By Kim Briggeman, of the Missoulian:
STEVENSVILLE, Mont. — Somewhere along the line, history flip-flopped here in the Bitterroot Valley. In September 1841, the Salish Indians joyously welcomed the Black Robes to their homeland in the shadow of what to them were the “Red Top Mountains.”
On Sunday, a couple of days short of 172 years later, the people of the valley welcomed back the Salish.
Elders and cultural leaders and their children from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation were central figures as the Historic St. Mary’s Mission celebrated its annual Founders Day.
“We should enjoy ourselves, gather together and eat a lot of hot dogs,” said Pend ‘Oreille elder Stephen Smallsalmon, drawing chuckles from the more than 200 people who gathered on a drizzly day for the occasion. “It’s good to have that laughter,” he said. “Laughing is one of the best medicines to honor your elders and your children.”
Smallsalmon, clad in full regalia, played the part of Chief Tjolzhitsay in a brief re-enactment of the arrival of three Jesuit priests and three lay brothers. The priests baptized Tjolzhitsay as Paul, and Father Pierre Jean DeSmet christened him “Big Face,” the moniker that has stuck through the ages.
Between 1831 and 1839, Big Face had sent four delegations to St. Louis requesting the Jesuits come as their teachers. Only the fourth entourage was successful, resulting in the arrival of DeSmet and fathers Gregory Mengarini and Nicolas Point and the Jesuit brothers, all of whom were represented at the program Sunday.
Mere months later, Big Face died at age 90.
His successor was Victor, who gained great prestige after the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 and in 1866 successfully requested Jesuit missionaries return to rebuild St. Mary’s.
Victor’s cabin, built for him by Maj. John Owen of Fort Owen in the winter of 1861-62, remains on the museum grounds, and Sunday tribal members raised the Flathead Nation Flag in front of it.
Victor was succeeded as chief by his son, Charlo, and it was Charlo who led his tearful people from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Reservation in October 1891.
On paper, it’s been somebody else’s homeland ever since.
Among those on hand Sunday was Victor Charlo, a poet/playwright from Old Agency near Dixon. A direct descendant of the two chiefs, Charlo is now hailed as a spiritual chief and a man who has “lifted the heartbeat of his people to a great and better understanding,” said publisher and historian Dale Burk, who wrote and narrated Sunday’s skit.
Charlo was accompanied by the latest two generations of the Victor-Charlo line – daughter Claire, a tribal attorney, and her two children. As a light rain began Vic Charlo told the audience, “I’m glad that you could all be here and I welcome you to this place, even though I don’t belong here any more.”
He said he wished there could be “a home that we could come to” in the Bitterroot, “so that we could say, ’Yeah, this is still our place.’ I think that would be really good.”
Past Founders Day celebrations have included the Salish but focused on other aspects of St. Mary’s long history. Last year it was Father Anthony Ravalli, the man who was the face of the rebuilt mission, on the occasion of his 200th birthday.
Steve Lozar of Polson, a tribal councilman and executive committee member of the Montana Historical Society Board, thanked the museum staff and its director, Colleen Meyer. They’ve worked hard over the past four or five years to enhance the Salish presence at St. Mary’s.
They “recognize in a very open and sure way that this is our place, this was our place, this will continue to be our place,” said Lozar.
He spoke from under the robe of a white wolf, and represented in the reenactment a distant relative, Gabriel Prudhomme. A Cree and French-Canadian who was adopted into the Flathead tribe and died in the Bitterroot in 1856, Prudhomme is one of the truly overlooked heroes of pre-territorial Montana.
He was an invaluable guide to DeSmet’s party as well as those of Lt. John Mullan, who explored the mountain passes of the Rockies for Gov. Isaac Stevens’ railroad survey in 1853 and 1854.
Prudhomme was “very multi-lingual,” Lozar said, and that skill placed him front and center in many of the era’s important moments as an interpreter — including the interaction with the Jesuits from Italy and Belgium as they set about establishing St. Mary’s Mission in 1841.
“They were no sooner settled in camp than Father DeSmet, together with some Indians who knew a little French, began translating prayers into the Flathead tongue,” wrote historian Lucylle Evans in “St. Mary’s in the Rocky Mountains. “His best interpreter was Gabriel.”
Evans said many of the Salish had yet to return from the summer buffalo hunt when DeSmet and Co. arrived that September day via two-wheeled ox carts. There was little food in the larder, and a lay Brother asked Father Mengarini what to do.
“Cook what you have. God will provide,” answered Mengarini, who Sunday was represented by Jesuit father Rich Perry of St. Francis Xavier in Missoula.
That very afternoon the hunting parties began to arrive from the eastern plains, each with a load of dried buffalo meat, some 70 bales in all, weighing more than 2 1/2 tons.
According to Evans, the Black Robes “took possession of the promised land” on the first Sunday of October, planting a cross on the banks of the Bitterroot River to mark the spot they first chose for a residence. (The site was moved back from the river twice in the next nine years before the missionaries abandoned the site and Owen took it over to build a trading post in 1850. The present site of the mission and of Stevensville was established when Ravalli re-established the mission in 1866.)
On Sunday, the men portraying the Jesuit Brothers planted another wooden cross on the “stage” on the grounds of the mission museum.
“We have indeed located our mission in the exact right place,” said Father Point, a.k.a. John Winthrop. “For there can be no doubt we could not have found any place better anywhere else.”