Historical signs in Missoula park recount tribal history

Char-Koosta News 

MISSOULA — “Too often we don’t recognize the sacredness of place, the sacredness of the place we live,” said Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier in his remarks on behalf of the MCC at the recent dedication of the historical signage at the Fort Missoula Regional Park hiking trails. That statement probably best describes the dichotomy of the Western American non-Indian experience versus the American Indian experience with the environment. Both seen its value but from a different perspective.

The Fort Missoula signage is a short recount of the history of the Bitterroot Salish (Séliš) and Pend d’Oreille (Ql̓ispé) people in their Homeland. The commissioner and a delegation from the Flathead Indian Reservation were on hand to, among other things, officially recognize what is already known: the Missoula Valley area was a very important gathering place for the tribal people of the area.

Long before the coming of the non-Indian, the Bitterroot Salish (Séliš) and the Pend d’Oreille (Ql̓ispé) people held domain over much of what is now western Montana and beyond. The signs of occupation are everywhere if you know what to look for and where to look. That vision does not come from a few fleeting generations of transient people seeking hard riches. It comes from time immemorial occupation of place where the bones of the Ancestors have long ago turned to dust but where their spirits still rustle through the valleys, mountains, hills, trees and waterways of the Homeland whispering guidance to the seekers. In some ways that is what the historical signage will be doing, enlightening those seeking it and thanks to Missoula County many people will be seeing it.

“I want to thank the people of Missoula, the county commissioners who gave us the opportunity to set signs in this area, and commissioner Dave Strohmaier for being here today,” said Séliš-Ql̓ispéCulture Committee (SQCC) Director Tony Incashola. “This is one of the most important areas that the Bitterroot Salish used to dig bitterroot. The area is very important in our history. The whole area used to be covered with Bitterroot.”

Incashola pointed in an all points on the compass direction, scanning east to Mount Sentinel and Hell Gate Canyon, south to the Bitterroot Valley, west to the Bitterroot River and Council Groves, and north to the present day Flathead Indian Reservation — all part of the aboriginal territory the Bitterroot Salish (Séliš) and the Pend d’Oreille (Ql̓ispé) people called home: the time-immemorial Homeland that contains the spirits of the Ancestors that nurtures the souls of today for the journey ahead of those yet to come.

The area is presently sans of bitterroot but hopes are that some will be planted in parts of the regional park. The future could resemble the past if Incashola’s and Strohmaier’s hopes to transplant bitterroot in the area becomes reality.

“Hopefully in years to come we’ll see this area covered with bitterroot,” Strohmaier said.

“This is a small place so maybe we can get some bitterroot growing here,” Incashola said, adding that an effort to transplant bitterroot in the area was unsuccessful due to pests. “People used to ride the bus here not too long ago to pick bitterroot. We’ve come a long way as a people, who still managed our traditional way of life.”

However with the establishment of Fort Missoula, the aboriginal way of life would go the way of the bitterroot — sort of.

“The settlers were worried about the Indian people. Chief Joseph and his people still came here, to this area,” Incashola said of the Nez Perce iconic leader, who did spend time in the area on his historic run from the their homeland towards Canada and later in life on the Flathead Indian Reservation visiting friends. Soon the remaining Bitterroot Salish and Chief Charlo were finally exiled from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Reservation.

The digging of the bitterroot was— still is — the beginning of the annual harvest that begin in the spring, and are followed by the summer and fall harvests.

“Back then the people relied on the bitterroot, it was the start of the seasonal food harvests,” Incashola said. “This, we pass down to the young ones, it is part of who we are. It is our duty. Everything we do is to teach the next generation to carry on. Without that, without our traditions, we’ll disappear. We’ll be lost in the other world of other people. We have a lot of history to build our future on — we have to hang on to our history.”

Speaking of history, history is speaking.

“As many of you know in the last few years we’ve lost a lot of traditional people. They heard of this history from their Ancestors. They lived that life, now they’re gone,” Incashola said. “That generation is gone but we need to continue to pass down to the young people what they taught us. Our survival depends upon that.”

Part of what was taught is written on the historical signage for all to see, read and hopefully understand.

“We promised our Elders that we’d put up signs that were accurate so the people who read about us can understand who we are,” Incashola said.

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