People’s Center will arise from the ashes

Char-Koosta 

PABLO — Sunday evening’s fire at the People’s Center will once again test the tenacity, desires and resilience of the Séliš, Ksanka and QÍispé people. The building was insured and will be rebuilt. 

However, there is no mathematical calculation that can truly assess the metaphysical loss that rose star-ward in the flame and smoke Sunday night and Monday morning. How do you replace any lost artifacts? What is the price of priceless? It's not known at this time.

Fire fighters

Fire fighters quickly fight the People's Center blaze.

“The artifacts and other items belong in common to the people. They provide a connection to the past and once they are gone, they can’t be replaced,” said Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee (SQCC) Director Tony Incashola. “There is a spiritual connection with the actual items made by our Ancestors. They are revealing, they open your mind to what it was like long ago, and what it could be now and what could be in the future. You get a visual idea of what our Ancestors went through, what they did for us though their creations. They are a reminder of our past, they all have a purpose for defining who we are as a people. They identify the gaps we have to fill as we move on through the future. Our mission remains their mission to retain our traditions, culture and language.”

Throughout history there had been many hurdles in the way to retain those traditional foundations, and the People’s Center fire is the latest.

“I am really shocked. I am wondering how something like this could have happened,” said Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant, who has of an strong connection to the People’s Center.

Its physical incarnation came about by a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Administration for Native Americans. 

People's Center rotunda

Smoke roils out of the People's Center rotunda as the fire is attacked from the back.

Betty White was tabbed as the first director of the People’s Center in 1991. It was initially located in the basement of the Community Bank building in Pablo.

Fyant was working in Idaho for the U.S. Forest Service when a position as an administrative assistant at the People’s Center was advertised. She applied but didn’t get it, and as a result she was able to complete several American Indian related USFS projects she was working on. 

However, the successful applicant decided not to accept the position. By the time the job was re-advertised Fyant had completed the USFS projects, and she was able to move back in 1991 when hired as the administrative assistant. Then when White resigned two years into the grant and Fyant was asked by the Tribal Council to serve as People’s Center director for the remainder of the grant. 

“A lot of work, effort and love went into making the People’s Center a reality,” Fyant said. “To me it, the People’s Center is like another child that I had a part in raising. I sometimes look at it and think, ‘Gosh, that’s my baby.’”

Fyant was on the way from Idaho where she was with family digging x̣asx̣s  when she got news of the People’s Center. “I took a deep breath and thought about my baby.”

Current People’s Center Director Marie Torosian also has been involved in the dream and reality of the People’s Center since inception, serving on its initial board, and through the years with various positions and now as its director.

A firefighter cuts

A firefighter cuts through the brick wall to gain access to The People's Center.

When alerted about the fire, she and husband Arnold bolted to Pablo. 

“I was scared and feared we couldn’t get there fast enough. I just broke down, and didn’t know what to think,” Torosian said. “Why? I was hurting and angry, and wanted to know why someone would do something like this. I just don’t know why.”

However, when she found out who the alleged arsonist was, she knew the “who” but will probably never know the “why” other than he was charged with arson for the Plum Creek Mill property fire on Light Road.

The alleged arsonist, 33-year-old Julian Michael Draper of Pablo, had entered the building through a broken window and barricaded the entryways which prevented firefighters from easy access to the interior. A backhoe was eventually used to break through the walls to better fight the fire. 

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said the suspect, Draper, died in the fire. His body was found in an office located in the rear of the People’s Center. Draper’s remains were sent to the Montana Crime Lab for an autopsy.

Draper was recently arrested and charged with arson for a fire at the former Plum Creek Mill property in Pablo on Monday, August 24. He was on bond-release.

Beaded vest

One-of-kind beadwork, such as on this vest, survived the fire.

“I can’t understand why he was able to bond out without having a mental health evaluation,” Chairwoman Fyant wondered, since the provocation for arson is indicative of underlying mental/emotional issues. She said the suspect had been doing volunteer work on the grounds of the People’s Center prior to being charged for the Plum Creek fire but not after.

Torosian concurred. Due to COVID-19 precautions the People’s Center staff had been coming in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to work. Before the Plum Creek fire, the staff noticed a man, who turned out to be Draper on the compound grounds. 

Cautious and concerned, she told the staff to watch through the window just in case while she approached him and asked what he was doing. 

“He told me his name, and said his kids had been at the People’s Center at one of its public-school educational presentations, and that he wanted to give back, help in some way,” Torosian said. “He volunteered to clean up the grounds. I told him to keep in touch, that he had to contact us when he is on the grounds, and when we were here. But he never came back while we were here.”

However, the staff noticed that a rock wall he was stacking had gotten higher over a weekend away. And that was the last indication of his presence on the People’s Center grounds prior to the Plum Creek arson until Sunday night. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported that the fire was called in at the People’s Center in Pablo at 8 p.m. Sunday.

Porcupine quill moccasins

Many items in the museum, like these porcupine quill moccasins, survived the fire.

Kootenai Culture Committee Director Vernon Finley said he wasn’t going to speak for the KCC but personally he felt there had to be a reason for the fire.

“In my personal opinion, taking objects from the past and putting them in a repository or a glass case for public display, I don’t know how the Ancestors would feel about that,” Finley said. “History and museums are a Western concept, maybe our Ancestors would be taken aback by that.”

Thankfully the People’s Center wasn’t a total loss. Much of the front portion that includes the foyer, education room and museum display rooms was saved as were its contents, although some with considerable smoke and water damage. However, the repository room and its collection appear to be lost, as does the offices and commercial room. 

The salvaged collection, that includes the Doug Allard Elders photo collection as well museum, foyer and education room contents have been moved to the Dr. Joe McDonald Health and Activity Center at Salish Kootenai College.

Torosian said when she arrived at the scene and seeing the extent of the damage, she pleaded with the firefighters to save the front rooms that housed the foyer as well as the museum and education rooms. 

Irreplacable photos

Irreplacable photos of elders long gone were spared.

Torosian had nothing but praise and thanks for the local and tribal firefighters, and others including some tribal programs involved in the fire fighting and reclamation effort.

“I know they all worked hard and were feeling the loss as well,” Torosian said. “They apologized for not saving the building but no apology was necessary. They did their best and they did save the museum and artifacts collection, the Allard photos and the new Martin Charlo display.

“Life goes on and we will be back,” Torosian said. “Our Ancestors were resilient, they overcame many hardships in their lives. They overcame, they persevered and so will we.”

The Missoula Board of Commissioners offered condolences and assistance.

“I just learned of the tragic fire at the People’s Center,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier on behalf of the Missoula County Board of Commissioners. “Missoula County stands ready to help however we can.”

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