|October 18, 2012
Medicine Tree offers spiritual sustenance for the sojourners
By B.L. Azure
THHS Public Information Officer
The smoky Bitterroot Valley cleared a bit last Thursday in time for the fall trip to the Medicine Tree. The fall sojourn was re-scheduled twice due to the extensive smoke that has been anchored in the area for a couple of months. More than 70 people of all ages made the trip including these folks who stuck around for the group photo. (B.L. Azure photo)
MEDICINE TREE — After weeks of delays due to the smoky haze that blanketed much of western Montana, especially the Bitterroot Valley, lifted just enough last Thursday to allow for the fall trip to the Medicine Tree. It had been twice rescheduled due to health concerns the heavy smoke caused elderly folks and young children. Twice a year the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee leads the sojourn to one of the most sacred sites in the aboriginal homeland of the Bitterroot Salish. More than 70 people accompanied the SPCC to continue the physical, spiritual and emotional touch of the landscape of the Bitterroot Salish ancestors.
Tony Incashola, director of the Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee and Salish Elder Felicite McDonald check out the previous offerings on the “new” Medicine Tree. From left in rear are Benny McDonald, Louie Paul and Maxine McDonald. (B.L. Azure photo)
The Medicine Tree is part of the Bitterroot Salish creation stories that has been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. It is a spiritual light of guidance and an anchorage that renews and reinvigorates the spirit of the original people whose taproot is embedded in the bedrock of western Montana and whose spirit wafts horizon to horizon in its skies.
“The values of our culture bring us here today,” said Tony Incashola, director of the SPCC in his welcoming to the folks of all ages — 3 months old to nearly 90 years old — who made the semi-annual pilgrimage to one of the most important cultural touchstones in the lore of the Bitterroot Salish. “It is important that we continue to come here. I want to remind the young people here today to never ever forget the sacrifices of your ancestors. Because of them, their sacrifices, we are here today.”
Prayers at the “original” Medicine Tree, a 30-foot remnant of the more than 300-year-old Ponderosa pine tree that was felled by a combination of fire, wind and vandalism, along U.S. 93 were said before sojourners trekked a few hundred yards to leave offerings at the site of the “new” Medicine Tree. (B.L. Azure photo)
Incashola said it is important that the tribal people of the Flathead Nation keep in touch with their culture, its traditions and tell the stories: the historical and spiritual narrative of the tribal people that nurtures the spirit, sustains the culture and points to the future. They are the keys to salvation of a people whose sovereignty and its scope are always under assault by members of the dominant society.
“Over the years the attacks on our rights continue. If we lose our identity — our culture, rights and language — as Indian people we will lose our rights as a separate and distinct people,” Incashola told the crowd of tribal travelers. “I hope the young people here today will continue this tradition and teach it to the children of today and those yet to come.”
Incashola said it was that careful thought and practice by the Bitterroot Salish ancestors that provides the spiritual sustenance for today’s Salish people.
Salish Elder Louie Adams talks about the Bitterroot Valley homeland of the Bitterroot Salish that contains many sacred sites that spiritually connects today’s Bitterroot Salish descendents to the home of their ancestors. Tony Incashola is on the right. (B.L. Azure photo)
“This is one of many sacred places for us. It is important for us to be here,” said Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre. It is a continuance of the cultural chain that connects people with their parents, grand parents and ancestors. “People need to know who they are and where they come from in order to know where they are going. We are now passing this on to our children.”
Salish Elder Felicite McDonald addressed the folks in Salish telling them about the history she has witnessed and the stories she was told.
“We are leaning too far over to the dominant society’s ways. I try to teach kids our values but sometimes I have to do that in the white man’s language. This is a very important site for them, for us all,” McDonald said. “When I was young we were fighting over our water and we’re still fighting for it today. We have to struggle every day to maintain who we are.”
Although these youngsters at the Medicine Tree seem a bit preoccupied with Mother Earth the message of the day is taking root and will blossom when their turns come to speak the message to those not yet here. (B.L. Azure photo)
Salish Elder Louie Adams told the folks that he comes to the Bitterroot homeland a lot. Sometimes it’s because of a feeling of loneliness of separation from the land and the spirit of the Bitterroot Salish. It is a longing that can be salved a bit by being a physical presence in the homeland and making a spiritual connection to it and those long gone on.
“Years ago before all the white people came, there would be something going on here all summer long that we’d come here for,” Adams said about coming to the Bitterroot Valley for various tribally-connected reasons. “When I was young we’d come up here on Sundays. We’d pick berries, fish and send prayer offerings from the (Medicine) Tree.”
NÂusm Salish Language Institute teacher Pend d’Oreille Elder Stephen Small Salmon had similar experiences as a young person.
“When I feel bad I come here and I start to feel really, really good,” Small Salmon said. “When I come here with Pat (Pierre), we talk Indian all the way here. I hope that some of these days we will all be talking Indian and laughing.”
Salish Elder Felicite McDonald addresses the fall Medicine Tree gathering in her native tongue that Tony Incashola translated. (B.L. Azure photo)
In closing, Incashola reminded everyone of the debt owed to the ancestors.
“We must remember those who have gone on before us. They gave us so much. They left us so much. Each time we come here we are missing another member of our people. We don’t decide when we leave, the Creator does. Our elders teach us that we must be prepared for the end, that every day could be our last and we should be thankful for what we have,” Incashola said. “The Creator has provided for us for thousands of years, that’s why we’re still here. If you have the lessons of the Creator, of your parents, of your grandparents, of your ancestors in your heart you’ll never be alone when you visit this area. Thousands of years from now all of this will still be here because the bones and the spirit of our ancestors will always be here. When you pray today think about those people who have passed on. Put them in your hearts, you are in theirs.”