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Flathead treasures housed at Ninepipes. (All My Relations).

He found his first artifact by accident when he was just 10 years old. Today, the fire that was sparked a half-century ago by that find still bums hot in the heart of Bud Cheff, Jr., whose passion for collecting can be seen in the variety and scope of artifacts on display at the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana.

"When I was 10 years old and our car broke down, my sister and I hiked back and found a war club near Columbia Falls," Cheff, now 66, recalled. "We could imagine Indians dying after the battle," because this was an area that was described in the stories told to him by local Elder Eneas Conko.

The Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana lies in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in Charlo, one hour north of Missoula, and contains well over 1,000 artifacts, photographs, paintings .and original documents that detail the rich history of the area and the lives of the Salish-Kootenai of the Flathead reservation.

Cheff has supplied the majority of the pieces and, in addition to being the museum's president, he is also the tribe's historian, because he can relay the stories behind the artifacts and the Salish-Kootenai traditions.

One of the objects on display that Cheff is most proud of is an eagle feather headdress given to him by George Kickingwoman, one of the last medicine men of the area. Kickingwoman respected Cheff's work and wanted his possessions tobe preserved at Ninepipes. A painting of Kickingwoman hangs beside the bonnet.

A tribute to frontier artist E.S. Paxson is on display in the main room, complete with the easel and painting supplies that he used. Paxson is renowned for his masterpiece Custer's Last Stand at Little Big Horn, painted in 1897.

Several of his portraits line three walls. On the floor is one attempt by the artist at sculpting-a two-foot-tall piece depicting Sacajawea, the Indian guide for the Lewis & Clark expedition.

The Paxson items were acquired a quarter-century ago, said Cheff.

"Our museum could never buy these items now because of how much money they're worth," Cheff said. Interest by dealers has pushed prices up tenfold, he estimates.

A step around the corner from the Paxson exhibit is a display of more than 200 photographs dating back to the turn of the 20th century evidence of the day-today conditions on the reservation and in rural Montana.

Cheff points out how fortunate the Flathead reservation was to have two skilled photographers living there at the time.

"The photos bring visitors closer to history. They'll see the artifacts and then to see the people. [It] makes the history real."

The photography room is divided evenly in half, the right side with pictures of Native people, the left side documenting the cowboy and rural lifestyle.

A significant event from the area captured on film was the buffalo roundup. When the land was being surveyed and sectioned for private ownership the buffalo were driven out of the valley. The last of the beasts were loaded onto trains and transported out of the country. Ironically, the national government established the National Bison Range only a few years later in nearby Moiese.

Now retired, Cheff laughs about the time and effort it takes to maintain the museum. It's equivalent to a full-time job, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a turn-on when I see somebody interested in the old things and the more people who enjoy it, the more apt it will be to preserve the history"

The museum is located at 40962 Highway 93 in Charlo, Montana. They are online at
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Author:Ross, Matt
Publication:Wind Speaker
Geographic Code:1U8MT
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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