SANDPOINT — Some 27 years into its history, The Idaho Mythweaver just completed what volunteer executive director Jane Fritz assessed to be “the best year we’ve ever had.”
The benchmark, she explained, is the amount of involvement the non-profit had with tribes throughout the region during 2016. Fritz has been deeply connected with those tribes since about 1990, gathering oral histories, chronicling their creation myths and folklore and, in effect, working to build a bridge through cross-cultural sharing that now involves multiple media and community events.
For the first 15 years of The Idaho Mythweaver, her work focused on the Kootenai, Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, Shoshone/Bannock and Shoshone/Paiute tribes — all of which have rich histories in North Idaho.
Ironically, it wasn’t until 2004 the group began to build a relationship with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, headquartered in eastern Washington, but has ancient roots along the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. For tribal elders, the recognition marked a homecoming for a people whose love of this land far predates written history.
“The Kalispel was one of the last tribes we worked with due to the late designation of them being an ‘Idaho’ tribe,” Fritz said. “Today, we work primarily with the Kalispel, because this is their indigenous land.”
The tribe and its elders have been generous with their knowledge, which, in turn, has sparked a renaissance in both interest in and understanding of the history of this area.
“Until 2010, there wasn’t even anything in school textbooks about all of this,” the director said, adding that, by 2013, the tribe was firmly engaged in a fourth-grade outreach program titled, “Kalispel Heritage in our Backyard” — passing along stories and traditions to hundreds of students at Washington, Farmin-Stidwell and Priest River elementary schools.
The learning traveled both directions, with members of the tribe benefiting from a reinvigorated awareness of their own culture and connection with the big lake. One of the more profound examples started in 2008, when The Idaho Mythweaver partnered with the Kalispel Tribe for a series of boat tours around Lake Pend Oreille.
“You can check out the archeology on the shores of the lake — this is their 10,000-year homeland and Sandpoint was a major village site,” Fritz said. “This is their home and, on the boat tours, many of them were seeing it for the first time.”
Before the boat tours took shape, the non-profit helped organize events on the Clark Fork Delta in 1999 and 2000 — territory that, for centuries, was used by indigenous people as a seasonal gathering place.
“The first year, we had very few native people involved,” Fritz said. “The second year, we had explosive growth with a couple hundred people there. It was a major event.”
Successful both in terms of numbers and inspirational impact, the lakeside gathering unleashed a series of new undertakings that furthered the partnership. The sphere of influence has also been widening, the director pointed out, with more involvement across the board. Perhaps the most noticeable example of that growth comes with the boat tours, which have become a magnet for members of the tribe after slow going at first.
“We did four boat tours last summer,” said Fritz. “This past year, half the boat was filled with native people — from tribal elders to youth.”
Starting in 2007, The Idaho Mythweaver began presenting movies by Native American filmmakers, hosting those events at both the Panida and its namesake Little Theater. At first, the screenings were scattered over time. By 2014, however, things were lining up to favor a more robust approach.
“That’s when we had an opportunity to bring a film called, ‘More Than Frybread,’” Fritz said. “It had been shown on a lot of reservations, but not really anywhere else.”
By the next year, the director was approached by the East Bonner County Library’s Sandpoint branch to bring the screenings there as part of an ongoing event now known as the Native Heritage Film Series. The free showings — always packed — start with the film and close with a question-and-answer session with Fritz.
All of this activity was born out of Fritz’s love of stories. That said, she never set out specifically to follow her current path; it was more a matter of how the chips fell.
The Idaho Mythweaver, in its inception back in 1989, was the combined vision of its executive director and two associates from Boise, where Fritz was involved as publisher of the critically acclaimed but financially strapped Idaho Arts Journal at the time.
“We were going to start a storytelling, oral history and folk arts organization,” she said. “Then the other two people moved, the arts journal died and I thought, ‘Now what?’
“I was interested in Native American stories, but I’m not Native American, so I didn’t feel right about that,” she added. “So my first project involved working with seven native storytellers from different communities.”
The project — predicated on the tribes’ relationship to the Earth — had components with titles such as “Speaking the Earth Mother: Idaho Native American Storytelling” and a related public radio documentary series on Spokane’s KPBX-FM called “Idaho Keepers of the Earth.”
The live performance aspect was presented at regional colleges, libraries and churches and, according to Fritz, the participants were forced to dig deep for raw material.
“The storytellers had to pull out things their grandmother told them — they were sharing stories no one had heard before,” she said. “All of our expectations were low at first, but it turned out to be standing room only for these events. For the storytellers, it engendered their sense of pride and identity in who they were, because they had grown up in a time of discrimination and racism.”
Now credited with an impressive list of concerts, film showings, educational programs, cross-cultural events and radio documentaries over the span of more than a quarter century, the lasting legacy of The Idaho Mythweaver and Fritz herself may well be the archive of literally hundreds of hours of stories and oral histories she has recorded. The majority of them are still contained on cassette tape — a format that has finite shelf life — making it increasingly urgent to have them archived in a digital format. To make that happen, the director recently launched a GoFundMe campaign to begin the process of digitizing the recordings.
“All of those elders are gone now, so these tapes are priceless,” Fritz said. “It was a long time ago, but when I listen to those stories now I think, ‘Not much has changed.’
“I’ve learned so much from those stories,” she went on. “Now I’m thinking about how to continue the dream.”
She might have help in the form of tribe members reaching out to hear the voices of their ancestors. In the process, Jane Fritz could have a chance to tell some of the stories behind the stories.
“It’s all coming full circle — the people, the connections, the relationships — they keep circling around,” she said. “I have people calling me now to say, ‘I hear you have my grandfather’s stories.’
“I guess that’s why I feel it’s time to tell some of this from my point of view,” she concluded. “What did I learn? What values were passed to me that I can share with others? Gathering these stories shaped who I am. It’s a life I wouldn’t trade for the world.”
The next installment of the Native Heritage Film Series will take place on Saturday, Jan. 14 at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., at the East Bonner County Library, 1407 Cedar St., in Sandpoint.
The event will be a double feature with exclusive screenings of feature-length and short films not yet released into the library’s public circulation, including “Spirit In Glass” and “Horse Tribe.” Back-stories and interactive discussions led by Fritz will follow each presentation. Admission is free and open to the public.
The Native American Film Series is a partnership of The Idaho Mythweaver and East Bonner County Library District and funded by Idaho Community Foundation, Idaho Humanities Council, TransEco Services and endorsed by the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force.
For more information on the film series, visit www.ebonnerlibrary.org. To learn more about The Idaho Mythweaver and its campaign to move its oral history archive to the digital format, call 208-265-8323.