Ravalli County commissioner hand delivers apology to Tribal Council
By B.L. Azure
Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman (left) presents Tribal Council Chairman Ron Trahan a photo of Chief Charlo and other Bitterroot Salish at the Medicine Tree. (B.L. Azure photo)
PABLO — This past November representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes honored a request from the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners to meet with them in Hamilton to discuss the CSKT’s intention to put 58 acres of fee land it owns at the Medicine Tree site into trust status with the federal government, in particular with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The CSKT representatives answered the commission queries that were somewhat jaded. But during the public comment period, a Ravalli County official testifying as a private citizen referred to off-reservation “drunken Indians” filling the jail cells at Havre. The information, he claimed was garnered during a fact finding journey throughout Montana.
Needless to say that reference and the general tone of the meeting rankled the CSKT five-person delegation. They said they made the trip south to the Bitterroot Salish ancestral homelands in good faith then were ambushed by tired but not worn out race-directed comments based on long held negative stereotypes of American Indians.
Since then and after an outcry by citizens in Ravalli County, the Board of Commissioners voted to apologize for remarks made at the November meeting. However the apology was not delivered until last week due to scheduling conflicts within the Tribal Council.
Consequently Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman made the northward trek out of the Bitterroot Valley last week to Pablo to meet with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes governing body as well as some staff members and to deliver the apology.
Former Tribal Councilman Steve Lozar discusses the meeting the CSKT representatives with the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners in November. Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman is on the right. (B.L. Azure photo)
“It’s an honor and privilege to come before you this morning,” Iman told the Tribal Council in his opening statement. He was the lone Ravalli County Commissioner of five to make the journey from the ancestral homelands of the Bitterroot Salish to the Flathead Indian Reservation. “Unfortunately this visit has kind of a somber note.”
The somber note first cracked during a Nov. 20, meeting between representatives of the CSKT and the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting was at the behest of Ravalli County to hear why the CSKT wants to put 58 acres of fee land it owns around to the Medicine Tree area in trust status under the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“As you folks can understand in a public meeting sometimes you don’t have control over public comment,” Iman said. “We had an unfortunate situation where a member of the public was less than respectful — we can’t take back what was said.”
However, you can apologize for the tenor of the meeting and that is what the Ravalli County Commission did.
“Ravalli County values the cultural heritage between the Salish people and the Bitterroot Valley and desires to further a positive relationship with the CSKT,” Iman said. “The Board (Ravalli County Commission) apologizes if public comments (at the meeting) caused offense to the Tribes. Certain comments did not represent the opinion of the Board or the majority of the people in Ravalli County. We hope you accept our apology”
Tribal Council representatives Terry Pitts and Lloyd Irvine, and CSKT attorney Dan Decker check out the photo J.R. Iman presented to the CSKT. (B.L. Azure photo)
The barbed comment came from Ravalli County Planning Board member and chair Jan Wisniewski of Darby. The commissioners did not re-appoint Wisniewski to the planning board when his term was up.
Wisniewski told those at the meeting that he had recently went on a fact-finding trip that included a stop in Havre. According to Wisniewski, he had discussions with law enforcement officials in the north-central Montana town. During the discussions with the Havre law enforcement officials, Wisniewski alleges that they told him that the Havre jails were filled with “drunken Indians” from area reservations, presumably the Rocky Boys and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.
“We do appreciate you coming up… and we do appreciate the apology,” said Tribal Council Chairman Ron Trahan. “I would like to note too all the people of Ravalli County that did contact us and apologized for what was said there. That was very heart warming to us… That showed us that they trusted in what we were saying we were going to do with that property. We do appreciate it. We always try to protect what is our homeland — that is part of our homeland — and anything that is sacred to us. That was what we are down there for is to protect that (Medicine Tree) property. That was kind of hard for some people to understand. I accept your apology and thank you very much.”
Iman then presented the Tribal Council with a historic photo of the Medicine Tree that included, among others, Chief Charlo.
“We came to our collective homeland in a good spirit that day but what we heard was difficult and that made it a not good day,” said former Tribal Councilman Steve Lozar. “I am glad you are here. I too would like to express my appreciation for our brothers and sisters in the Bitterroot Valley that stood with us so strong through a very difficult and trying circumstance. It’s worth the reconciliation and the good hearts that we an accept the apology with appreciation and sincerity.”
Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman and Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola shake hands after the Tribal Council accepted the apology from the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners for the racially sensitive remarks voiced at a public meeting last November in Hamilton. (B.L. Azure photo)
In closing Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola talked about the continuous struggle American Indians have walking their spiritual and cultural paths in a country that doesn’t understand the unique values on Indian people.
“The Medicine Tree brings back a lot of memories about who I am and where I come from. My parents and grandparents struggles, hopes and dreams, are also mine,” Incashola said, adding that he has witnessed much discrimination and racism towards American Indians during his 60-plus years on the planet. “Everyday in my life I encounter some sort of racism and a feeling that I do not belong here. And all we want as the first people of this nation, as Native Americans of this nation is to be treated with respect, to be treated equally as I’ve been taught by my grandparents who raised me. To treat all living things as an equal — not only people but also the animals, the trees, water. Those things are important to us.”
Incashola said there are more things that connect the diverse population of America than what separates them.
“In reality we all want the same things, a good life for ourselves, for our kids and future generations. I will continue to do what I do and believe what I believe because of the struggles and hardships of my ancestors. This land is home and will always be home. Our way of life is thick in the valleys of this country. The Bitterroot is just a small part of our home. A lot of our ancestors are still buried there. Our ancestors’ footprints are still there. We are still connected to a lot of the areas in our aboriginal territory,” Incashola said. “All we want is to be understood. That gentleman who said those unkind words, I felt the hatred he had mainly because he doesn’t understand who we are. When we don’t understand something as a people we hate it because we are scared of it. We, Native Americans, are nothing to be scared of. We are human and we want the same things as others. All we want is to be treated as anybody else. What we do in our lives, as Native American Indians is not necessarily for us but for our children, our grandchildren and those yet to come. That’s whom we struggle for so we can leave them a better place than what was left to us by our people and families. I came up here with a sick feeling but after listening to the people today, I feel that going back to what my grandparents used to tell to not give up and always have hope for the future. I think there is hope for the future, that there will be peace in the valley when we understand each other and respect the differences.”