Bittersweet story by Kim Briggeman of the Missoulian in Montana:
Direct descendants of Chief Charlo Angelic Cates, Cmomotus Peone and Lynn Hendrickson, from left, stop by to visit historic St. Mary’s Mission on Sunday afternoon during the annual Salish pilgrimage to Stevensville yesterday afternoon. (Linda Thompson/Missoulian)
STEVENSVILLE – It’s been nearly 120 years since the Bitterroot Salish left the Bitterroot Valley, but the roots remain strong.
“My great-grandmother, my grandmother and my mother were all on the march,” Virginia Fyant whispered in the back of the tiny St. Mary’s Mission chapel as Catholic Mass wound down Sunday afternoon.
Tony Incashola, director for the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, speaks during a Catholic mass at St. Mary’s Mission in Stevensville. (Linda Thompson/Missoulian)
The march of October 1891 was the final removal of Chief Charlo and 200 of his followers, who left their homes and walked down the valley, across the Higgins Avenue Bridge in Missoula, and up to the Jocko Reservation agency near Arlee.
An embittered Charlo never returned to the Bitterroot. But in 1911, the year following his death, the citizens of Stevensville sent an emissary to the Flathead agency to invite the Bitterroot Salish back for a visit to mark the 20th anniversary of their banishment.
According to historian Ellen Baumler, the resulting event was three days of feasting, dancing and storytelling. The Salish have been making the pilgrimage back to St. Mary’s Mission every third weekend of September for the 99 years since.
“We always come back … to reconnect not only with our ancestors but with a way of life that ended back over 100 years ago,” said Tony Incashola.
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Edward Paxson's portrait of Chief Charlo, who fought white settlement.
Western Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation occupies some of the most beautiful – and productive – land in that part of the world, situated in a broad valley to the south of Flathead Lake.
Nearly a century ago, that land was coveted, so in 1910, only months before the death of Chief Charlo – who had resisted white settlement of the reservation – the federal government opened up 60,000 of the reservation’s 2.1 million acres to homesteading. Now non-tribal families outnumber members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
That didn’t escape the notice of Lois Hart, who when she moved to the Flathead four years ago, took a long look around. “How did so many white people like us end up living on an Indian reservation?” she wonders in this Missoulian story.
Hart now heads the Polson Flathead Historical Museum, and wanted to take note of the event that so overturned the worlds of both tribal members and non-tribal people. So she went to the tribes and asked their input in an exhibit, stressing that if they didn’t want one, there wouldn’t be one.
“I told them it would be called a commemoration,” she says, “because it’s not a celebration.”
The commemoration will begin next year on the spring equinox, and end on the fall equinox. And yes, it will tell both groups’ stories, looking back into their histories – both individual and shared – and forward into the future.