PABLO — The relationship among the Flathead Nation, and the Missoula County Board of Commissioners and the City of Missoula continues to blossom, with the two governing bodies’ efforts to acknowledge and highlight the time immemorial presence of the Bitterroot Salish in the Missoula Valley. The commissioners recently announced that they are naming the proposed development area on Mullan Road to reflect the presence of the Bitterroot Salish.
Last Thursday, the Missoula County Board of Commissioners voted to name the Mullan (Road) Area Master Plan to Sxʷtpqyen, which means “Place Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point.”
The Missoula County Commission along with the City of Missoula are also recommending a name change for Higgins Street Bridge, that is presently being reconstructed, to reflect and further acknowledge the Bitterroot Salish. In both cases the governing bodies reached out to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for their input, guidance and suggestion on the names for the development area and bridge.
The Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee (SQCC) recently forwarded four suggestions for the renaming of the Higgins Street Bridge to the Tribal Council for their consideration and choice of a name.
According to SQCC research, the Valley Creek area, Plains area and Mullan area were regarded by Séliš and Ql̓ispé as the three most important winter grazing areas for the Tribes’ famed herds of excellent horses, after the people adopted horses in the 1700s. The information was provided by Séliš Elders to the anthropologist Claude Schaeffer during the 1930s. So that’s another aspect of that place’s cultural importance in more recent centuries of tribal history.
“I was elated that the (Missoula) County came to us with the proposition to change the name of Mullan Road project,” said CSKT Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant. A portion of Missoula County is on the Flathead Indian Reservation. “We have a great relationship with Missoula County and the City of Missoula. They have such good hearts to include us in the conservation. I appreciate the consultation and feel very honored that the city and county consider working with the Tribes.”
The Missoula County Commission, with Commissioner Dave Strohmaier as point man, has in the last couple of years have named its meeting room after Salish cultural traditionist Sophie Moiese, and followed that up with the hanging the Flathead Nation flag at the commissioner dais alongside the State of Montana and United States flags.
Strohmaier had a minor epiphany awhile back while walking around Missoula. He took note that many of the streets and/or avenues as well as bridges in Missoula contained Caucasian names of early Missoula pioneers and U.S. presidents as well as other western names. That observation also revealed a lack on names that acknowledged those that inhabited the area long before the coming of white people. It’s sort of glaring like a smile without front teeth.
“We’re not recognizing the depth and importance that other cultures and other peoples have played in this place, in this community over time,” Strohmaier told MTN News recently. “As such it’s important to maintain and strengthen our relationships with this Sovereign nation in our midst.”
In that midst there are many areas the long-ago Bitterroot Salish left their footprints that sadly includes those of the Bitterroot Salish who remained in the Bitterroot Valley after the signing of the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate. In 1891 the U.S. Army, under the direction of President Benjamin Harrison, forcibly removed the remaining Bitterroot Salish from their Ancestral Homeland to the present Flathead Indian Reservation. It is the Bitterroot Salish’s Trail of Tears.
“Our family stayed in the Bitterroot until they were removed under armed guard,” Fyant said.
Fyant recalls the time when her late father Everett Fyant told her as a young child how the former-Shopko store at the junction of South Avenue West and South Reserve Street was a prime bitterroot area where the Bitterroot Salish came to gather and fish in the Clark Fork River. Everett and other young family members would come to the area with adult family members that would take a couple of days by (horse drawn) wagon to pick bitterroot at the former-Shopko area that is now “covered with pavement.”
Missoula City and County Parks Department, working with the CSKT, have planted bitterroot in the Missoula Regional Park near Fort Missoula, installed CSKT informational signage in the park walking paths, and at the Milltown Overlook Park as well as planned signage related to the former Rattlesnake dam, and along the Grant Creek pedestrian trail.
“The whole area is a part of our Homeland, we will always remember that,” Fyant said. “People are getting more and more accepting of that reality. That acknowledgement feels good.”
Any name change of Higgins Bridge, that is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation, would require the approval of either the Montana Legislature or the five-person State Transportation Commission.