|April 24, 2014
Medicine Tree's history is more than cultural; it's also territorial
By B.L. Azure
Tribal folks of all ages traveled to the Medicine Tree Thursday to participate in the spring sojourn to the Bitterroot Valley ancestral homelands of the Bitterroot Salish. (B.L. Azure photo)
MEDICINE TREE — As you travel south in the Bitterroot Valley on U.S. Highway 93 the Bitterroot Mountains begin to pinch the valley bottom flatlands into a narrow passage that the meandering west fork of Bitterroot River carved after the last Ice Age gouged through the area. For hundreds and hundreds of years the Bitterroot Salish traveled the narrow river valley to seek spiritual guidance and physical sustenance.
Nowadays the narrow valley walls are liked cupped hands that gently push, prod and point the way to the Medicine Tree, just as surely as they pushed, prodded and pointed the way for the Bitterroot Salish ancestors to the Medicine Tree and beyond.
The present day Salish people travel to the Medicine Tree as a group twice a year, in the fall and in the spring. Last Thursday a large entourage traveled from the Flathead Reservation to the Medicine Tree to continue the traditional sojourn.
The event opened with a prayer by Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre, followed by a welcoming by Tribal Council Chairman Ron Trahan and words from Pend d’Oreille Elder Stephan SmallSalmon.
SPCC Director Tony Incashola (left) and Ira Matt of the Preservation Office prepare to toss the prayer offerings to the branches of a Ponderosa pine near the original Medicine Tree. (B.L. Azure photo)
“On the way here this morning I thought about the old people,” SmallSalmon said. “Why? Because this is where all the old people prayed. Every time I come up here I feel good because of them.”
SmallSalmon, 76, encouraged all gathered at the Medicine Tree to learn their native tribal tongue, in this case the Salish language. It helped him to better understand what the old Salish and Pend d’Oreille Indians told him about the area and the traditions a long time ago.
“We are losing a lot of elders now. Soon all you young people will be the elders. Learn your language and traditions so you can carry this on,” SmallSalmon said. “This is a big day because we are carrying on this tradition, this Medicine Tree. My prayer is that I will be back again the next time we come here.”
Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola gave a bit of background about the area. He said U.S. Forest Service officials bored into a similar sized Ponderosa Pine as the Medicine Tree and dated it to be 375-400 years old.
“This tree has been here for quite awhile. The Medicine Tree is an important part of our lives. It is part of who we are as a people, a landmark of one of our creation stories,” Incashola said. “We all know that the animals were here before us. The Coyote and Fox marked this land for us. They got rid of all the evil that was here.”
Pend d’Oreille Elder Stephen SmallSalmon (left) lightened up the mood at the Medicine Tree sojourn. SPCC Director Tony Incashola is on the right. (B.L. Azure photo)
According to Salish traditions, the Coyote tricked the Bighorn Sheep Ram that was guarding the lands in the narrow pinched valley near the Medicine Tree. The Ram, like a troll, wouldn’t allow people in or through the area. However, the Coyote played a trick on the Ram that resulted in the Ram’s horns becoming stuck in the Medicine Tree. Once stuck the Coyote cut off the Ram’s head so it could no longer stop the Bitterroot Salish from traveling to, near and out of the area of the Medicine Tree. That freedom allowed them to travel to the plains to hunt bison through the lands the Coyote had rendered safe with the tricking of the Ram.
The Salish and Pend d’Oreille people could use a bit of Coyote trickery these days.
“We continue to struggle every day to prove we belong here,” Incashola said. “Every day is a challenge to convince people who we are and why we’re here. This is the Salish homeland — it has been for thousands of years. We have these important landmarks throughout the whole valley.”
This past November representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes appeared before the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners to answer their queries about why the CSKT want to put the 58-acre Medicine Tree area site in federal trust status. In 1998, the CSKT purchased the 58-acre parcel from its present owners whom the CSKT has allowed to remain there until they pass on.
This group of time travelers motored south to the Bitterroot Valley to harken the past, cement the present and peak at the future of the spirit of the Salish people. (B.L. Azure photo)
The Ravalli County Commissioners oppose the transfer of fee land into federal government trust status, for purportedly the $808 annual property taxes the 58-acre parcel brings into the county coffers. The CSKT maintain the area is a sacred site.
“It is a part of our homeland as a sacred site. It is much like a holy shrine in the Middle East,” then Tribal Councilman Steve Lozar told the Commissioners in the November meeting. “We want to possess this holy ground. We want to possess it in trust, as is our right.”
With wonders about why the CSKT want to turn the fee land over to the federal government, Teresa Wall-McDonald, acting director CSKT Lands Department, responded that there are protective benefits in the trust status. The Tribes want to ensure that the spiritual site is protected in perpetuity so the tribal people of the Flathead Indian Reservation can travel there to worship, at the minimum of twice a year.
“It’s the same thing that we all do when we go to church,” McDonald told the commissioners. “I’m certain there are a number of religious organizations that are tax exempt in the county right now.”
McDonald said the CSKT, as a sovereign nation, get to decide what it does with its property.
Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre addresses the Medicine Tree sojourners. (B.L. Azure photo)
What the Bitterroot Salish decided many hundred of years ago was to worship at the Medicine Tree. That continued after the Bitterroot Salish people were forcibly removed from their Bitterroot homelands to this day. And that’s the way it will be when all those who presently make the twice annual sojourn have passed on. With vigilance there will always be Salish people and there will always be the Medicine Tree to nurture the spirit.
“Our way of life changed when we were forced onto the (Flathead) reservation, away from our traditional ancestral homelands,” Incashola said. “These Bitterroot homelands contain our churches, temples and sacred grounds because of what happened here long ago. We need to get our young ones to understand how important that is, how important it is for them to understand what the Medicine Tree is. We must protect our traditional values; they are what brought us here today. We do have a lot to be thankful for: our people, our families and our traditions. It is our responsibility to hold on to our ways and to pass them on.”