There wasn’t an empty seat in the meeting chambers of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council in Fort Belknap Agency, Montana, as people crowded in to witness history and the tribal radio station carried the ceremonies live.
“The importance of changing the name of Fort Belknap College is so we can recognize the two tribal nations that we (serve),” college president Dr. Carole Falcon-Chandler said to tribal council members. “This is an historical event for us.”
The council was asked to approve changing the name of the tribal college that has served the Fort Belknap Reservation since 1984. Identified with an old fort named for a U.S. war secretary with no ties to the area, the reservation was established in 1888 for two distinct tribes—the Aaniiih and Nakoda—which today operate under a consolidated government.
“When I travel, people always ask me about Fort Belknap, what tribe is that?” said Fort Belknap Indian Community Council President Tracy King. “Now our two tribes are present in the name change.”
The newly renamed institution is Aaniiih Nakoda College.
“This is a long time coming. It’s a start in the process of regaining our identity,” said council member John Allen, who is Nakoda. “It’s good to be proud of the Indian nations we represent.”
Many tribes have a history of being misnamed by outsiders, and this case is no different. The Aaniiih are the “White Clay people,” referencing the light-colored clay found along river bottoms in northern Montana. However, French missionaries mistakenly called them Gros Ventre, or “Big Bellies,” when they misinterpreted other tribes’ references to the Aaniiih as the “Water Falls People.” (In sign language, the word waterfall is expressed by passing one’s hand over the stomach.) Similarly, the Nakoda, or “Generous Ones,” were known as the Assiniboine, an adaptation of a Chippewa word.
As a college committee began looking at renaming the institution two years ago, faculty recognized the sense of disempowerment that occurred when Indian peoples had their own names taken away.
“They wanted to redefine us in a foreign people’s image, and part of that was through naming us,” said Sean Chandler, the college’s American Indian studies director, who is Aaniiih. “We had come to accept those misleading definitions…savage, uncivilized, domestic dependent nations, wards and other names.”
Chandler spoke at a separate naming ceremony, a spiritual complement to the legal process of revising the college’s articles of incorporation. At the Ekib Tsah Ah Tsik (“Sitting High”) Cultural Center, the ceremony featured prayers by spiritual leaders Joe Iron Man and John Allen Jr., one Aaniiih and one Nakoda.
“Names are sacred and powerful,” said Chandler. “When a name is first chosen, the hope is that a person will live up to that name. This college has grown into the integrity of living up to our name through our language immersion school, this cultural center, and [preserving] indigenous knowledge.”
Under its old name, Fort Belknap College was the first of 36 tribal colleges nationwide to start an indigenous language immersion school. The White Clay Language Immersion School currently serves 24 children, who are becoming proficient in the Aaniiih language while being more engaged in learning other subjects. Campus classrooms are named for tribal chiefs and elders.
“Imagine what our college would be like had our ancestors been allowed to define themselves and define and create a college in 1884 instead of 1984,” Chandler told the crowd gathered in the cultural center. “Imagine how healthy we would be mentally, physically and spiritually.”
There is a sense of reversing lost time at the college, which blends tribal culture and accredited academics. For about 200 current students, popular degree programs include health and natural resources.
“I’ve watched the college grow,” said tribal council member Andrew Werk Jr. (Aaniiih), a former student at Fort Belknap. “It’s a good organization that provides opportunities for our [tribal] membership and non-members throughout our community.”
The renaming day was one of celebration – with honor songs, gifts and a community meal. The Aaniiih Nakoda College president used the opportunity to impart a lesson.
“Students, I want you to remember this day,” said Falcon-Chandler, who is Aaniiih. “You were here when this college was named, and you can say that you were part of it.”
An Aaniiih elder called for his people and the Nakoda to work more closely together, before the tribal president took the podium to echo the theme.
“It’s important that we’re behind students and behind one another to be successful,” said King, who is Nakoda. “Today is a big victory for us.”