Medicine Tree’s historic past honored by travelers
By Alyssa Nenemay
Nearly 100 people attended the annual Medicine Tree summit hosted by the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee. Each year a group travels three hours to uphold generation of tradition by visiting and honoring the tree. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
MEDICINE TREE — On a creek-side highway south of Darby, nearly 100 people gathered to pay homage to what remains of the sacred Medicine Tree. The 20-foot Ponderosa stump stood proudly as members of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee spoke on behalf of its significance to the tribal people.
“What are we thankful for?” asked SPCC Director Tony Incashola. “Every day you get up you should be thankful for another day. Be thankful everyday you see your children, your grandchildren, your family. Today, we leave our prayers (with the tree) and remember those who were here before us–whose foot prints are still here.”
The gathering follows generations of tribal people who have traveled to the tree in order to pray and offer bundles of thanks. According to ancient Salish accounts, the tree stood long before human existence and played a key role in ending a ferocious ram’s reign of terror in the Bitterroot Valley. Through a series of events, the ram smashed and trapped his own horns into the tree’s trunk where they have been entombed since.
Although the tree has always served as a historical monument to the Salish people, in 1823, its first non-Indian description was documented by Hudson Bay fur trader Alexander Ross in his journal: “Out of one of the pines…about five feet from the ground, is growing up with the tree a ram’s head, with horns still attached to it…”
Salish elder Louie Adams shared a darker piece of Salish history discussing the tribe’s forced removal from their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley in 1891. “Today, when you pray, pray for strength. Learn from what happened,” he said. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Salish elder Louie Adams took an opportunity to address the crowd and said the annual Medicine Tree summit highlights a darker event in Salish history. Headed by Chief Charlo, the last remaining band of Salish in the Bitterroot valley were forced by US officials to march over 100 miles to the current Flathead Reservation in 1891. The band had resisted moving from their homeland for nearly 20 years in spite of threats from the US Government.
“I’m always glad to be home,” Adams said as he gazed at the serene surroundings. “In 1891, the last of our tribe had to leave the Bitterroot in the early morning. Chief Charlo called everyone together and told them they had to leave that day ‘or else.’ He knew what ‘or else’ meant–soldiers have no respect for women or babies.”
Although Adams was not among those to march, he said trauma of forced removal remains. “Mrs. Holmes said that was the most humbling trip to take–everyone cried like babies, even the men. (Creator) put us here. Everybody was lonesome. I remember coming back here with the old timers and they’d cry sometimes. Our families are buried here. Today, when you pray, pray for strength. Learn from what happened.”
Once massive and majestic, the Medicine Tree has suffered through years of racially targeted vandalism as well as natural disturbances. During the 1890’s a non-Indian pioneer cut the ram’s horns off the tree and recently an unknown vandal attempted to use salt to kill it. Then in 2001, a storm split the tree’s trunk leaving the 20-foot stump that stands today.
An important component to the annual Medicine Tree summit is the opportunity to pray. (Photo By Alyssa Nenemay)
Like a lonesome relative, the tribal people will continue to travel nearly three hours to visit the tree and honor its significant role in in their culture and history. In spite of damages the tree has withstood, Incashola offered the crowd words of encouragement: “We’re doing our best to protect our very way of life the way the animals protected us. Regardless if this tree remains or not, this site will always be important to us. We will never forget,” he said.