The future of the Medicine Tree hangs in the balance between nature’s process and human’s progress

By B.L. Azure

Char-Koosta News 

MEDICINE TREE — The future of the remnants of the Medicine Tree seems to be hanging in the balance. The 20-feet stump’s base is rotting and without a solid base it will topple some day. The Medicine Tree is also threatened by the proposed reconstruction of U.S. Highway 93. The location of the tree on the east of the highway and the East Fork of the Bitterroot River on the west side make for a tight squeeze for the roadway. Whatever, either natural or manmade processes will have an effect on the future of the Medicine Tree.

There was a tint of anguish in Séliš-Ql̓ispé Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola’s voice when he discussed the future of the remaining remnants of the Medicine Tree at the fall sojourn. More than 100 people made the journey.

The Medicine Tree is a vital chapter Bitterroot Salish Creation stories but what’s left of its physical presence is the 20 feet stump but its spirit wafts heavily in the area and in the hearts of many of the present day Salish — it recharges the spirit.

“When the Medicine Tree falls, hopefully we will get all the pieces to move to the new location,” Incashola said. “But whatever happens here the sacred Ancestors spirits will always be here.” 

The new location is a couple of hundred yards to north of the Medicine Tree. The fallen top of the Medicine Tree lies at the base of the new tree where offerings are made.

The Medicine Tree — what is left of it — is located precariously close to Highway 93. It is estimated to be about 400 years old. The highway follows the valley path carved by the meandering west fork of the Bitterroot River thousands of years ago. The river corridor was in the past flanked by an old Bitterroot Salish trail that they and other tribes, most notably the Nez Perce, used for various purposes like hunting, fishing, gathering, trading and celebrating.

According to Salish traditions told in stories only spoken after the first snow has fallen, when the Medicine Tree was young, a long, long time ago, it was the site of a battle between a huge mountain sheep and Old Man Coyote, a trickster. Old Man Coyote challenged the sheep that was blocking the trail and terrorizing those who tried to pass by 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 old Bitterroot Séliš Trail was now safe place for all. It is a Creation story that links the present day Séliš and Ql̓ispé people to the area spiritually. Twice a year they reconnect with the area where the Bitterroot Séliš spirit hangs heavy.

“This is a big important part of the history. It’s always good to come back here and express our thankfulness to the Creator for the gifts of our language, culture, traditions and values — our identity — that our Ancestors passed down through time from generation to generation,” Incashola said. “Our identity — our strength — remains here as long as we keep the Elders stories alive. Our identity is our survival. Always remember who you are. You are Indian, you are here today to lead the way forward for the children of today and those yet to come like our Ancestors did for us.”

Incashola said the Bitterroot Séliš and Ql̓ispé people as well as all Indian tribal people have survived despite the odds against them by provocateurs of the dominate society.

“Sometimes it’s hard to believe we are here today but we are. Our strength is you, those who carry the ways of the Séliš and Ql̓ispé people,” Incashola said. “Always bring forward the dreams of the Elders so the values of our people will always be carried forward. Bring them forward even though at times that don’t look so good.” 

Incashola said the strength and tenacity of the Elders in his life is what grounds him in times of doubt.

“If our Ancestors gave up we wouldn’t have a reason to be here today. Their cultural values are the foundation we stand on,” Incashola said. “If it weren’t for the Ancestors stories our Elders passed to us we wouldn’t be here today. We must tighten our grip on the Ancestors spirit. Their lessons from the past will guide us to the future.”

J.R. Pluff journeyed from Usk, Washington to be at the fall Medicine Tree sojourn. 

“When I think of all the things we do in life, this is it right here where we come back to the land to hear the stories of the Séliš people. It makes our lives real, grounded and a thousand times more valuable then the other things life requires,” he said. “This is a big deal. I am grateful to be here. Our prayers will forever remain here with the spirits.”

Séliš Elder Annie Vanderberg-Bunce said she not only gets a spiritual lift from visiting the Medicine Tree but also from the effort to save the Séliš language.

“More and more our kids are learning how to speak Salish,” Vanderburg-Bunce said. “These young kids are keeping the language going and that’s what makes me happy.”

Incashola said he had a restless night prior to the Medicine Tree trip.

“I woke up feeling confused,” “Then the Elders spoke to me in my mind. Once again I promised that I would continue to tell their stories, the Creation stories of our Ancestors,” he said. “I always think of the Ancestors, the Elders who used to sit here. It’s painful sometimes to think of those who are not here but the thoughts of them keeps me grounded. When you have questions ask the spirit of the Elders, they will guide and strengthen you.”

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