Shelly Fyant wants to run a food truck.
The 64-year-old mother of four, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of one has plenty on her plate these days, what with family and her day job as the chairwoman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), but her dream is to serve her people with delicious, healthy meals on the go.
In the meantime, Fyant is content to serve her people in this other way, as an elected councilwoman appointed by her colleagues to the tribe’s top political office in 2020, even though she says the job can be challenging, exhausting and dispiriting, as she leads her tribe — a minority on its own reservation — through a period of heightened national divisiveness and political turbulence.
In the face of all that, though, Fyant is relentlessly committed to “lead with love,” and eager to use her opportunity to effect positive change while her food truck dream sits on hold. She is an old-school politician in many ways, like how she advertised her 2014 campaign only by purchasing 500 business cards she hand-delivered to 500 constituents, but she has a long list of progressive goals and no aversion to change.
Since she reached council chambers, however, nothing has gone exactly as planned. Politics turned out to be even messier than she expected, sometimes even “downright rude and ugly,” and when she was appointed chairwoman it was followed shortly thereafter by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that put everything on pause. Yet there have also been monumental successes, both hers and broader tribal victories, like the end of the years-long battles to regain control of the National Bison Range and ratify a historic water rights compact, both of which happened in the last year.
Still, Fyant believes herself to be a servant leader, thrust into office not by her own aspirations but by necessity for her people, and she is determined to lead in her way, through a love of her people, their history and others, even if they don’t always love back.
“Some people take advantage of power … (but) I don’t think I have power,” Fyant said in an interview from her office at the CSKT Tribal Complex this spring, just as the world was emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and she was recovering from her own bout with the virus.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that public service, it’s not something we choose, it kind of chooses us, and if this is where Creator wants me to be … ”
Shelly Fyant may say she’s a reluctant politician, and that may well be true, but she has leadership, organizing and resistance in her blood.
Denise Fyant lives “across the field” from her daughter on the same plot of land in Arlee where Shelly and her siblings were raised. The 81-year-old Denise is a quilter, baker, canner and “really good cook” who still regularly rallies for progressive causes with a group of older ladies in Arlee, driving around with the custom license plate ‘D-F-Y-A-N-T’ (pronounced defiant).
“Some kind of high standards to live up to,” Shelly joked.
Denise and Shelly’s father, Everett, met when he was in the U.S. Navy and stationed in San Diego, and moved to the Flathead Indian Reservation when their children were young (Shelly is the oldest of four). Shelly called her dad a jack-of-all-trades, and the kids grew up helping their dad by “bucking bales, picking rock and changing pipe,” then exploring the wilds around their Arlee home on their bikes or on horseback.
Everett was elected to the CSKT Tribal Council in the mid-1960s, and Shelly proudly shows off his photo on the wall of the council chambers in Pablo. He would later work for the Kicking Horse Job Corps and as a carpentry instructor at Salish Kootenai College.
And the family’s significance in the tribe dates back several generations more. Shelly says Everett’s mother, Adeline, was a well-known tanner, beader and horsewoman, a jockey known for her Roman riding of two horses at the same time. Then there’s Shelly’s great-grandmother, Mary Kaltomee Finley, or Sack Woman, as most knew her, so named because she put naughty kids in a gunnysack and dipped them in the creek “to get their attention.”
“She really had this deep love of her people and I grew up hearing all these stories,” Shelly said of Sack Woman, who died at 112 years old in 1957, the same year Shelly was born. “Surely she must have held me because I always felt this real, deep connection to her.”
But for all the ancestors to admire, Shelly’s family history is also riddled with tragedy. Sack Woman was born in the Bitterroot Valley in the mid-1800s and would have been nearly 50 years old in 1891 when Salish Chief Charlo and his tribe were forcibly removed and sent to the Flathead Indian Reservation by the U.S. Army. Another great-grandparent, Alex Fyant, was Métis and orphaned during the failed Riel Rebellion in western Canada.
Then there is Everett, who was whisked home from the Navy in 1957, with his wife pregnant with Shelly, to mourn his young brother, Butch, who had drowned in a pond in Arlee while swimming with another of Everett’s brothers.
Shelly describes herself as a daddy’s girl through and through, but even by her account her parents’ relationship was rocky. Perhaps, she speculates, it was because of the stresses placed on a young man serving on the tribal council, but Everett began stopping for a drink, or two, or more on his way from Dixon Agency to the family plot in Arlee. When Shelly was in ninth grade, her parents divorced.
Everett’s alcoholism never abated, and in April 1988, he was found unconscious outside Dixon Bar. He persisted in a coma for 105 days before his family removed him from life support and he died at just 51 years old. Everett’s death has never been solved, but Shelly today believes he was hit by a truck, possibly one of the many potato trucks that traverse the route, and left for dead.
“(It’s) part of the family trauma, I guess, how you inherit this stuff in your DNA,” Shelly said. “You grow up with that, but you don’t really think about it.”
Shelly would experience her own trauma, too, once her parents divorced and she moved to Ronan. It was there that Shelly said she felt singled out as a Native American for the first time, and began to realize the tension that existed between the two cultures she came from (Shelly’s mother, Denise, is white). And more troublingly, Shelly says that racism still exists today, which she witnessed first hand at a recent Ronan parade and that she has felt particularly strongly since 2016.
“I don’t know if it’s because it’s a bigger community, but it just feels really divided,” she said. “And believe me, these last four years did not help the situation on the reservation in general.”
In her current job, Shelly said that while she is heartened with the election of President Joe Biden, she is wary of the new administration in Helena and continues to feel disconnected from administrators in Lake County, where much of the reservation is located. Nevertheless, Shelly returns to leading with love.
“Sometimes (in prior years) it was, ‘screw those guys, we’re not going to work with them,’ in so many words,” she said of councilors’ attitudes toward county officials. “I felt like that’s not getting us anywhere, that’s not who I am. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of hateful experiences with the locals, but I’m not going to perpetuate that in my leadership.”
Shelly Fyant drifted a bit in high school, engaging in mostly standard-issue teenage rebellion, albeit tinged with the racism directed her way, and she briefly attended the University of Montana following her graduation from Ronan High School. But it wasn’t until she and some Blackfeet friends left UM for Lawrence, Kansas that she found a sense of identity and purpose at Haskell Junior College (now Haskell Indian Nations University).
“Kind of like how Ronan was a negative turning point, this was a positive turning point in that it was all Indians so I could just be free to be me and be proud of it,” she said. “I think Haskell really saved my life in a lot of ways.”
Fyant would eventually re-enroll at the University of Montana and obtain a business degree, but after a brief stint raising her oldest two kids and stops working for the U.S. Forest Service and fighting wildfires, she would spend the next 20-plus years dedicated to her people.
“The Creator doesn’t give us any more than we can handle and I think that he chooses us for different roles,” Fyant said. “Later on in life, working for the Forest Service, I felt like I had to constantly explain my people, my culture, to all these non-Natives that I worked with. I felt like, ‘huh, this is my role,’ or one of my roles.”
After the Forest Service, Fyant worked at the Kicking Horse Job Corps, dedicating herself to making a positive change in the lives of young men and women on the reservation for 15 years as part of a program that provided training in mostly technical fields. And she saw real change happen there, experiences that would push her into politics years later.
“Kids came to us from the most dire circumstances and when we gave them structure and a safe place — three meals a day, clothing, training — they blossomed into really beautiful human beings,” Fyant said. “They just needed that hand up, not a hand out, and so that’s kind of what propelled me into (the Tribal Council) was, if I can change thousands of young lives, and we did … just think what you can do in this position.”
Reality, though, would set in quickly. Fyant spent the first year of her tenure, in 2014, learning the ropes before staking out her first major adversarial position, opposing the expansion of the Gray Wolf Casino, citing concerns over a nearby wildlife bridge and the consequences of gambling addictions. She lost that fight, even though she said she had the support of tribal elders.
“I thought, holy crap, I’ve got two more years on council, what am I going to do?” she said.
What she settled on was food, drawing from the sagging life expectancy she witnessed in her own family: from Sack Woman, who lived to be 112, to her father, who died at 51. On average, American Indians and Alaska Natives die more than five years younger than their non-Indigenous counterparts, according to the Indian Health Service.
“If you look at our health disparities, I look at two things: the food we eat, because we don’t eat like our ancestors, and the lack of physical activity,” she said.
Buffalo hunting, Fyant said, is a perfect case study in how her people have gone astray. Generations ago, her ancestors would walk across the mountains to hunt, a tremendous physical feat followed by the exhausting work of processing and preserving the meat. But with the arrival of white settlers, they not only lost their land, they also changed their diet.
“We were buffalo hunters, we were fishermen, we were gatherers, and when the reservation system happens we’re restricted from buffalo hunting and the government sends us rations which our bodies are not used to, (like) flour and lard and milk,” Fyant said. “That’s two generations ago in my family.”
So Fyant focused her attention on a food sovereignty initiative, and won a grant in 2016 to start a program called Healing the Jocko Valley. Through the program, she organized healthy cooking classes, taught gardening, and aimed to revive traditional foods like bitterroot and camas.
Fyant’s work on that front continues, but she’s seen proof of the gains she’s made in small ways. People on the reservation, she says, are using phrases like “food security” and “food deserts” and doing things like shopping on the outsides of grocery stores (where the fresh products are). She even said seed was hard to find during the pandemic because so many people had turned to gardening as a hobby, food source or both.
But Fyant has much more she wants to accomplish on her agenda. She is actively involved in programs dedicated to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) and said she had a lengthy agenda that came with her appointment as chairwoman in 2020, which she’s been able to maybe get a third of the way through, in part because of the pandemic.
Still, she isn’t quite 100% committed to seeking another four years on the Tribal Council in 2022, when her second term is up. The chairperson is named every two years by a vote of the councilors, so a return to the council in 2022 would not necessarily mean she would return as chairwoman, but, at least as of late April, both a run for a third term and a second one as chairwoman were on Fyant’s personal agenda.
“There needs to be life after Tribal Council,” she said. “I thought, man, I just want my life back and then I talked to an elder and she pretty much told me, ‘No, you have to run again.’”
“It’s difficult but, again, I just feel like I have these ancestors carrying me,” she continued. “There was a time when I really cared what people thought — I wanted to be liked, I wanted to be popular or I wanted to be loved — and I just feel like that doesn’t matter anymore. I just have a deep love for my people and I want the best for them, so I’ll do whatever work I need to do to get there.”