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

Times Staff Writer

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.

Agnes has "a keen awareness of what she has and what she knows," said Carmen McDowell, the family counselor supervising the teen-agers. "(Young people) observe how members of the tribe treat Agnes with respect," McDowell said. "Ultimately, you learn to have trust again . . . that it's all right to occasionally give over control and let someone else help you. I've watched that happen here for four years. It's really kind of neat."

At night, the tepees glow with camp fires. In the mess tent, Agnes listens to the girls gossip and giggle. Wordlessly, she reaches over and takes a moccasin from one girl's hand to stitch on a few beads. Agnes' gnarled, brown fingers can thread the thinnest needle on the first try.

Often, Agnes sends campers to the sweat lodge--a small blanket-covered tent with a fire pit on Valley Creek nearby, to pray and then to plunge into the icy creek. It is a cleansing ritual that age has forced her to abandon for herself.

Some visitors say that a vision or dream brought them to the camp, but most heard of it by word of mouth. Some come out of curiosity, simply following the small misspelled signs that are tacked to trees along the dirt road.

Accommodates 100 at Times

At times, the camp may seem nearly deserted; at the peak of summer, it may be filled with families and groups that push the population past 100.

If a visitor leaves camp and comes back, whether an hour or a day or another year has passed, Agnes may look up and say simply, "You're home."

People often come just to talk to Agnes, to confide their worries and fears and to listen for clues in the metaphors that she uses.

"It's really spiritual here," said 16-year-old Tiffany Gibbs. "I really grew a lot here. There were a lot of things I came here grieving about, but I'm not now."

Anne Clark, 18, agrees.

"You drive up, and it's so peaceful here it embraces you," she said. "With Agnes, you don't have to say anything. You just look into her eyes and find beauty. She's a life force."

The camp got started a decade ago, as a private social experiment of sorts, when Lynne Dusenberry turned up on the Flathead Reservation. She had spent memorable hours there as a child while her professor father studied the tribe.

The young white woman yearned for the sense of inner peace and serenity she had seen in the tribal elders. She turned to the recently widowed Agnes for guidance. She wanted to become as Indian as she could be.

She braided her long hair, married and later divorced an Indian, adopted the surname Crow and made and wore traditional clothes. She beaded and spent hours in the sweat lodges. She and Agnes decided to spend a summer camping, so that Crow could learn how to process buckskin.

Some Wanted to Stay

As the two women worked the hides, people would drop by to chat or share a meal. They camped again the next year, and more people stopped by. Some of them wanted to stay.

Agnes, as a respected elder, had taught Indian children about their language and culture at the reservation school. The tribal leaders were eager to preserve that culture, and they liked Agnes' idea of a summer camp.

"They said, 'OK. You want just your tribe?' and I said, 'No, I want everybody, no matter what they are,' " Agnes said.

Now, Agnes estimates that half her campers are non-Indian, and many of the Indians are of other tribes. Agnes is invited to speak before mental health groups, schools and tribal gatherings. But summers are for Valley Creek.

Camp is the focal point of Agnes' life. In winter, she sits by her window doing beadwork and watching the snow fall. By March, she is restless and thinking about the next camp.

"I'm like a bear. I stay in my house all winter," Agnes said. "The first thunder comes, and I go out: 'Oh, it must be spring!' "

By early May, Agnes is usually back at Valley Creek. The first campers to arrive are always Indians. The trees come into sap, and they use the tender bark to make baskets.

"Then, we gather bitterroot and start in on the sarvis berry," Agnes said. "It's like a blueberry, sweet. Then camus. A lot of people don't like how it tastes, but they learn to find it anyway. Indian licorice. Huckleberries last through July. Some people get berries, some don't. They say they will wait till next week, and then all the berries are gone. You can't wait."

Agnes knows the summer is fading when the berries go, when the nights grow cold and the black sky twinkles with a million stars.

The teen-agers summon Agnes for a farewell photograph, a dozen kids showing off their moccasins and jewelry, laughing, with their arms around the old Indian woman.

The next afternoon, the camp is quiet and Agnes says little. She watches a newcomer struggle to thread a beading needle. A camp dog wanders morosely around the trailer. "He misses the kids," Agnes observes.

She looks into the sky. "See the clouds peeking over the trees?"

A long time passes before she speaks again, and, in the gathering dusk, it is not clear for whom her words are meant.

"You'll do all right" is what she says.

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