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Nov 14, 2023

Nurturing Tradition: Place-Based Learning Celebrates Native Culture and Language

On the Flathead Nation, a remarkable cultural enrichment program is honoring and preserving Native American languages, traditional skills, and lifeways. Led by Salish Kootenai College (SKC), this initiative seeks to perpetuate the culture, arts, languages, seasonal rounds, and health of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT). This is just one piece of the incredible cultural work happening across the Flathead Nation.


The Beginning: Encampment

From its origins in 1968 to its recent expansion, the project, originally known as ‘Encampment’ has been instrumental in passing on the rich cultural heritage of the Séliš, Ksanka and Ql̓ispé Tribes. It was started on the Flathead Indian Reservation by the late Agnes Vanderberg, whose great granddaughter, Malia Vanderburg, now plays a key role. Initially, Agnes mentored families who came together for an entire summer to live, bond and share cultural activities.

Over the years, Agnes’s summer-long, transformational encampment became condensed to one session each summer, which brought together SKC students, faculty, staff, and community members for a week of immersive living and learning together (at what is now known as the Vanderberg campground). The course and educational activities have focused on teaching traditional lifeways, cultural arts, and providing culturally-grounded social activities. Throughout the years, participants have learned from Séliš, Ksanka, and Ql̓ispé elders, SKC instructors, and one another about a wide array of topics — from language and storytelling to tipi construction, hunting, hide tanning, flintknapping, native plant identification, basket-making, beading and much more.

From Summer to Four Seasons

In 2022, with support from Headwaters Foundation and American Indian College Fund and partnerships with CSKT’s Tribal Education Department and the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee, SKC’s Culture and Language Studies (CALS) program was able to lead the original summer encampment and support two additional summer encampments focused on students and community members from SKC and the Séliš-Ql̓ispé and Ksanka communities. They were also able to provide three additional seasonally-based learning experiences (fall, winter and spring).

During the fall session, students live in tipis and tents and learn fall subsistence practices, such as building cattail and bulrush mats, and processing deer. The winter session is hosted indoors at SKC with an 18-foot tipi, a winter scene, insulation demonstrations, and the sharing of coyote stories. Spring consisted of a first roots digging experience. Today, the CALS program supports the Indigenous Science course at Two Eagle River School as students learn to build a dugout canoe. Through these experiences, they have learned that place-based learning can happen in many settings and time frames, from week-long immersions to part-day experiences with students and the community.

“Junior Elders”

The expansion of this initiative marked a significant step forward in perpetuating the Séliš and Ql̓ispé cultures especially, and has had a profound impact on the students and the community. Many of the students and instructors are from the SKC Culture and Language Studies (CALS) Program, which prepares students to become elders in their tribes and builds a cultural lens through which they see the world. One student stated that she felt they are ‘junior elders’ in training and that place-based learning activities are how she wishes to be a teacher after graduation, rather than in a traditional Western classroom.

The Importance of (Trust-Based) Funding

Headwaters Foundation was proud to fund the expansion of SKC’s project. As a trust-based funder, we are intentional about building flexibility into our funding. For this grant, we did so by allowing funds to be used for administrative and overhead expenses that other grants might disallow, like food and stipends for teachers and participants. Funding flexibility lessens stress on staff, as they know they have funding to plug in as needed, which is vital to a pilot project. Program leader, Michael, stated that the trust-based way of operating is a good fit with their cultural models, particularly conversation- based reporting and collaborating with partners to support their efforts.


Salish Kootenai College’s place-based learning project is a testament to the power of celebrating culture within Native American communities to ensure the survival and flourishing of Native languages and practices. Through the dedication of its students, the wisdom of its elders and the support of its partners and funders, the project has become an inspiring example of how tradition can unite generations, ensuring the continued health of Native American communities for generations to come.

Learn more about Salish Kootenai College’s Culture and Language Studies Program here, and their Department of Institutional Advancement here.

It is essential to support Native-led projects like these! Consider donating to Native-led organizations during Native American Heritage Month, Giving Tuesday (#GiveNative) and every day. By doing so, we honor and support Native communities and their future elders.

Find resources on being a strong partner to the Native nonprofit sector through Native Ways Federation and Native Americans in Philanthropy.