Stephanie Gillin is a wildlife biologist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Wildlife Management Program. I met her at the Coalition of the Public Understanding of Science annual meeting where Stephanie was a co-recipient of the Paul Shin Memorial Award. The following is an edited transcript of our brief conversation.
What does connection mean to you and what you do?
We, as a tribe, are trying to stay connected first. As a people, we are trying to stay connected with our culture. I think the most important element is the connection to our language, which has been diminishing since we have grown up trying to keep our culture alive within Western society culture. With that intermingling, we try not to lose sight of who we are and try to teach our children so they do not lose who we are and stay connected to our culture. I think that is the connection that I try to maintain, not only with my own children, but also with the children that I present to.
What I talk about during our education and our outreach programs are the connections that our ancestors have had with wildlife and the connection that we, as an indigenous people, need to maintain with those animals. We also want to connect the children with the language of the tribes. We have an emergence school on the reservation but not all of our students receive education on our languages. We are trying to maintain that connection with the language and make it easier for the kids to comprehend and learn. In order to do that, we created a free app that talks about wildlife and our connection with wildlife (www.csktfwapps.org).
This app is amazing, it introduces the user to areas that our Natural Resources Departments have purchased and re-established for wildlife and recreation use, it also allows the user to listen to songs and calls for the majority of the animals listed. My favorite part of the app it that it provides a recored pronunciation of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille & Kootenai name for each animal. This is an amazing cultural learning tool!
What role does storytelling play in your culture?
In our culture, storytelling plays a big role. The only problem with our stories compared to other tribes is that we are restricted to telling our creation stories during the winter months when there is snow on the ground. These stories provide moral lessons, where coyote is generally showing you how NOT to act and showing the consequences of his actions and decisions. October is storytelling month for the Salish & Pend d’Oreille people. Many of these stories talk about how it was the animals that decided that there would be human beings and how some of them even agreed to be food for human beings (Felicite “Jim” McDonald, Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee).
These stories are very important and need to be told every year to continue our cultural connection.
How do these stories create connection when you’re using them to educate?
Our ancestors knew to go hunt the buffalo when the wild rose started to bloom. They knew that at that time, the buffalo calves were old enough to fend for themselves. That is a story we can use to provide students with something they can personally have a connection with. For example, We have a coyote story called Beaver Steals Fire and it talks about a how important fire was, and still is to our native people and how we used it to manipulate the vegetation on the landscape.
My family is very traditional. My Grandmother is 93 years old and we go to her a lot for stories and traditional knowledge. She tells us and has demonstrated over the years how things were or how her family did things and that is how we carry on our culture. The stories from our elders are very important. Our culture committees interview the elders all the time. The elders are still very active in the community and help make a lot of the decisions. Being able to have my Grandmother and be able to ask her questions is very important to me. I am very lucky and honored. She’s an amazing woman!