To many Aboriginal people Mother Earth is the Church of Indian Spiritualism. So it was, with the Ancestors of the Bitterroot Séliš and so it is with their modern-day descendants. There are altars spread throughout the vast bosom of Mother Earth where believers trek to seek spiritual sustenance.
The Medicine Tree is one of many altars where the spirits of the Bitterroot Séliš Ancestors, the people of the present and the future dreams of both co-mingle. Twice a year, in the spring and fall, present day Bitterroot Séliš trek to the Medicine Tree to reaffirm spiritual belief and connect with the Ancestors that left footprints, dreams, wisdom, lifestyle and spirits that waft throughout the Bitterroot Valley and beyond.
In the words of the late-Felicite McDonald, “This (Medicine Tree) is our Church. We have Churches all over and this is one.”
However, this spring, due to precautions related to the coronavirus COVID-19, the Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee decided to let caution be its guide and didn’t conduct its spring sojourn. Instead it advised people to take the trip on their own at a time that was convenient for them. The pandemic has negatively affected the health and concerns of people and tested their will and spirits. A trip to the Medicine Tree to co-mingle with the Spirits of the Ancestors can lift spirits and assuage souls regardless of any dark shadows that darken hopes, dreams and everyday life.
The Medicine Tree is a chapter of the Bitterroot Séliš Creation Stories that has been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. It is a spiritual light of guidance and an anchorage that renews and reinvigorates the spirit of the original people whose taproot is embedded deep into the bedrock of western Montana and whose spirit wafts horizon to horizon in its skies.
“Say your prayers,” McDonald said. “The Creator will hear them.”
There is no way for those who make the trek to not stand in the footprints of long gone on Bitterroot Séliš. There is no way to avoid sitting on the earth that once cradled the old Indians whose skin even the eldest of the Séliš of today never touched. But there is touching nevertheless: the entwining of the spirit of old with the spirit of today that forges the living monument to the perseverance of the Bitterroot Séliš.
According to Bitterroot Séliš traditions, when the Medicine Tree was young, a long, long time ago, it was the site of a battle between a huge mountain sheep ram and Old Man Coyote, a trickster. The ram was posing danger to the people at that vital transit point. 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. Séliš warriors chased Old Man Coyote away from the Medicine Tree before he could eat the sheep ram whose horn remained embedded in the tree for many years following.
The Medicine Tree — what is left of it — is located precariously close to U.S. Highway 93. 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 Séliš trail that they and other tribes, most notably the Nez Perce, used for various purposes like hunting, fishing, gathering, trading and celebrating.
The Montana Highway Department is presently in the process of rebuilding that section of Highway 93. The area where the Medicine Tree is located will be protected by a concrete wall that, as much as possible, blends into the surrounding landscape. The barrier wall will provide for the safety from the passing traffic.
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 fallen top of the Medicine Tree was moved to the property the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes bought just north of where the 20-foot stump remains.
It is a direct link to the past and the Ancestors that inhabited those times and who tenaciously clung to their ways — the “old ways” in present tongue. It is also a reaching out to the future and spiritually passing the torch to those yet to come.
“Our goal is to pass on what we know to the younger generations here so they can pass that knowledge on to generations yet to come,” SQCC Director Tony Incashola, Sr. has said in various ways many times. “Our families, our ways of life and the environment should be our number one focus. Preserve them for the future generations like the ancestors did — for us. Without their forethought, we wouldn’t be here. Without our value system, we would disappear, be no more.”
Prayers, speeches and touching of the original Medicine Tree are conducted at the site, and offerings are left at the new site where the remnants of the original were transported.
“We must remember those who have gone on before us. They gave us so much. They left us so much. Each time we come here we are missing another member of our people. We don’t decide when we leave, the Creator does. Our Elders teach us that we must be prepared for the end, that every day could be our last and we should be thankful for what we have,” Incashola said. “The Creator has provided for us for thousands of years, that’s why we’re still here. If you have the lessons of the Creator, of your parents, of your grandparents, of your Ancestors in your heart you’ll never be alone when you visit this area. Thousands of years from now all of this will still be here because the bones and the spirit of our Ancestors will always be here. When you pray today think about those people who have passed on. Put them in your hearts, you are in theirs.”