ST. IGNATIUS — The September Labor Day weekend is the last hurrah of the summer vacation season. A time to relax and take the last leisurely breaths before the preliminary acknowledgement that the beginning of the short days of sunlight, and the long days of darkness are just a month rip off the calendar away. Time to prepare for the battles with Old Man Winter.
However, this past Labor Day weekend’s leisure for the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribal community was ripped asunder when the Sunday, September 6th night sky in Pablo was lit up by fire and darkened by smoke emanating from the blazing arson-caused fire consuming People’s Center.
Lost in the fire were many priceless and irreplaceable artifacts; however much was saved with various levels of smoke and heat damage, including the Doug Allard Elders photo collection, beadwork, and the museum, foyer and education room contents.
Also saved and untarnished were hope, faith and determination: the spiritual foundation that motivates the survival will of American Indians to continue the journey to the future, in spite of all the negative hurdles of existence placed on the trail to destiny.
“We are picking up and moving forward the best we can with what we have,” said People’s Center Manager Marie Torosian. “The staff and I decided to find our own office, and we looked around Ronan, Pablo and Kicking Horse.”
In a bit of fortuitous timing, the revival of the People’s Center and its new location had its genesis in a discussion between Marie’s husband, Arnold and St. Ignatius businessman Stuart Morton. Arnold had brought his vehicle to Morton’s NAPA auto business for some repairs, soon the discussion turned Marie’s search for a new location for the People’s Center staff.
The former Doug Allard restaurant on Highway 93 entered the calculus. Morton and Dan Coffman co-own the former Doug Allard complex, now called the Allard Stage Stop that includes a motel, fuel station and convenience store, candy, souvenir and novelty store, and huckleberry-focused business as well as the empty restaurant building.
Morton and Coffman were considering expanding and moving the huckleberry business into the restaurant building in the near future. However, they quickly recalculated that option, and the new option of moving of the People’s Center to the restaurant building came to fore.
It was an easy call, and a win-win for the Allard Stage Stop and the People’s Center. There is a lot of summer traffic that would be enhanced by the inclusion of the People’s Center and the increased traffic would enhance the business wing of the People’s Center. It would also enhance the People’s Center’s educational and artifact display wings, enabling them a larger audience to which they can inform the traveling public as well as locals about the tribal people who have called the area home for many thousands of years.
“Stuart felt like it would be a perfect fit to have the People’s Center there,” Torosian said. “And we feel the location is a good fit for us. Stuart will be adding us to his Allard Stage Stop ads. There is a lot of possibilities for us to better share our stories and Stuart wants the tribal history featured there.”
Marie quickly jumped on the opportunity and informed Tribal Education Department Director Michelle Mitchell about the opportunity — the People’s Center is part of TED. Mitchell and the People’s Center staff toured the building with Morton and decided it fit like a glove. They discussed the opportunity with the Tribal Council and they green lighted the option.
After a month of getting the lease language finalized, this past Thursday (Nov. 19) the lease agreement was signed.
“Right now, we have a one-year lease. We would like to buy the building and focus on the increased tourist activity,” Torosian said. “We already work a lot with tourism promotion groups, but everything is up in the air now.”
Since then, Marie and staffers Loushie Charlo, Geri Hewankorn and Aggie Incashola have been busting a sweat getting the new People’s Center ready for its public debut.
“Our goal is to get the gift shop open by December 1st,” Torosian said, adding that the KwaTaqNuk Resort and Casino is donating display cases, bookshelves and other such items from its now closed gift shop. And Mister Do-Everything, Kermit Clary, is helping with the move of that as well as presently in-storage salvaged items from the People’s Center with a moving van. “It will be a soft opening to let the people know we’re here. They can come and check out our gift shop and displays. We plan an open house event after we get the gallery all set up, soon after the New Year.”
When the tribal public got a whiff of the move a couple of weeks ago, Marie said, “People have been calling wanting to know when we are going to open, wanting to talk about this. Then by Thursday afternoon, after learning about the lease signing, they became ecstatic that it was really going to happen.”
Marie said the St. Ignatius People’s Center would be more of a gallery than a museum. On the main floor there will an informational display about the Labor Day holiday fire featuring the salvaged artifacts and those unable to salvage. Other displays will include historical photos of Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai people, a big screen TV featuring historical and educational videos.
The basement will be sectioned off with half being used for educational classes, that are slated to begin in the New Year under the direction of Aggie Incashola, and the other half a curator section where Geri Hewankorn will work on various artifact collections.
The loft space will house the staff offices.
All public interactions will be conducted according to COVID-19 protocols to protect the public and staff.
Torosian said the staff is working on re-branding the People’s Center’s mission related to its public image interface.
“We will be revisiting the People’s Center mission from its beginning to see how we could update it, change it,” Torosian said. “We will work with the Elders Committees and the Culture Committees to make its identification more personal and definitive to what we are. We are contemplating a new name. Right now if you Google ‘People’s Center’ you’ll get other things, businesses. We want a unique name that matches our uniqueness.”
The severely damaged People’s Center building is presently being gutted and various tests are being conducted to evaluate its structural integrity then map out its future.
The future of the recovered and salvageable artifacts is presently in the hands of conservator Nancy Fonicello of Ancient Artways Conservation, LLC. She has more than 40 years of experience working with ethnographic art and is well known for her expertise on American Indian artifacts. She is assaying damage, how to rehabilitate the items and how to properly care for them.
“The items, despite the damage, continue to tell our stories. Every one of them have stories, and they contain the stories of the people who made them,” Torosian said, adding that the items are presently being stored at the Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. “We are very grateful to the Cheff family for their providing a safe place to store the artifacts at their repository.”
Other such entities also offered a helping hand, including: The Fort Missoula Historical Museum, the Kalispell Hockaday Museum of Art, and the Museums of Association of Montana. The Smithsonian Institute also provided grant funding for the archival supplies.
Torosian said there are many other people and organizations that lent a helping hand and is extremely grateful for their assistance.
She is also grateful for her staff.
“I am proud of my staff for staying by my side and making this recovery happen,” Torosian said. “We are a good team, and we are moving forward together.”