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We Dare Tell

Interview with Julie Cajune

What is your name?

Julie Cajune. Like Cajun, if you're familiar with Cajun people

or Cajun food only with an e at the end. It is French from my


Do you feel comfortable telling us how old you are?

Sure! I'm a ya ya, a grandma you know, I have two

grandchildren, two grandsons and one on the way. I'm 52,

I was born in 1956.

Where were you born?

I was born in Ronan, Montana. Do you want to know

something interesting I learned about being born that my

mom just told me a couple of weeks ago?


Do you? Well, my daughter has two sons and she just told me that she's going to have another baby, I'm happy for her but I worry because she and her husband don't make a lot of money. So I called my mother and told her she's going to be a tupee again, that Sarah's going to have another baby, and that I was kind of worried because they don't have a lot of money. And mom said, "well, sometimes the babies that you least expect or that you didn't plan bring a really great blessing". Then she said, "I want to tell you something". She said that when she was pregnant with me and I'm the last baby my mom had, the doctor found a tumor and told her she needed to have what they called a therapeutic abortion which means an abortion because of a health risk. He told her that if the tumor was malignant he could lose both of us so the abortion was necessary to save her life. He wanted to schedule it right away but she told him she'd have to think about it first. So she went home and she thought about it. She didn't have a close friend or anybody to really talk to about it and so she had to come to a decision on her own. When she went back to the doctor, she told him she wouldn't have an abortion, but she would have the surgery to remove the tumor. The doctor was really mad at her, but she stuck to her decision. They did the surgery to remove the tumor and it wasn't malignant and then she had me. She said to me, "I hadn't planned on you and I'm going to be honest I wasn't really happy about it and there were all these problems but I was really happy that we were both OK".

Who are your parents?

My mother is Opal Cajune and she's a tribal member from here. My father passed away, his name was Earl Cajune and he was enrolled at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota.

Where did you go to school?

Well I went to elementary school at the Ursulines, in St. Ignatius. The only thing left of that facility is one old remnant of a shrine to Mother Mary, the school is gone and the longhouse is there now. So I went there and then when I got into Jr. High I went to Ronan until my sophomore year. At the beginning of my sophomore year I talked my mom into letting me move to Las Vegas to live with my dad. I spent most of my sophomore year there and barely survived it. There was a lot of racial tension in Las Vegas. The black and the white communities were very separate but the school was really racially mixed and as a result there were a lot of racial riots and tension, sometimes they would even close the school because of the violence. I was pretty naive, I just wanted to go to school without getting involved in the violence, so I kept telling the black students, hey, I'm an Indian, I'm a sister of oppression (laughter). It was so racially divided there that you kind of had to pick a group to go with, it was really hard to be neutral. I felt like I sided with the black students and so they were the kids I made friends with. I had two really good friends, one was black and one was white but the white friend hung out with all the black students so I guess the poor white kids, a lot of them hung out with the black kids too. So I finished my sophomore year there and then I came back to Montana.

My mom decided to go to college at the U of M, so we moved to Missoula and I went to Hellgate High where I lasted for maybe a month. I would go in the front door with my older sister and leave out the back door with my best friend, T.J. whose brother was in college. He would let us skip school if we'd baby sit and clean for him. I did that for about a month until the school finally notified my mom. Hellgate was not the school then that it is today, there weren't a lot of Indian kids there, and so I was harassed by groups of students because they knew I'd just come from the reservation. I was an A student but the social atmosphere was not friendly to Indian kids. I wanted to go to the alternative school, called Project 100, that was in Missoula then, but to get into that school the principal where you were currently enrolled had to agree that it would be a good choice for you. Hellgate's principal wouldn't agree to let me go there, he said there was no reason for me to leave Hellgate. I liked learning and I liked school, I just didn't like the social atmosphere at Hellgate, it wasn't a friendly environment. And the teachers, I don't remember even one teacher from there, I mean it was over a month before anyone even realized I wasn't there, so it's not like anyone had connected with me. They didn't really care about me and why should they, it wasn't like I was really interested in being a part of the school. That was during the early 70's when people were questioning everything. My sister went on the trail of broken treaties. I was interested in civil rights and social justice and all of that so I wasn't really interested in what mainstream education was offering back then which was very rigid. I think things have changed if you look at high schools today, I think the curriculum has changed. Was there a tribal history class 30 years ago? No. Did they even include tribal history in U.S. history? No. Was there an Indian club? No. There weren't any of the diverse offerings. What groups were there in high school 30 years ago? There were the academic groups and the athletic groups, then there was always a marginal group for the people that were different and I felt like I was always in that marginal group. I think I was just a delinquent looking for a cause maybe (laughter). I was trying to frame it in the context of "I have a cause", I'm not going to go to this racist school and so I quit. I didn't finish high school, I stayed home and helped my mom and my grandpa who was living with us then and I took my G.E.D. which you could take before you were 18 then. I didn't stop my education because I quit high school though, after I got my G.E.D., I went to the university and I found I really liked college. My first year there, my mom and I took two classes together, Federal Indian Law and Black Studies. That's when I realized my mom was so smart, that she was not just a great human being but that she was also an intellectual person.

Who was your favorite teacher?

My favorite teacher in K-12 was probably Mr. Standen, he was my Junior High Literature teacher. He knew that I loved to read, that's the one thing I got from the Catholic school was my love to read. They had a great library, I learned to love libraries and books at the Ursulines, they let us read whatever we wanted and we weren't limited to the books in our grade level. So, Mr. Standen, I'd have to put him on top of the list as my favorite teacher. He was funny, he read interesting poetry and interesting books that probably weren't on the approved reading list. He told me about being really poor and asking a girl to the prom when he didn't have a car, he just had an old beat up motorcycle, so that's how he took his date to the prom, on a motorcycle. I thought that was pretty neat, I mean it is interesting for a teacher to tell you anything about who they are personally.

How long have you lived on the reservation?

I've lived here most of my life other than a few years. I lived in Oregon for a while when I was married to my children's father. My son was born in Portland Oregon.

Are you married?

I am single.

Do you have any children?

I have two. My sons name is Derek Holt, he's 32 and my daughters name is Sarah Bennett, she's 30.

What is your job?

Ya know, I'm doing something that I've never done before. Have you ever done something that you've never done before? Is it kind of scary? Especially if you don't know if you're going to be good at it and then if a lot of people depend on you you're like oh no, but what if I'm not any good at this. I used to be on the board of Nkwusm but I had to resign to work here. Now I'm the development officer here, do you know what that is? Have you ever heard of that? I'm the money gal. My job is to get money to support the school. First I had to go to Seattle to attend a training and now I'm in the process of trying to raise 20 million dollars so the school can be financially independent. And I think I can do it, I believe that I can.

So are you writing grants?

No, grant writing is considered soft money. In funding there's soft money and there's hard money of course hard money is now soft. (laughter) Our goal is to build an endowment which means when we get that 20 million dollars we don't take it and spend it, we put it into an account that has some modest investments and we use five percent of that account every year to run the school. That's what an endowment is, you never touch the actual principal, you just use the interest. So all we need is something that will give us five percent interest to run the school and then we won' t have to worry any more. Because every year we worry, are we going to have enough money? Will we be able to bring all of the teachers back? And so that's my job, to raise money and then I also supervise the three certified classroom teachers here because I was educated as a teacher and that's what my real work experience is in.

When was the school founded?


Are you proud of how far this school has come?

I am, do you know what I'm really proud of? That four young people started this school.
It wasn't started by elders, it wasn't started by people of my generation, it was started by young people, I'm very proud of that.

Do you say everything in Salish?

No. We wish it was a full immersion school, but it's not.

How early in age can you begin teaching students?

Three years old. They're pretty tiny people, one comes dressed as a different superhero everyday, yesterday he was Batman.

Is it easy for the kids to learn a word, once they're told what it is?

It's easy for them to learn it if they understand what it means. When you learn a language you need to have understanding otherwise you don't know what you're learning. So, if somebody is talking about a book or food, you need to see it. That's called contextual instruction or comprehensible input, according to linguists. But it's easier for kids your age to learn than it is for people my age to learn.

Do you teach the kids in whole sentences and does it take long for them to learn Salish?

You, know the little kids learn vocabulary and they have whole sentences and stories so they learn a lot of different ways. Some of it is in play, some of it is in actions, some of it is through repeating things, so they learn in lots of different styles. But little kids pick things up really quickly.

What's the best thing about learning Salish?

I would say that it's fun. I'm not sure why it is but there's something fun about learning language. Stephen does an adult class for us on Thursdays where he stays in the language for 45 minutes. He goes to the white board and he draws to give you clues to what he's talking about. And for some reason whenever I'm in a language class I laugh a lot, I don't know why that is but the language seems to have a lot of joy and humor and you're able to, I don't know, it just seems like I laugh a lot and it's joyful, I can't explain it.

Do you know many fluent speakers?

I don't. I know Stephen, Pateley, we have Jean Beaverhead here, Alice, Francis Vendenberg, Johnnie Arlee, Inies Vendenberg, Tony Inkeshola, Felicity, Chauncey Beaverhead, Lucy Vendeberg. so I maybe know 30 of the 50 personally.

Do the student's speak English outside of school?

Yes they do. All of the students are English speakers, none of the students that come here are Salish speakers. We're teaching them to be bilingual, so that they can read and write in Salish as well as being able to read and write in English. We want them to go to college and there isn't a University yet where everything is in Salish.

Do you think these students will go on speaking Salish and teach it to their own children?

I think a lot of these students will come back to the school and be teachers. We interviewed some of the older students and a lot of them said, that their goal was to go to college and get a teaching degree and to come back to Nkwusm and teach. Aspen, one of our former students who is in high school now came back for a visit recently. She's functionally fluent, she talked to Stephen and Pateley when she visited, staying in Salish the whole time, she's using it and she's writing songs in Salish. The kids that have been here for a number of years they really acquire a lot. So I think our students are going to come back and teach or become involved somehow and I think they will teach their kids, I absolutely think that these kids when they become parents will teach their own kids.

Do you teach traditional uses of native plants?

I don't do any teaching here. But Stephen and Pat, they have summer school for two weeks, and as soon as the weather gets nice, they take the kids into the mountains. So I think the kids that are being taught here are going to be leaders in the community, they're going to have a lot of knowledge that other kids don't. And so I hope that they will then share this with their families and the community.

How do you see the school three to five years from now?

Well I see the school as having an endowment (laughter) and then I would see a second school that would be started maybe in Pablo, maybe on the campus of SKC.

So do you do a bunch of fundraisers?

I do one really big fundraiser a year that I find sponsors for. My goal is to have 200 people at that fundraiser and I do that through a process of things called points of entry and feel-good events at the school. I have table captains that help me with the big fundraiser and each table captain makes a commitment to bring 10 people to their table. I have some table captains that are very wealthy and I have some table captains that are just regular people like we are but they invite their circle of friends. So we're building a circle of probably 200-400 people that believe in what we do at the school, that want to support it and that will commit to giving to the school for five years. There's a very wealthy person that lives in this valley who cares about the school and currently pays my salary. Next year, she'll take a third of it away and I'll have to raise it and then the following year, she'll take two thirds away, so I'll actually be raising my salary too. But I believe I can do it, do you think I can raise 20 million dollars?

If you have a lot of fundraisers. We have fundraisers at Two Eagle.

What did you do to raise money?

We went around selling cookie dough.

How much money did you make?

60 bucks.

That's pretty good. Cookies dough is a start, bake sales are a start. Soft cookie dough money, that's what we call soft money. We do do some grant writing at the school but we don't consider grants as operational revenue for the school because grants come and go. We don't want to live in that world because we employ people and they have to know that their paycheck is going to be here after the grant ends. We have nineteen people that work here, almost as many adults as students.

How long have you had your current job?

I just started here in January.

What are the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part is that I get to hear Salish spoken every day and I get to sit in classes with the little kids. I like teaching so I like to go into the classroom and visit with kids and see what they're learning and do stuff with them. And the worst part is that too much of the time I have to sit at the computer and spend time on the telephone. I'm not really a phone talker, but I have to talk to people on the phone a lot, I'd rather talk to them in person but I can't be driving around all the time.

Do you guys like to talk on the phone? Do you guys have cell phones? I bet some of you guys have cell phones. I'm 52 and I don't have a cell phone. What the heck! I don't like them. I had one for about six months once when my work made me get one, it was really annoying and so I got rid of it.

What got you into this line of work?

Being on the board here and caring about our language. We only have, I think, 52 people left in the whole world that speak our language. I believe that if we lose our language it will accelerate the loss of our culture. I think that a lot of our cultural knowledge, values, ways of looking at the world and being in the world are embedded in our language. There's nowhere else that we can go to find somebody that speaks our language, there are no tribes in Canada that speak our language. The tribes in Washington and Idaho that share our language, they have fewer fluent speakers than we do. The Kalispell tribe, they've lost their fluent speakers, and they're trying to relearn their language and so that's why I decided to do this. It's really different work and it's not what I would have chosen right now but it's because it has to be done, it's important to me.

When you go to Crow, have you guys been to Crow?

That's where I'm from.

Do you speak Crow?


Well, I was just down there in September. I'm working with the Crow Tribal History project and when you go into the tribal offices there, everyone is speaking their language. It's just so cool, it makes you feel really, really good. And it isn't just the elders there who speak fluently, it's everyone, it's multi-generational. Johnny Arlee was with us and he had a hard time not crying, he was overwhelmed with how powerful it was. Preserving your language makes you strong, it brings you together and it keeps your culture intact and I think it keeps you attached to the collective memory of your relatives and your ancestors, because that's how they communicated and thought. How do you think? Sometimes we think in images but a lot of times we think in words and language and so I think if you have that language you're connected with the thoughts of your relatives and your ancestors. So, I think it's powerful and that's why I decided I'd try this. If I'm not any good at it I'll quit and let someone else try it.

Are other people in your family in this line of work?

No, not the fundraising. There's a lot of teachers in my family. I have a sister who is a counselor, she does drug and alcohol counseling she has a masters degree in Counseling. She was a counselor at Two Eagle a long time ago when it was at Dixon. And I have a sister who is a professor at the University of Washington and I have a sister who's an artist, she went to the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe when it was a high school. She can do any kind of art, clay, beading, clothing, she can look at a piece of clothing, draw a pattern and sew it. She has her own kiln and wheel for doing her pots and she goes and gets her own clay. Right now she's into textiles from India, so if you see her she looks like she's from India because she'll have on a sari that she's made, she's very talented. I actually wanted to be an artist when I was your age and so I took a lot of art classes. I tried photography, textile work with fabrics, I tried lots of different things and none of them were meant to be, I tried really hard but I realized that art probably wasn't my gift or area.

What other jobs have you had?

I've taught high school and elementary school. And I was the director of a Tribal History Project, so I've produced tribal history materials. When I was in high school, I was a fire look out. Do you know what that is? When you go up in the mountains and you stay in a little cabin and look for fires with binoculars.

Did you do that by yourself?

Yeah, I did that by myself for two summers in high school. It was a lot of fun actually. It's kind of scary though when you see your first fire, "there's a fire there's a fire". I used a round map to do what's called an azimuth reading. You get this line and you know that the fire is somewhere along that line but you also need some geographic and spatial intelligence to know where the fire is, I didn't really have that when I was 16. I'd call the forestry and I'd give them the legal description, the township and range and that and they'd say "well is it by old so and so's allotment?" and I'm like "I don't know where that is", "well is it where they had the old burn" and I'm like "I don't know". I found out I didn't know a lot about the place I lived, so that's when I learned all the watersheds. Do you guys go up on the mountain trails, do you know the watersheds? What's your favorite? I have a friend who says the jewel of the Missions is Mollman Lake trail, have you ever been up there? It's beautiful. That's a nice hike for people who aren't maniac rock climbers, it's a gentle hike but it's long, about 6 miles so you have to start early. But, I like it because it's not straight up. But bring something to keep the bugs off.

What are your interests outside of work?

My big interest outside of work is probably my two grandchildren, Amaru and Kyan. If I have any free time, I like to be with them, they're five and two. They're my best friends right now. They like to check up on me, Amaru calls me, "Ya Ya, how are you, how was your day?" and I'm like I'm so glad you called and asked me.

Do you have any pets?

I don't. I had a cat but I was traveling a lot and I think it's hard for animals to be alone so I gave the cat away.

Did you ever get into trouble when you were young?

Of course I did (laughter). Yes, I did get into trouble. There were a group of us that were all about the rights of young people. There wasn't any recreation for young people then, we wanted more things at the school, and some freedom to do some things that were interesting to us so we were pretty vocal about that with the community and we got into a little trouble, not anything really serious but I'm sure we stayed out past curfew sometimes and I smoked cigarettes even though I didn't like them. My big right of passage was smoking a cigarette in front of my uncle Bearhead and the probation officer Vance Curtis, I remember we were in the old BIA building where they had all the delinquents together trying to redirect us to something positive, I think I was probably 14. We were all sitting at a table and I pulled out a cigarette and struck a match to light it and nobody said anything. I thought my uncle was going to say, you put that cigarette out young lady, but he didn't say a word, so it was kind of anti climatic, I ended up just feeling stupid and putting it out myself, I wasn't a very good smoker anyway. So I did some dumb things like that, and I got caught skipping school by the principal. So, yeah, I got into some trouble.

What experiences in your life have been positive and negative?

There are a lot of things at the Ursuline school that were probably negative. But I felt that the nuns at the Ursulines really believed that Indian people were intellectual people. I had friends going to public school when I was at the Ursulines and the public schools didn't seem to believe that Indian people were intellectual people. So there was a positive and a negative side for me at the Ursulines. The nuns would let us excel at our own rate and we had a lot of singing and dancing and art and drama which they didn't have at public school when I went there, so that was positive. The negative side of the Ursulines was the practice of teaching really young children guilt and shame, telling them that they were going to go to hell. I kept a sin journal just to make sure I wouldn't go to hell (laughter), if you kids are Catholic you probably don't know what that means. The Catholics believe that some sins are bad enough that you can go to hell for them, the priests would come to the school and teach us this. So I was afraid, of course if you confessed it to the priest you could be forgiven, but as a little kid I thought, what if I forget? And so I had a little notebook where I was keeping track of everything. Another positive thing in my life was that I grew up in a really neat family. I had a really awesome mom and uncles and great aunts. My aunt and uncle owned property outside of Mission, we kept our horses there and so that's where we spent our summers. We had big, big family dinners with four and five generations there, we don't do that anymore. My favorite childhood memories are from the summers that we spent there, being in the barn, riding horses and riding their calves and the smell of the cottonwood trees.

Who is a person who has been a good influence on you?

Probably my mother has been the most important influence. I think my mother is probably one of the best human beings in the world, she's kind of like Mother Theresa and Gandhi. She's kind and loving and she's very smart and brave. She went back to college at 45, got her degree and graduated with high honors, she has a lot of courage. She taught us to be independent and to take care of ourselves so we wouldn't have to depend on anybody else. She raised all her daughters that way, to think for ourselves and to stand up for what was right and not what's popular. She always did that, I watched her stand up to tribal council people, judges and lawyers because it was the right thing to do for children. She's never been afraid of people, because of their status. Some people if they get some power or they're smart, it can corrupt their personality, but my mom has always had integrity, she's humble and kind. She's probably one of the most honest people I know so I'm pretty lucky.

What advice would you offer young people today?

I would hope that young people would find somebody or think of somebody in their life like a parent or auntie or somebody that they admire, and that they think about that person and spend time with that person because I think young people can learn from other people in their community. I think it's good to have a mentor, somebody that you can go to, that you can talk to and look up to. So, I hope young people have somebody like that. Not somebody famous, I think it's good to have famous people as heroes but I'm talking about somebody around you that you can spend time with. Like, if you want to be a writer, you should hang around a writer or if you want to be a photographer, hang out with a photographer, or if you want to be a prayer leader or a spiritual person, you should spend time with someone like that.

How do you practice your culture?

I think you have to live your culture. I think it's how you live every day, I think it's how you treat people, I think it's how you're a parent, I think it's how you're a daughter, a sister and a friend, I think it's part of your everyday life and I think it's part of the human being that you are.

Thank you for letting us interview you.


Julie Cajune, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has been working in education for more than two decades years. A former classroom teacher, Cajune has worked on culturally responsive educational materials for the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Montana Historical Society and numerous other entities. She completed a three-year project developing tribal history materials that was funded by the Montana State Legislature. After working at Nkwusm, the Salish Language Revitalization Institute, as the Director of Development and Teacher Supervisor, Cajune was awarded a $1.4 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to continue work on the development and publication of tribal history materials. She has received the Milken National Educator Award. Utne Reader listed Cajune as one of 50 visionaries who are changing our world. Julie founded Npustin an organization that honors the art and writing of Native people. She served as Executive Producer for Heart of The Bitterroot, a DVD focused on the lives of Salish and Pend d'Oreille women. Cajune stars in a one woman play entitled Belief that she co-authored with Jennifer Finley.

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