THREE FORKS — Members of the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee (SQCC), Elders Committee, Salish Language Adult Apprentice Program, Nkwusm staffers, and others recently followed the trail blazed by the Bitterroot Salish Ancestors to south-central Montana. Nearly forty folks stopped at the Missouri River Headwaters State Park and the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park near Three Forks.
Both are managed by former Missoula resident Dave Andrus. He welcomed the entourage and encouraged them to continue to come to the parks and to contribute relevant historic information that is appropriate to the sites so it could be incorporated into his presentations.
The Missouri Headwaters State Park is where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers merge to form the 2,300-mile Missouri River that eventually empties into the Mississippi River. It is a National Historic Landmark and where Sacagawea was captured as a child. She eventually returned with the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery in 1805.
However it wasn’t undiscovered as many Indian tribes including the Bitterroot Salish routinely visited the area for various reasons for thousands of years.
“It’s good to come back here,” said SQCC Director Tony Incashola. “We don’t live here but it is still our home. We still can use this place to teach the youngsters what went on here.”
What went on “here” was part of the hunting, gathering and fishing subsistence way of life of Indian people. For the Bitterroot Salish it was all that as well as a lay over on the way to buffalo hunting on the plains.
A few miles away southeast of the Missouri Headwaters State Park is the Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. It is situated on the edge of a broad valley carved by the Madison River. The indigenous tribes used the high limestone cliff for 2,000 years and as recently as 200 years ago. Buffalo bones still lie buried at the cliff’s base, and archaeologists have located the tipi rings of an extensive village. There are historical references to the Bitterroot Salish using buffalo jumps to harvest buffalo. Buffalo was the one of the prime animals that Indian tribes used for sustenance, and numerous other reasons.
“The animals were here before us humans. They prepared the land for us, took care of us, fed us,” Incashola said. “When we came we took care of the animals. They played an important role in our survival. The Elders speak to the animals because all living things are equal. There is evidence of our people being here. That’s why it’s important to pass this history on to the younger generations so it doesn’t disappear. That’s what our Ancestors did for us. That’s what keeps this place alive for us. There is a power in these places; you can feel it. It reminds us who we are as a people. The hope for the future generations is at places like this. They have to carry on the ways of our people.”
Incashola shared a story about the Elders that visited the Ted Turner Ranch years ago, and got a view of relatively free-ranging buffalo.
“Felicite (McDonald) and Agnes (Vanderburg) saw the buffalo and began talking to them through the window, saying they were glad to see them,” Incashola said. “The buffalo began grunting, talking back with the Elders. Their conversation with the buffalo went on for about 15 minutes. They both had tears in their eyes at the sight and conversation with the free roaming buffalo. They were free compared to those at the National Bison Range. These things, these stories we have to hold on to for those yet to come. Respect and live in harmony with the animals. Let’s put back in our hearts the gifts our Ancestors prepared and gave to us.”
Incashola emphasized the importance of the young ones picking up the cultural baton as many of the Elders on the Elders Committee have passed away recently, 13 in the last three years.
“Each time we come here we have lost someone who was here with us before,” Incashola said. “This was a sheltered area our people used to rest and escape the elements. Their footprints are all over the place.”
This year the footprints of Virginia Woodcock Brockie were imprinted in the dust. It was her first and last earthly trip to the Madison Buffalo Jump. She passed away a few hours after visiting the site.