Bud Cheff Jr.’s penchant for collecting artifacts began when he was a boy.
In 1946, Cheff and his older sister, Ola, explored a section of rocks above the highway through Bad Rock Canyon while their father labored to change a flat on the family’s 1936 Chevrolet.
Cheff was 9 years old. The family was traveling that day from Ronan to Martin City to visit relatives.
Changing a flat in those days demanded a large measure of time and patience.
“My sister and I came up on a crevice in the rocks and got back in there a-ways,” recalled Cheff, now 82, during a recent interview.
Ola spotted something protruding from a pack rat nest at the back of the cave-like crevice, he said.
Years later, Cheff wrote about that day and its lasting impact.
“We got on our hands and knees as the ceiling was low in the back,” Cheff wrote. “We dug the object out, and were surprised and excited when we realized it was an Indian war club.”
Cheff had heard elders on the Flathead Reservation, where he grew up, describing battles that once raged in the Bad Rock Canyon between the Blackfeet and Flathead tribes.
“Finding the war club in that old pack rat nest triggered my lifelong quest for old artifacts and the stories they tell,” Cheff wrote.
In 1997, Bud Cheff Jr. and his wife, Laurel, with help from Adelle and Bud Cheff Sr., founded the nonprofit Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana south of Ronan along U.S. 93.
The museum’s website features Cheff’s recollections about finding the club.
In December, the staff of the Ninepipes Museum learned the facility had won a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The “Preservation Assistance for Small Institutions” grant of $5,775 allowed the museum to contract with Pat Roath of Specialty Museum Services in Kalispell to conduct a preservation assessment of its 2,000-plus objects. Some of those objects are on loan to the museum.
Amy Webster is project director and collections manager for the Ninepipes Museum, which is housed in a building that also includes a gift shop.
“The grant is a really unique opportunity to bring in a professional who can assess what we’re doing to care for the collection and tell us how we can do better,” Webster said.
She said the museum’s collection includes artifacts of local and national significance and that staff members “want to ensure we have the highest standards of care so that future generations can continue to enjoy these treasures.”
The Ninepipes Museum includes an array of artifacts, ranging from ancient stone weapons to buckskin clothing and everyday items decorated with quills and beads.
One hall is filled with framed, black and white photos portraying elders of the Salish, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Blackfeet and Nez Perce tribes, as well as photos of the whites who settled in the region.
There are ceremonial pipes — including one believed to be about 150 years old that belonged to respected Salish chief Joseph Ninepipes — and elaborately beaded bags, or “bundles,” that once sheathed them. The museum is named for Joseph Ninepipes, as is the nearby Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge.
An expansive hall with a high ceiling introduces visitors to a life-sized diorama that includes full-sized mounts of a host of mammals important to Native Americans: bison, elk, deer and more.
The same room displays a tepee and accoutrements associated with a Plains Indian encampment.
The collection also includes hunting artifacts, Western horse tack and outfitting equipment.
Artifacts collected by Cheff, who was born and raised in the Mission Valley, make up about 80 percent of the Ninepipes Museum’s permanent collection. People also have donated items and loaned them for display and safekeeping.
The war club found by Cheff and his sister was lost many years ago when fire destroyed the family’s home. That event impressed Cheff with the importance of trying to preserve artifacts.
Webster said it is also vital that the presentation of artifacts honors and reflects their cultural, historical and ritual context.
For example, the bowls of ceremonial pipes should be displayed separate from pipestems.
Roath and museum staff met with Sadie Peone of the Selis Qlispe Culture Committee and Rosemary Caye of the Kootenai Culture Committee to solicit input about how and whether items should be displayed and to talk about how the tribes could be involved in cultural preservation.
“Sacred things need to be treated a certain way and some things shouldn’t be on display,” Webster said.
She said Roath also made specific recommendations about some items. For example, a circa-1870 Northern Cheyenne vest displayed in a glass case should have some padding beneath it, Webster said.
Buckskin dresses displayed on hangers along one wall should be taken down during the off-season to relieve stress in the shoulders created by the weight of the garments, she said.
The museum is open March 1 through Oct. 31.
Roath, who also serves as curator of collections and exhibits for the Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell, has completed two site visits to the Ninepipes Museum and will participate toward the end of summer in a community meeting there.
“The Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana has a remarkable collection, remarkable not only due to the historic, cultural and aesthetic importance of the objects, but also in how the collection was built,” Roath said.
She said the museum’s collections demonstrate Bud Cheff Jr.’s dedication to honoring the past.
Roath added, “His interest in collecting these things was not to amass valuable things but to preserve family memories and examples of a vanishing way of life.”
She said museum staff members “have successfully created exhibits that include amazing and beautiful things and tell the story of the Mission Valley and its residents.”
Bud Cheff Jr. said the grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities felt like an important validation.
“This will help us with our credibility going forward if other entities know we are doing it right,” he said.
Jo Cheff, a daughter of Laurel and Bud Cheff Jr., is the museum’s executive director. She shared similar thoughts.
“The grant was a big surprise and just wonderful,” she said. “It was really a feather in our cap. We’re hoping now to take things to the next level, working toward accreditation.”
Many roadside attractions sited along tourism corridors advertise themselves as museums.
Roath said the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana deserves the designation.
“Preservation and education were the impetus for Bud Cheff’s collecting activities, and are the primary obligations of museums,” she said.
Roath said the review process that precedes an award of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities involves an assessment by museum professionals nationwide. She said they examine current practices and weigh whether collections “are deemed important enough — historically, culturally and/or aesthetically — to warrant the grant award.”
The museum’s funding sources include private donations, membership dues, entry fees, gift shop sales and grants.
Bud Cheff Jr. said he feels the museum helps honor his late father, Bud Cheff Sr., who died in June 2011 at age 96.
The elder Cheff, born southeast of Ronan, took his first paying customers as an outfitter into the Bob Marshall Wilderness in 1933. He wrote two books, “Indian Trails and Grizzly Tales” and “The Woodsman and His Hatchet.”
According to family history, the first Cheff ancestor arrived in what is now Montana in the early 1800s with explorer and fur trader David Thompson.
The collections of Bud Cheff Jr. and his father, along with artifacts loaned or donated, offer visitors to the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana a glimpse of history and a sense of the family’s commitment to preserving it.
“I’d just like to see it keep going,” said Bud Cheff Jr.
The Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana is south of Ronan on U.S. 93. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The admission fee for adults is $7, with discounts for veterans, students and children. For more information, go to ninepipesmuseum.org
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.