Havre Daily News
One of the people honored this weekend at the 39th annual Milk River Indian Days at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation was a longtime nurse, cultural educator and tribal council member - Selena Ditmar. Also known as Brown Owl Woman, Ditmar, a 77-year-old grandmother, was honored for her efforts to preserve the traditional culture and language of the Assiniboine, or Nakoda, people.
Flanked by her son-in-law and grandson, Ditmar led her family around the sacred powwow circle during a song performed in her honor. Gerald Stiffarm, a man who lost his mother and considers Ditmar to be his spiritual mother, was chosen by her blood family to speak about her during the ceremony.
"She still carries the authentic understanding of our way of life," Stiffarm said after the ceremony. "That's why she's so invaluable. What she speaks from her heart and soul is not written.
"She takes the extra effort to bring people back to the ceremonies. She has wisdom to share, not because of her age, but because of her journey."
Ditmar thanked her family for the honor afterward.
"I really felt honored and humbled," she said. "It gave me a good feeling in my heart."
Ditmar was honored partly because she was listed in the 2004 Who's Who Among American Teachers. She taught Assiniboine language and culture at Fort Belknap College for seven years, and has given a number of presentations for students at Harlem Junior High School. One of her former college students nominated her for the list.
Ditmar said she has had a lot of good students and always had a good rapport with them.
"Even if I flunked them, they still liked me," she said with a laugh.
Her students became interested in their own history, culture and language - subjects they did not know much about.
"They are embracing it," she said. "They are really into it. It's new to them, and they're really eager to learn. History books should have included our history, our culture, but they didn't."
Ditmar brings artifacts into the junior high to give demonstrations for younger students. She said the group is at a good age to work with and learn about their heritage.
What she does now is in contrast with the education she received as a child.
"Sometimes they made us ashamed of who we were," Ditmar said. "I think we lost some of our culture because of that, but it's coming back."
She was raised in a traditional household and learned English as a second language. She said she tries to pass on her knowledge to anyone who will listen.
She was also recently honored when a room in the reservation's new cultural center was named after her. She has some of her own possessions on display there, including a buckskin dress made by her grandmother and another she made when she was a young girl.
Ditmar stopped teaching at the college two years ago to take a position on the Fort Belknap tribal council. She also served a term 12 years ago.
"It's a big learning experience," she said of being on the council. "It's a challenge."
Residents of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation face many challenges, including high unemployment, and housing, health and education needs, she said.
"We don't have economic development to bring jobs to our people," Ditmar said. "It's needed. It's been very frustrating."
Ditmar also served as an Indian Health Service nurse on the reservation for 26 years.
Stiffarm said Ditmar is an honorable grandmother. In American Indian culture, the grandmother plays an important role in the family life, he said.
"Our grandmas are the foundations of our families," he said. "When Grandma speaks, everybody listens and does what they're told."
Ditmar has three children and one adopted child, but more than 50 people call her mother or grandmother. Indians recognize four types of family relationships, Stiffarm explained: bloodline, extended family, adoption and spiritual.
Stiffarm, whose mother died, considers Ditmar to be his spiritual mother.
"I love this woman," he said. "I respect her. This woman has been there for me. She fulfills the role of my mother. I feel safe and comfortable around her."