One evening last spring, I picked up Kalispel elder Alice Blackbear Ignace at her house on the reservation north of Usk and drove her down to Newport so she could give a little talk. As we traveled south along the Pend Oreille River through rain showers and sleet, Alice talked about what she'd been up to since we last saw each other, laughing often and telling stories that moved around in time. For her recent birthday, her sister Sue Finlay had given her a ride over to the tribe's Northern Quest Casino in Airway Heights, where she'd had good luck at blackjack. She told me how proud she was of her daughter, Shirley Sandoval, who holds a management position at the casino, and mused about the many people of her generation who did not get to see the positive course that she felt the Kalispel people were on for both now and the future.
That reminded her of when she was a little girl, riding the same road we were on when it was still dirt. She would be in a wagon with her grandmother and parents, camping out as they passed Furport and Newport, then Sandpoint on Lake Pend Oreille, then on to a late-summer intertribal gathering at Indian Meadows near the mouth of the Clark Fork River. When Alice spoke of her grandmother's cultural knowledge, it was as if she had a direct line to the words and feelings of her Kalispel family for many generations in the past.
"My grandmother would be smiling when we finally came down on the meadows," Alice said. "She was so happy to see them again, and right away she'd get started gathering her Indian hemp, her tules, drying fish on the racks, scraping hides the men brought in."
Alice Ignace carried that same awareness of the past right through her life. She interpreted for elders as a young girl, and traveled back to Washington, D.C., to testify for Kalispel land claims in the 1960s. She served as a strong witness for the more recent settlement between the tribe and the Public Utilities District along the Pend Oreille River. Known for her beautiful spoken Salish, she inspired the tribal language program for students, and for years she helped with an authoritative dictionary of Kalispel Salish that is still in progress.
At the age of 84, Alice Blackbear Ignace passed away Oct. 5 at her home north of Usk, surrounded by family and friends. We know she is smiling as she rejoins her many grandmothers at Indian Meadows, Priest Lake, North Baldy and all the other special places where she camped during her remarkable life.