|April 20, 2017
Despite the weather the Spring Medicine Tree trip has huge turnout
By B.L. Azure
People say a prayer at the Medicine Tree prior to moving on to the new area where offerings are left. (B.L. Azure photo)
MEDICINE TREE — Mother Nature’s on and off rain, and winds last Thursday didn’t — or couldn’t — dampen the spirits of the 150 souls of today that traveled from the Flathead Indian Reservation southward to the narrow confines of the southern Bitterroot Valley to reconnect with the souls of yesterday — the Bitterroot Salish at the Medicine Tree. The semi-annual Rez-to-the-ancestral-homelands trip is a spiritual uplift for the sojourners — a physical and metaphysical reminder of where they came from, where they are presently and where they are going to be tomorrow. The touchstone connection is the Medicine Tree that links time immemorial to the metaphysical time infinite. Between those infinite bookends of time are the teachings of the Bitterroot Salish that are, in part, passed down through the ages by the Medicine Tree.
Michael Quequesah, Jr. had to blanket-up to ward off the chill of the wind and rain. (B.L. Azure photo)
“I hope most of you know why we are here. We are here to remember the values that have been passed down to us. We are here to remember the Elders who gave us the stories, who gave us the values that lets us know who we are, that lets us know where we came from,” Tony Incashola, Salish Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee director, told the travelers. “We maintain the values so we can carry on into the future. These young kids must learn these values. They are the future and our job is to pass our ways to the new generations for them to carry to those yet to come.”
Just as the glacial ice carved out the fertile valleys while chiseling the craggy peaks of the Bitterroot ancestral homelands, the homelands carved the people who lived there. Those people, the Bitterroot Salish and their descendants will be forever anchored in spirit of the place. The Medicine Tree is one of the anchors.
Pend d’Oreille Elder Pat Pierre (center) addresses the Medicine Tree travelers in Salish. Tony Incashola is on the right and Stephen SmallSalmon on the left. (B.L. Azure photo)
According to Salish traditions, when the Medicine Tree was young, a long, long time ago, it was the site of a battle between a huge mountain sheep and Old Man Coyote, a trickster. The ram was creating havoc for anyone trying to pass through the narrowed area en route to or from the plains and other areas out of the Bitterroot homeland. Old Man Coyote challenged the sheep to butt the tree over. When the sheep tried to butt the Medicine Tree over his horns got stuck in the tree and the sheep eventually died there. With the area now safe for passage to things like the bison hunts the Bitterroot Salish would leave offerings at the Medicine Tree for safe passage and successful hunts.
“This is a good turnout,” Incashola said. “Every year we get some new faces, every year we are missing some old faces. Some people that were here last year are now gone. Today we can’t see them but we can hear them. They continue to exist in our hearts. They will never die as long as we carry on our ways.”
One of the gone but not forgotten is Louie Adams, who was a fairly regular Medicine Tree sojourner. He like many elders recognized the significance of maintaining spiritual, social and cultural connections to the Bitterroot Valley ancestral homelands. Many of his and other Salish people’s ancestors walked the earth there, died there and are buried there.
Ponchos and umbrellas were the garments of choice last week at the Medicine Tree. (B.L. Azure photo)
“I am thankful to see all the kids here. They are the future and they will continue to come here even if there is no (Medicine) Tree,” Adams said on one of his visits. “This is a sacred place.”
What is left of the Medicine Tree is located precariously close to Highway 93. The Medicine Tree was more than 300 years old when strong winds in the fall of 2001 broke the tree in two about 20 feet up from the bottom.
The highway follows the valley path carved by the meandering west fork of the Bitterroot River ions ago. The river corridor was in the past flanked by an old Salish trail that they and other tribes, most notably the Nez Perce, used for various purposes like hunting, fishing, gathering, trading and celebrating.
Adams recounted the story of the plight of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce people and their flight from the U.S. Army.
A large crowd at the spring Medicine Tree sojourn had to seek shelter under umbrellas. (B.L. Azure photo)
“Years ago when Chief Joseph and his people were being chased by the Army they came to this place to camp,” Adams said, pointing west to the open meadow across Highway 93 and the west fork of the Bitterroot River. “Their medicine man came over here (Medicine Tree) and prayed. He then went back and told the Nez Perce they should leave the area. Chief Joseph said the children were too tired to leave. After resting up they eventually left the area but were caught up to in the Big Hole.”
Adams said Chief Joseph later regretted not leaving sooner and not sending scouts back to see where the Army was.
Had Chief Joseph taken the medicine man’s warning about immediately leaving the area things may have turned out differently. Perhaps the battle between the Nez Perce and the United States at the Big Hole would not have happened. During the Battle of the Big Hole Chief Joseph’s people were able to allude the military and traveled north towards Canada. They never made it though and were eventually subdued and captured in the Bear Paw Mountains south of present day Chinook in north-central Montana and approximately 50 miles from the Canada border.
Only the brave braved it out for the group photo. About a third more of the folks hit the highway prior to the group photo. (B.L. Azure photo)
In many ways the struggle to survive as Indian people remains today.
“As you know it’s still a hard world we live in. You would think that after 500 years we would have gained some respect but no, nothing has changed. We are still not wanted; we’re in the way,” Incashola said. “We have a strong sense of our values. That’s why for thousands of years we’ve been able to carry on. We will leave our prayers here so we will be protected and guided on our journey. We must be strong, never give up and continue to pass on our ways. We were the first people here and we will be the last.”