Missoula Higgins Bridge name change is another trail marker in time immemorial journey of the Bitterroot Séliš

Char-Koosta News 

THE HOMELAND — The footprints of the Ancestors of the Bitterroot Séliš people have stirred the dust, flattened the grasses of the Aboriginal Homelands from the Bitterroot Valley to southeast Montana prairies east of Billings down to near Yellowstone National Park, to northcentral Montana at the Sweet Grass Hills and along the Milk River near Havre, and onto southern Canada, and westward into Idaho and eastern Washington. Their influence reached out to the Pacific coast through trading and other interactions with their brother Coastal Séliš Tribal Nations and other Northwest Tribes.

They camped, prayed, and played. They supped the natural bounty of the land — water, game, berries, roots — all over the vast landscape. They told the Ancestral Creation stories — and they created the Ancestral lore about the places where they tethered their mounts and set up camps. Those stories were continually passed down to the following generations that have created a spiritual connection from many thousands of years ago that continues to guide the keepers of the traditions of modern times.

Click the play to hear how to pronounce the new name for the Higgins Street Bridge.

Those stories were kept close to the vest of the traditional Séliš practitioners who handed them down in traditional storytelling seasons. Many of the Elders who were hardwired to those ancient times were in the twilight of their lives in the latter half of the 20th Century. They had witnessed the steady political and religious erosion of the old ways of life. They adapted as best they could but kept in their hearts and on their tongues the language of the stories, and the hope, the faith that was contained therein. Those ways were dished out in ever-shrinking parcels to those who carried on those old ways. 

In 1975, the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee (SPCC) was created, as was the Kootenai Culture Committee. The SPCC had in its lap an elusive goal of cultural preservation. Where to get clarification of that goal? Where to start with that goal? Talk to the Elders of that time was the answer.

Present Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee (SQCC) Director Tony Incashola, who was working at the SPCC at the time remembers those founding times well.

“The first group of Elders I worked within the mid-70s are the ones that set us on this road we are on. They were concerned about our language, our culture, our stories being erased from our memory, from our hearts. There is some information about our people out there but it is written, it is being told by non-tribal people,” Incashola said. “The Elders wanted the information out there told by them, as it was told to them by those whose Elders told it to them. First of all, they (Elders) wanted the information used correctly and honestly so that tribal members of today and those of future generations have the stories correct to pass on. That helped us define what this Culture Committee would be.”

Incashola said it took a bit of heart-to-heart assurance that what the Elders told them would be held in trust, and only used to correctly tell time immemorial stories of the Bitterroot Séliš.

“They said the stories were not their stories but were from hundreds, thousands of years ago and came from the Ancestors,” Incashola said. “Once we reassured them that is what we would do that, the floodgates opened up and the stories flowed.  They said ‘get the stories out there, so our young people know where they come from’.”

Among the Ancestral stories of the now gone-on Elders were expressed by the late-Pete Beaverhead was about the importance of telling where the Bitterroot Séliš meandered throughout their near-boundless Aboriginal Homeland. From those discussions with Beaverhead and other Elders came the two words “place names.” They — place names — had initial spiritual weight that through time have gained educational, social and political weight. 

“Place names are more than just names for a particular place but there are stories related to those places,” Incashola said. “Without those stories about the places our Ancestors have been lessens the connection to those places. The place-name stories solidify the connection to those times past. They help define and solidify who we are as a distinct people.”

Incashola said, following Beaverhead’s lead, the SQCC began with place names on the Flathead Reservation where more than 400 — and counting — place name areas have been identified. 

“We are still filling in gaps with the on-reservation place names,” Incashola said. The information the SQCC relies on for lion’s share of the names comes from the many volumes of tape recordings of the Elders beginning in the mid-1970s. The SQCC is still going through them, translating those in the Séliš tongue, documenting the information on them including the place names, and that’s why the “gaps” are continuously being found. “That’s why the place names on and off the reservation will continue to grow as we continue to go through the taped interviews.”

The spiritual power of the place names has also continued to grow in Montana.

An unlikely partner

Incashola said the Montana Department of Transportation was in the process of upgrading its historical marker signage on highways throughout the state a while back. Those noticeable large wooden signs like the one near Fort Connah on Highway 93 and just west of the Ravalli Bridge on Montana 200 are examples.

In the process of upgrading the signs, the MDT had become aware that some of the information when it came to Indians on the historical signage wasn’t accurate, and consulted with the various Tribal Nations to rectify the problem.  

Loren Frazier, who worked for MDT for 27 years in various capacities including Chief Engineer and District Administer, was involved in the informational upgrading and reached out to the SQCC, seeking their input on needed corrections. 

Through that process, Frazier became aware of the SQCC’s place name project and some of the locations near the state’s highways. Frazier tossed a suggestion that the SQCC took him up on. That was to erect signage of the Salish place names along the state highways that the MDT would pay for. 

“In a sense by placing the letter place name signs along the highways, MDT was a big help with these projects,” Incashola said. A big help indeed.

As a result of that relationship and the signage, the SQCC established a similar positive relationship with Missoula County and the City of Missoula Parks and Trails Departments, the Fort Missoula Regional Park, and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks where place name signage has been posted on trails and park locations in those areas of jurisdiction.

“Our good relationship with the Missoula County Commission started with some of those projects,” Incashola said. “Commissioner Dave Strohmaier was instrumental in a lot of those projects including the signage at the Fort Missoula walking trail and the trail in downtown Missoula.”

The Missoula County Commission (MCC), with Commissioner Strohmaier as point man, has in the last couple of years 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.”

Armed with the Missoula County Heritage Initiatives the MCC, has renamed the Mullen Road Master Plan for the development of the area Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan. Sx͏ʷtpqyen is a Bitterroot Séliš phrase that means “Where Something is Cut Off and Comes to a Point.” A place name — a story title — that contains the bones of a story about what the Bitterroot Séliš did in that area for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Now the MCC, as well as the City of Missoula Council, are promoting the effort to rename the Higgins Avenue Bridge in honor of the people who have left long washed and blown away footprints of the Séliš. Although the physical footprints are long gone the spiritual manifestations remain as indelible as the rising and setting sun that light the day skies, and the twinkly stars and orbiting planets that light up the night. 

Sx͏ʷix͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e

Sx͏ʷix͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e Bridge, AKA Bear Tracks.

The SQCC and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Tribal Council wholeheartedly agreed with the proposed renaming and set about coming up with a name. After reviewing the initial four proposed names they settled on a name for the bridge on January 27 that was not the original list: Sx͏ʷix͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e.

Incashola said the name refers to one of the three groups of Bitterroot Séliš that remained in the Bitterroot Valley Ancestral Homeland. In 1891 the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Missoula, under the direction of President Benjamin Harrison, forcibly removed approximately 300 of the remaining Bitterroot Salish from their Ancestral Homeland to the present Flathead Indian Reservation that was demarcated in the 1855 Treaty of Hell Gate. It is the Bitterroot Salish’s Trail of Tears. 

Some of the three groups crossed the rickety Higgins Bridge while a group under the leadership of a highly respected leader among the Séliš people, sub-Chief Louis Vanderburg led a group that forded the Clarkfork River near the bridge. In consultation with the surviving Vanderburg family members, the name Sx͏ʷix͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e was chosen in honor of the father of Louis Vanderburg Grizzly Bear Tracks in Séliš but in English, it is translated as Bear Tracks. 

That is the proposed name that the MCC and Missoula City Council both back for the under-reconstruction Higgins Bridge. The project is slated for completion later this year. 

The bridge is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation and renaming will require the approval of either the Legislature or the State Transportation Commission. The Missoula County Commission and the City of Missoula will seek the approval of the five-member State Transportation Commission.

“Place names are important. In a way, the renaming of the bridge is part of the recognition of the values of our past that are understood today. What’s happening now has always been the goal, the hopes, and dreams of the Elders of the past being carried forward; being recognized and respected as a people who have been on this land for thousands of years,” Incashola said. “To be recognized and respected as a people with the same goals as any other culture in the world to raise families, teach their people the ways of life as it should be in the pursuance of a life of safety, of happiness, of love for one another no matter the differences is what fulfills the Ancestor's dreams. Respect, that’s what our Ancestors have given us. To ignore others, to disrespect others, to look down on others is not humanity, is not the spirit of our Ancestors. Our Elders worked hard to get us where we are today, to recognize who we are as a people. Only through this process of respect and understanding will the future people survive. Not just Native people but all people. And not just respect for each other but also respect for all the creators that walk with us and the environment that sustains us all. All the gifts the Creator has given us must be cared for so they will be there for future generations so they too can enjoy these gifts.”

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