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Debra Magpie Earling First Native American Director Of UM Creative Writing Program

Debra Magpie Earling at an honoring ceremony in the Payne Family Native American Center on the University’s Missoula campus, September 21, 2016.
Mike Albans
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Debra Magpie Earling at an honoring ceremony in the Payne Family Native American Center on the University’s Missoula campus, September 21, 2016.";

Debra Magpie Earling, a Bitterroot Salish tribal member, is now director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana. She is the first Native American to serve as director of the 96-year-old program. Earling is thrilled by the appointment, but also a little nervous.

"Years ago, Jim Welch told a story about the chief of the Blackfeet who didn’t want to be the chief. So he ran up into the hills and hid. And they had to drum him out of the hills," Earling said.

Earling’s appointment was celebrated this week during an honoring ceremony in the Payne Family Native American Center on the University’s Missoula campus.

As President Royce Engstrom pointed out, the Creative Writing Program at UM is one of the top programs in the country.

"Three or four years ago, we set about on this campus identifying a small number of programs of national distinction — that’s what we called it. And a very rigorous competition from campus was held. Thirty-some programs applied for this status and Creative Writing was one of the three that we awarded programs of national distinction."

"Earling has been teaching at the University of Montana since 1992. William Kittridge, Regents Professor Emeritus, recalled this story about her hiring."

"I remember talking to the Dean of Arts and Sciences and he said, 'You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to hire this woman, Debra Earling.' And he said, 'Do you think that’s a good idea?' And I said sir, I congratulate you ."

During the ceremony, Kittridge and Annick Smith delivered a gift to Earling from Lois Welch, wife of the late Blackfeet author Jim Welch. Smith walked over to Earling holding a colorful wool blanket, which, Kittredge explained:

"Lois Welch gave it to me to pass on to you at an honoring like this, a traditional honoring. He got it from the Fort Belknap Tribe after the publication of "Fool’s Crow" in 1986. And she thinks Jim would love it — and I’m sure he would, and so does she — if that blanket were passed on to you at this honor."

After Earling gave gifts of her own to several people at the gathering, she began her remarks with a bit of history:

"The land the University inhabits holds both a sorrowful and brilliant story. This is the time-honored homeland of the Bitterroot Salish, and this is our traditional gathering ground. When my great-great grandfather, Chief Charlo, was forced to leave his beloved homeland in 1891, he passed through Missoula in exile. In his deepest sorrow, he stated: 'We were happy when the white man first came. We first thought he came from the light. But he comes like the dusk of evening now. Not like the dawn of morning. He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him.' Charlo’s exile was not the story he chose. But because of Charlo’s love for this particular place, he is part of this land where we now gather, and his spirit will remain forever. This will always be his homeland."

Debra Magpie Earling holding a colorful wool blanket, gifted to her by William Kittridge and Annick Smith during a ceremony at the Payne Family Native American Center on the University’s Missoula campus, September 21, 2016.
Credit Mike Albans
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Debra Magpie Earling during a ceremony at the Payne Family Native American Center on the University’s Missoula campus, September 21, 2016.

To honor the memory of Chief Charlo and her Bitterroot Salish ancestors, Earling looks forward to helping students to share their stories.

"I hope that in my position as the Director of the Creative Writing Program that I can open up doors for students. That I can serve in that capacity, that it is possible that your stories do matter."

Especially stories from Indian Country.

"This is a new generation of storytellers in tribal communities. There’s many young people that I have met who’ve worked with Anna East Baldwin in Arlee. There’s students in Two Eagle River School, students who are in all the tribal colleges who are writing, who have important stories to tell. All you Indians out there writing, come to the University of Montana. We have something big to offer."

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