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At Tribal Elder's Camp, Tradition Is Saved by Passing It On

September 17, 1987|TAMARA JONES | Times Staff Writer

VALLEY CREEK, Mont. — The road that takes you there is seven dirt miles long, and in the pastures you can hear the clicking of grasshoppers feasting on summer's last picnic. As the tawny fields give way to timbered mountains, the road tucks you into a cool green clearing where a dozen tepees stand. That's where you will find her--Agnes.

In the long, warm days between the first running of the sap and the last huckleberry, hundreds of people make the journey to Agnes' camp, on foot and in Winnebagos, by bus and by bicycle. Indians and whites, locals and foreigners, flower children and yuppies.

They seek out the Salish Indian woman for the wisdom of her 86 years, and to learn the traditions she cherishes.

The Agnes Vanderburg Culture Camp is not in any guidebook or on any map. It is on tribal land posted with "No Trespassing" signs that are ignored with impunity. It is a place to learn what Agnes calls "the old ways"--how to tan hides, what plants are useful as medicines, how to stitch beaded eagles on buckskin clothes. But the lessons go beyond those things.

Agnes, in her special way, teaches you about yourself.

'Learn to Listen'

"I learned how to listen," said Michael Esler, a 29-year-old artist who came from Minneapolis and found himself unable to give up Agnes' world as the summer faded. "I'm not going to leave," he said. "I'll try to find work around here."

Esler's lesson from Agnes was in the form of a tom-tom. He wanted to make a drum the old way. "First, search for a hollow tree," Agnes began. He took off for the woods and spent all day looking, until he found a tree and cut the piece he needed. Exuberant, he returned to Agnes.

"Then Agnes told me it must be a cedar tree," Esler said. "If I had just stayed long enough to listen to her, I would have found that out in the first place.

"She lets you make your own mistakes. That's how you learn to learn."

At the first sign of spring, Agnes parks her tiny white trailer beneath a favorite fir tree. The trailer goes along with her philosophy that modern values can co-exist with place, and she pauses from her sewing on a deerskin dress to have a cigarette. She recommends Krazy Glue for making beaded belt buckles.

The camp has no structure. There are no fees, no brochures, no directors. There is no running water or electricity. "The moon is our yard light," Agnes will say.

There are no creature comforts beyond the big mess tent where Agnes' granddaughter, Ruby, makes Indian fry bread and cooks game on an unpredictable wood-burning stove.

"The tribe came and said they wanted to put a well in over here, and showers there, and bathrooms that flush and electricity," Agnes said. "I say no, I run away from home and I still get my light bill. The way I figure, if we get electricity, pretty soon houses will follow, and more houses. So I keep it the way it is."

Agnes also resisted the tribe's attempts to keep the camp exclusively Indian. The concept of a culture camp, in fact, stemmed from her experience in teaching Indian ways to a white woman, Lynne Dusenberry Crow.

"Agnes had a wider vision," Crow said, "that, if what she knew was to stay on this planet, she must teach anyone willing to learn."

Said Agnes: "I thought, I want to give away everything that I know, to share it. I don't want anyone to say when I'm gone that they don't know because they forgot to ask me."

Days at the camp have a delicious laziness. Things stir to life around 10 a.m., as the sun slowly warms the frosty mountain air. Agnes comes out to sit beneath the green awning of her trailer.

Children play in the woods or learn to string necklaces and bracelets from the hanks of colored beads that Agnes keeps. Campers often work on their projects while sitting at Agnes' feet.

The rank smell of hides curing pierces the crisp air. Tanning is a rite of passage at Agnes' camp. It is arduous work, gruesome and frustrating. The skin must be scraped clean of meat and hair, then soaked in a pail of water and cow brains, then stretched, then soaked, then stretched, then soaked until the hide is soft. It can take all week or all summer. Agnes has seen people throw tantrums, or break down and weep, while working a hide. She waits for the storm to pass and offers advice only if it is requested.

"She's teaching you to work on hides, but really, you learn something about yourself," Esler said.

"As soon as you learn something, you're passing it on to someone else," he added. "When I wanted to learn how to do knotting, Agnes called a little girl over to show me how."

There is an unspoken rule at the camp that everyone must be working on something, whether it is a hide or a drum or a beaded bracelet.

"Everybody takes something with them when they go home," Agnes will say.

No alcohol or other drugs are allowed at the camp, but Agnes does tolerate the cassette decks that blare rap music from the tepees where a group of teen-agers from a nearby rehabilitation center stayed for the summer.

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