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SKC founder an inspiration for all Montanans

by Daily Inter Lake
| December 24, 2023 12:00 AM

Northwest Montana is mourning the loss of a visionary who left a profound impact on Native American education in the U.S. Salish Kootenai College founder Joe McDonald died Dec. 14 at St. Luke Hospital in Ronan following a brief illness. He was 92 years old.

The list of McDonald’s life and career accomplishments, as detailed in his obituary published in the Lake County Leader, is as lengthy as it is inspiring, so let’s start from the beginning.

Born and raised in the Mission Valley, McDonald graduated from St. Ignatius high school in 1951 — merely the first milestone of a long and fruitful journey in public education.

After a stint as a smokejumper in West Yellowstone, he would attend college at Western Montana in Dillon where he was an all-star athlete competing in football, basketball and baseball. 

His professional educational career began as a teacher and coach at schools across Montana, from Miles City to Hamilton. 

He went back to college to earn master’s degrees in education and health and P.E. at the University of Montana, while he also managed to find time to be an assistant basketball coach for the Grizzlies.

He’d go on to serve in principal and assistant superintendent roles at Ronan Public Schools from 1967-1978.

It was after earning a doctorate in education from Montana that he began his effort to establish and lead Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. He would serve as the college’s president from 1978 until his retirement in 2010.

McDonald did it all at the college, wearing hats as janitor, instructor, committee member, administrator, fundraiser and coach. He also pushed for the college to reach the entire Flathead Reservation through Salish and Kootenai language classes, as well as other traditional and cultural skills.

Today, the college serves more than 600 students and employs approximately 70 full-time faculty. Tribal members representing 53 tribes make up nearly 60% of the student body. 

At the college, students can choose from 41 course programs, from workforce certificates to master’s degrees. Remarkably, nearly 4,500 degrees or certificates have been awarded since the school’s founding.

The college’s vision is to serve as a center of excellence for American Indian students, grounded in the cultures of the Séliš, Ksanka and QÍispé people of the Flathead Nation. 

“The college will empower students to improve the lives of their families and communities through research, leadership and service.”

That statement encompasses McDonald’s legacy, as a pillar of the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes and inspiration for all Montanans.