By Rob McDonald

Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — As a child, Vernon Finley remembers the adults planning to exercise their off-reservation rights.

“They felt they had to sneak or hope no one noticed,” Finley said.

It wasn’t so much that anyone was actively fighting their rights, it was that everyone was ignorant of the Tribes' rights, including federal officials charged with protecting tribal rights. 

On October 22, Council, cultural leaders, multiple department heads and legal staff shared the Council chambers with an impressive lineup of US Forestry Service leaders who soaked in the tribal perspectives. Throughout the day, a theme came through – appreciation for the public land protectors acknowledging their duty to also protect tribal rights to use the land.

“These (federal) staff here, they have to protect the rights,” said Finley, director of the Kootenai Culture Committee. “Don’t think it’s unnoticed or unappreciated.”

In the crowd was notable guest Leanne Marten, Regional Forester of the Northern Region. She manages 25 million acres of federal lands spanning five states, 12 national forests and also national grasslands in North and South Dakota.

Marten listened to Tony Incashola, Sr., director of the Selis Qlispe Culture Committee, say he felt hopeful in part because of everyone in that room Tuesday. In response Marten delivered a clear message, one that wasn’t always heard years ago.

“It’s not that we have to listen, Tony. We want to,” Marten said.

Among those listening were forest supervisors, Carolyn Upton, Lolo NF, Cheri Ford, Beaverhead/Deerlodge NF, Mary Erickson, Custer/Gallatin NF, Chad Benson, Kootenai NF, Bill Avey Helena/Lewis and Clark NF, Chip Weber Flathead NF, Jeanne Higgins, Idaho Panhandle.

They heard of tribal staff challenges of intercepting quagga-infested boats heading for Flathead Lake, and of misunderstandings of tribal hunters practicing their right to harvest bison.

Preservation Department head Mike Durglo, Jr., said the gathering Tuesday was historic and he reported that while it wasn’t always the case, federal agencies are consulting with the Tribes before starting projects.

“They are listening to us, actually listening,” Durglo said. 

There are times when digging in the ground near known cultural sites is just not acceptable. That kind of input is taken, factored and used to adjust projects so Tribal concerns are met, he said.

Durglo held up an example of further understanding. The week before, tribal children planted bitterroot at the Fort Missoula Regional Park, something that was welcomed. In years past, even requesting to pursue such a project would have led to a conflict and hard feelings.

“The fact we’re all in the same room is a step in the right direction,” said Kyle Felsman, a Preservation culture resource technician.

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