ST. IGNATIUS – He has taught in the St. Ignatius schools, been vice chairman of a school board, and co-founded a nonprofit on the Flathead Indian Reservation – the Salish Institute – to promote healthy lifestyles through the study of Native languages and culture.
His Yoyoot Skwkwimlt program – that’s Salish for “Strong Young People” – has immersed teenaged tribal members on the reservation in their language and culture.
He has spoken on the importance of non-Native foster families finding ways to keep Native language and culture alive when they take in Indian children, he has recorded the histories and stories of his tribe’s elders, and has helped put together massive volumes of curriculum for teaching the Salish language.
He has been invited to the White House and three times met the president of the United States.
They’re going to miss Vance Home Gun when he departs his position with the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee later this month, and you can be forgiven if it sounds like he’s retiring after a long career.
Most everything he’s accomplished, he did as a teenager.
But now, Vance Home Gun is all of 20 years old.
He’s leaving his job to start college.
“You can see it in the elders, how much they appreciate Vance’s dedication to learning the language and the culture, and his ability at it,” says Thomson Smith, who also works for the culture committee. “It’s almost as if they’ve been hoping for this for so long.”
It’s not that there aren’t other young people involved in such things, Smith says, but Home Gun has thrown his heart into not just learning, but – as evidenced by all he’s already done as a teen – passing on the knowledge.
“I made the commitment in sixth grade to be a fluent speaker,” Home Gun says. “Language is our identity. It’s how we define ourselves, and it’s that connection to the past that keeps our bridge strong.”
He credits four women on the reservation with teaching him the Salish language and inspiring him, which Home Gun finds a bit ironic because “most of our instructors are men now.”
Dorothy Felsman, who died in 2011 at the age of 78, wasn’t the first to introduce Home Gun to one of his native languages. (Home Gun’s father is Blackfeet and his mother is Salish, and he heard both languages spoken in his home as he grew up.)
But Felsman asked Home Gun, then an eighth-grader in Arlee, to help her teach a class at the Catholic Church devoted to hymns and prayers.
“I was shocked,” Home Gun says. “It wasn’t my thing. But she said she would be teaching to younger people in our language, and I thought, ‘I can do that.’ As I did it, more and more of the language started coming back to me. I started asking Dorothy for more and more words, and she’s the one who taught me how to read and write it.”
Home Gun, of course, spoke in English a couple of weeks ago in Washington, D.C., when President Barack Obama called on him at a “My Brother’s Keeper” town hall.
My Brother’s Keeper is a White House initiative to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color.
“There were 50 youth there between the ages of 16 and 25, and they picked five of us to ask a question of him,” Home Gun says. “We could ask anything, but they prepped us for 2 1/2 weeks straight just in case.”
When Obama called on Home Gun, Vance said all the preparation in the world didn’t help.
“When the president of the United States is in front of your face, you go blank,” he says.
Actually, a YouTube video of the event shows little hesitation after Obama calls on Home Gun. Home Gun stands, introduces himself, and says he is from “the great state of Montana.”
“Beautiful state,” Obama interjects.
“My question for you, Mr. President, is how is the United States government helping Indian people revitalize their languages and cultures?” Home Gun says. “Because so many of our young men and boys don’t know who they are because they’ve lost their culture and language, and the United States government has tried so hard in the past 200 years to destroy that.”
And was he happy with Obama’s answer?
Home Gun smiles, perhaps a bit nervously.
“It’s hard – it’s the president, and I realize it’s probably not one of the top 10 issues on his plate,” Home Gun says. “He didn’t really answer it, and I don’t think he knew the answer, but he did give good advice.”
Obama mentions his recent trip to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota – although he mistakenly says it was South Dakota – and terms some of the stories people told him there as “heartbreaking.”
“In part,” the president goes on, “because you got a sense of what the history of the interaction between the United States government and Native American peoples had done to the culture.”
He does say that he has talked to the secretaries of the Interior and Education about “how do we incorporate more effectively, into school curriculums and social programs, a recognition of the distinct cultures of Native people?”
Obama also adds this:
“One thing I have to say,” the president says. “The world is what it is. It’s a global world. We live in the 21st century. When I was up at the reservation everybody had a cellphone, everybody was wanting to take ‘selfies’ … people were texting. And so you can’t ignore what’s happened. You can’t just live in the past. You also have to look to the future.”
Home Gun was nominated for the trip by a friend, Pearl Yellow Man Caye. He says he almost didn’t complete the application from the Center for Native American Youth, which would choose five young Indians from across the country to participate in the town hall in Washington.
“She nominated me two days before the deadline, and you had to write six or seven essays,” Home Gun says. “I told her, ‘Pearl, I don’t know,’ but I started typing and typing away.”
He was shocked, a month later, when he learned he’d been chosen to participate – and shocked again when he found out he had been chosen to ask one of the questions that would be posed to the president.
It was the third time young Home Gun has met Obama since 2013.
The Center for Native American Youth, founded by former North Dakota U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan, also chose Home Gun to be one of its representatives at the White House to witness the signing of the Violence Against Women Act, and the 2012 Arlee High School graduate also attended a White House Tribal Leaders conference.
By the time he was a high school sophomore, Home Gun had become proficient enough in the Salish language to be certified by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes as an instructor of it.
“The St. Ignatius schools asked me to come teach the language,” Home Gun says. “I said, ‘I’m still in school myself. How am I supposed to do that?’ ”
Actually, it worked out quite well. Arlee was on a Monday-Thursday schedule, and Home Gun signed a contract to teach Salish classes in St. Ignatius on Fridays
“My very first day, my first class was kindergartners,” Home Gun says. “The next class was high school juniors and seniors. I was a little intimidated. I knew some of them, and when they came in the room they said, ‘Vance, what are you doing here?’ ”
“Teaching,” he replied.
“For real?” they said, and Home Gun told them, “ ‘Hey, we’ve only got one hour, we can’t waste no time.’ I tried to make it fun.”
It also helped him, at age 17, decide to start the Salish Institute, which he co-founded with Chaney Bell, and the Yoyoot Skwkwimlt program.
“When I was teaching in St. Ignatius there were so many Indian kids who didn’t even know what tribe they were,” Home Gun says. “That’s sad. I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a group for young tribal youth and teach them everything I know about the language, culture and history.”
He taught the Salish classes at St. Ignatius for 2 1/2 years before being hired by the culture committee.
There, he’s helped develop curriculum and helped teach half a dozen tribal members who are spending a year focusing on becoming fluent in Salish. Learning the language is essentially their full-time job in the first-of-its-kind program on the reservation.
“This reservation – we’re a leading tribe in this country because language and culture is No. 1,” Home Gun says. “The tribes invest in it big-time.”
The son of Daryl Home Gun and Debra Home Gun, Vance has two brothers and two sisters, although he was surprised to learn several years ago that two of them, Jennifer and Josh, are technically his cousins.
“They’re my mom’s sister’s kids,” he says. “Her sister was killed in a car wreck when Josh was a newborn and Jennifer was about 1. For the longest time I never knew.”
Debra took them in years before Vance was born, and he long assumed they were his older sister and brother, and still considers them that. He also has an older brother Carlin, and a younger sister Audra.
“I was born in Browning but grew up here and raised Salish,” Home Gun says. “My grampa’s brother is Chief Earl Old Person. I like to go back (to the Blackfeet Reservation) and visit. It’s my other home.”
He knows a bit of the Blackfeet language – his father is a speaker – but not nearly as much as the Salish he’s studied so hard the past few years.
Alice Finley, Felicite McDonald and Home Gun’s aunt, Sophie Quequesah, all get credit along with Felsman for instilling a love and knowledge of the language in the young man.
“The highest number I hear” for how many fluent Salish speakers there are on the reservation “is 40,” Home Gun says, “although I say it’s closer to 25. There are only 25 Salish speakers left, and they’re all over the age of 60, 65.”
Home Gun also served as a vice chairman of the board that oversees Nkwusm, the Salish language school in Arlee – and that, perhaps ironically, he never attended as a child.
In high school, Home Gun says he never understood students who announced they planned to take a year or two off and work before enrolling in college.
“I hated that,” he says. “I always wondered, ‘Why?’ I said I was never going to do that.”
And yet that’s exactly what he’s done. The position with the culture committee was too enticing, and the decision to leave has been a difficult one for the 20-year-old.
“I had to think hard on it,” Home Gun says. “It’s hard to quit working with the language and culture and our elders. There’s only a handful of elders left with all their knowledge of the Salish culture and language, and I knew it was my duty to record them and protect that knowledge.
“Now I’m really glad that I did. If I went to college right out of high school, there’s a lot I would have missed out on.”
When he made the decision to resign later this month, he told Smith, Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola and others it was so he could enroll at the University of Oregon.
Just last week, that changed.
Home Gun says he still intends to major in linguistics at UO one day, but first he’s decided to enroll at Rhema Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, just outside Tulsa.
“I just felt it was the right thing to do,” he says.
And so finally, at the ripe old age of 20, Vance Home Gun is leaving his reservation to further his education.
It’s not that his work here is done. It’s just that when he continues that work one day – and rest assured, Home Gun intends to return to the Flathead Reservation – he’ll do so with better tools to learn, and teach, the language he loves.