“They are not like us. The earth is more real to them – much. They’re barely separated from it – each generation is born back to it, while we get further away all the time. We lose touch with our beginning, our senses get thick-skinned. But they are everlastingly sensitive.”
– Indian agent Ephraim Morse, in the 1944 D’Arcy McNickle short story “Snowfall”
Missoula reporter Kim Briggeman introduced Missoulian readers last week to Arleen and Louis Adams, who together found the almost forgotten grave of their ancestor deep in the Montana wilderness. A fitting read for Father’s Day:
NAM-A-SHA (Trail To Move On) – Arleen Adams wasn’t expecting this.
One day she was at home in Arlee, her dad’s great-great-grandfather the farthest thing from her mind.
The next she was up here at Francis Adams’ grave, high in the Bitterroot Mountains southwest of Darby, on the Stateline Trail with her father.
Louis and Arleen Adams stood side by side on the last afternoon of May, her open hand patting her heart as their voices blended in a Salish honor song. High school students from Missoula Sentinel and a knot of mentors listened spellbound as the joyful strains drifted over the mountain ridge.
“In the back of my mind, I really didn’t feel or know the significance of this until today,” Arleen said afterward, smiling away tears.
Now she understood why her father himself quietly wept on that day in 1975, when 11-year-old Arleen scrambled down this slope and found the overgrown grave site – or rather an almost hidden sign that marked it. Louis knew it wasn’t up the trail where Pete Pierre had placed the headstone that read:
Francis Adams/ 80 years old/ Died 1900/ Salish Indian
Pierre was born in 1900 and died in 1982. He was a Salish elder and a man known for his careful research into place names in the West Fork of the Bitterroot for the Salish-Pend Oreille Culture Committee. Adams said Pierre had unsuccessfully searched for the grave on horseback earlier that summer, setting the headstone at a survey stake perhaps a mile away.
Adams based his own search with Arleen on a description he’d heard from his grandmother, Louise Vanderburg, and her aunt, Mary Ann Coombs.
“They said it was ‘ch-sh-ee’ – on a ridge like this,” he told the students and their mentors. “And by golly, we was coming down here and my daughter hollered at me. She said, ‘Dad, come here. I want to show you something.’ ”
She’d discovered a small wooden sign, all but obscured by the branches of the Douglas fir it was nailed to. On it were the dehumanizing words: “Indian Graves.”
“I knew this was it because I dug around and found some little rotten lodgepoles on the ground. My grandma said when they first buried him here they put a nice, little lodgepole fence around the grave,” said Louis, a U.S. Navy veteran, cultural leader and former tribal council member with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Not a lot is known about Plassie, who in later life adopted the white man’s name Francis Adams. He was born with deformed feet, and was fitted with little crutches when he grew old enough to walk. Plassie could ride a horse as well as anyone, and throughout his life, whenever some of his people were going into the mountains, Plassie was there, too.
If he was indeed born circa 1820, Plassie would have been a young man when a group of Jesuit priests and lay brothers led by Father Pierre DeSmet arrived in the Bitterroot Valley to establish St. Mary’s Mission, Montana’s first permanent white settlement. He’d have reached 30 about the time Maj. John Owen bought the mission at Stevensville and turned it into a trading post.
Perhaps Plassie played a role in the Hellgate Treaty negotiations with Gov. Isaac Stevens at Council Grove near Missoula, or in the controversial contract with future president James Garfield in 1872 that sent the bulk of Plassie’s people to the Jocko, or Flathead Reservation.
Spring was a time of dispersal for the Salish, Louis Adams told the Sentinel High School students. They left their winter homes in the Bitterroot or, later in the 19th century, the Jocko and Mission valleys for hunting and camping grounds that could range from the buffalo country on the plains of Montana and Wyoming to the Columbia River.
In 1891, Chief Charlo and the last big band of Salish were forcibly removed from the Bitterroot Valley. Mary Ann Coombs was a young girl among them, and in later years told Louis Adams the story of the humiliating march to the Jocko.
She also talked of Charlo’s trip up the West Fork of the Bitterroot into the Selway River country nine years later. An elderly Plassie was part of the small band that spent the summer at a campground called “Neesh-tetg” – deep, slow water.
A rock was said to stretch across the stream at that point. When Adams accompanied the Sentinel students in the Selway last spring, their first of what English teacher Cheryl Hughes hopes to make an annual Selway Sojourn, he looked in vain for a place that fit the description.
Plassie died that summer of 1900; how Adams never learned. Standing by the grave marked “Francis Adams,” he told the teenagers about the old man’s final ride home to the Bitterroot, as he’d heard it from Coombs and Vanderburg.
Charlo’s party draped the body over the back of a horse but it kept sliding off, Adams said. When they reached the top, at the Idaho-Montana border, they agreed to make this his final resting place.
“I told my dad one time he probably kept sliding off his horse on purpose, so he could be buried here,” Adams quipped. He directed his young audience’s attention to the spectacular view from the meadowed ridge that swam with yet-to-flower beargrass. Castle Rock, an important landmark in this country, rose to the south and east in the overcast and mountain range after mountain range spread at their feet.
Coombs and Vanderburg were old enough to remember regular excursions into the Selway, which probably ceased a few years after Plassie died. In 1975, they were excited to hear that Louis and Arleen had found the grave, and Adams hatched a plan to get them back up to see it.
Pierre agreed to take his four-wheel-drive pickup to the area. Adams said he and an uncle cleared a path on the steep slope to get the truck the mile or more to the grave with the two women inside.
“We told Pete right off the bat, ‘Now remember, we might all end up in jail because you’re not supposed to have vehicles up there,’ ” Adams said. “But they were all willing to take a chance, and that’s what we did. We cut that trail out, even through the first part, the steep part, and we got up here finally.
“And, boy, you’ve never seen two happier old ladies than my grandma and her aunt.”
They climbed from the truck and walked to the grave to pray. They spent time talking about their memories of Plassie and his legacy. Coombs asked the men if they were thirsty.
“We thought she had some Pepsi Cola or something in the pickup,” Adams said.
Instead, Coombs directed one of the other men to fetch an empty bucket from the truck,
“He took it to her and said, ‘What are we going to drink?’ ” Adams recalled.
Coombs pointed to the trail and to a nearby rise. Where it turns left, you’ll see a game trail off to the right, she told them. Follow the game trail and before long you’ll hit water.
Adams and his uncle set off down the trail with the bucket.
“He was laughing. He said she hasn’t been up there in over 70 years and she thinks there’s water up there?”
Adams found the game trail and, sure enough, before they’d gone any great distance they heard flowing water, high on a 7,000-foot ridge. A spring emerged from the mountainside beneath a big Douglas fir.
“Man, that must be the coldest water in Montana,” Adams said with a smile.
When the men returned with the bucket full, Vanderburg mentioned an old campsite in the same area. It was marked by a large rock, under which were pots and pans left by passers-by long ago to cache until the next trip into the Selway.
“She said they’re probably still there,” Adams said. “If I was younger and could get around I’d go look for that, because it couldn’t be too far from that spring.”
Sometimes, Adams told the teens, he wishes he’d been born a couple of hundred years earlier, when trips like this were the norm.
“This is our people’s stomping grounds,” he said.
“I would give anything – I’ve heard my dad say this many times – to be able to have grown up in that time … and to know what it was like to survive in that day,” Arleen Adams said when she joined her father at the grave.
She’s 48 now, 30 years younger than her father, with children and a grandchild of her own. She’d caught wind just the day before of her dad’s plan to guide the Sentinel students to the gravesite she’d found 37 years earlier.
“I told him I’m going, too,” said Arleen, who works at a funeral home in St. Ignatius after years with the tribe and teaching at the Nkwusm Salish Language Institute in Arlee. She’s also a longtime officer in the International Traditional Games Society and a respected Salish culture expert in her own right.
Her father has always been a mentor and a storyteller for her, Arleen said, and she’d been up here a few times with him since 1975.
“At the time I was 11, I didn’t feel nothing,” she said. “I guess I was too excited, camping and running around. I watched my dad cry at that time, but the few times we’ve been up here between, I never really thought about it until today.”
Plassie and his story, as told here by her own father to rapt strangers from disparate backgrounds, brought immediacy to Arleen’s own sense of historical displacement.
The family has its own cemetery in the Jocko, and Arleen asked her father about moving Francis Adams’ remains there.
“He said no, that’s not his home. I understand and I feel that. They moved us that way, this way – whoever, whatever, I don’t care,” she said.
“After working at the funeral home for a few years … there’s not many places you can call home. This is our home. I’m home, and I can come here and visit my great-great-great-grandfather.”