists as the Agnes Vanderburg Cultural Camp. The Salish Language Camp in Montana also owes a debt to Vanderburg and other speakers of Montana Salish who strove to keep their language alive.

A woman scrapes an elk hide that is suspended from a pole.

A woman learns to scrape an elk hide at Agnes Vanderburg’s camp. Behind her is a tipi. Vanderburg also taught students how to cut the canvas and sew it to cover a tipi frame. Photo by Kay Young, 1981.

There are five audio interviews that Kay Young made with Agnes, filled with many examples of the knowledge she passed on to her students. If you wanted to learn how to make a tipi, she would ask for the diameter of the floor you wanted: ten feet? twelve feet? Then you had better work along side her and watch closely as she cut canvas to cover the wood frame, because she did not use a pattern.  She did use a sewing machine to sew pieces together, calling it “cheating.” She talks about teaching people to make tipis in this interview (at 11:30 minutes) Agnes often let her students try things out, make mistakes, and ask questions as they met with problems. One of her students who became a teacher at the school, Rachel Bowers, talks about her experiences at the camp in this interview (at about 10:30 minutes).

Suppose you wanted to learn how to make beads or do quill work with porcupine quills, a common item for decoration before Europeans brought glass beads to North America.  Well, get some friends together and corner a porcupine. In this interview (at 2:45 minutes), Agnes explains that best way to get the quills off is to throw a blanket on the porcupine and pull it away. If you do that a few times, the animal will release the longest, most desirable quills for decoration and they can be picked out of the blanket. (Don’t try this!) Then the porcupine, annoyed but uninjured, can be allowed to go on its way and grow more quills. Although the traditional way to dye quills was to use berries and vegetation for dye, Vanderberg says that her favorite way to dye them is to boil them with crepe paper.

I am fascinated by the choices being made as Agnes describes various techniques. The very old is sometimes combined with the new in a practical way. Canvas is lighter and easier to work with than skins for making a tipi, and crepe paper is cheap and easily available to use as a dye.

Roasted and raw camas roots

Roasted camas bulbs in the big bag, with a small bag of uncooked bulbs on the top. Photo by Carl Fleischhauer, 1981.

Agnes was an expert on the useful plants of her region, both for herbal medicine and for food.  An historically important food found in Montana is camas root (Camassia quamash). She demonstrated roasting the bulbs in a pit for the folklorists, and the collection includes both an interview about the bulbs and a series of photographs of the process.  In this recording she explains about preparing camas and more about ways to prepare it with folklorists Kay Young and Barre Toelken as she cooks them.

Camas became known to European Americans as the expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored what is now Montana and Idaho.  Clark describes in his journal how he first was introduced to camas on September 20th, 1805:

This course is N. 70° W. 2 miles across a rich leavel Plain in which grt quantities of roots have been geathered and in heaps.  those roots are like onions, Sweet when Dried, and tolerably good in bread, I eate much & am Sick in the evening.  those people have an emence quantities of Roots which is their Principal food. The hunters discovered Som Signs but killed nothing. [1]

Agnes Vanderburg with three children. Two of the children are eating watermelon.

Agnes Vanderburg with a group of children at her outdoor school. Photo by Kay Young,1981.

There may have been a few types of roots that members of the expedition ate as they traded for food in this region, but this description by Clark is clearly the camas and it is likely the principal root they traded for, as the Indians roasted and dried it for a winter staple. The discomfort Clark felt after eating camas the first time was experienced by others in the expedition, but apparently they became accustomed to it as they continued to eat it. Lewis did not describe the living plant until June 23, 1806, when he finally saw the plant he had been eating in bloom. Camas has a characteristic blue flower spike. Similar looking plants with a white flower in the Melanthieae family are poisonous, sometimes called deathcamas. But it is gathered after the flower is gone, so it was important to have someone who knows their plants well in order to gather only edible bulbs.

Agnes Vanderburg’s legacy of Montana Salish knowledge was passed on to many people who learned from her those skills and topics they were most interested in. But those who carry her legacy in its most complete form are her five children. Her family spoke Salish at home and she taught her children the same traditional ways of life that she taught in her outdoor school. Her daughters Lucy and Judy became particularly interested in teaching the language and culture of the Salish that they had learned from their mother.[2] Her book, Coming back slow: the importance of preserving Salish Indian culture and language, was published after her death.[3] The current generations of Native Americans in general are becoming more determined to preserve what remains of their culture and language, and legacies like that left by Agnes Vanderburg are highly valued.

Notes

1. The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition are available online from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The entries by all the men for September 20,1805 are grouped together. The home page for the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition is at this link.

2. An article that includes mention of Judy Vanderburg’s work with Montana Salish language is in Valley News, “Vanderburg Camp Keeps Old Ways Alive,” June 17, 2015. Lucy Vanderburg is included in the book Passing it on: Voices from the Flathead Indian Reservation, by Maggie Plummer, University of Nebraska Press, 2008, chapter 19.

3. Vanderburg, Agnes. Coming back slow: the importance of preserving Salish Indian culture and language. Salish Kootenai College Press, 1995. (The link goes to the catalog record.)

Resources

Beck, Barbara Springer. “Agnes Vanderburg: A Woman’s Life in Flathead Culture, ” Masters thesis, University of Montana, 1982. Available online as a PDF (115  pp., 1.3MB).

Montana Folklife Survey Collection, Library of Congress.

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