By Michael Howell
Director of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Cultural Committee Tony Incashola spoke to a small gathering of people in Stevensville recently about his tribe’s struggle for spiritual survival in the modern world and the importance of the Bitterroot Valley in that regard.
“The tracks of my ancestors are all over this valley,” said Incashola. In addition to the many tracks and trails, there are other signs remaining of their long occupancy. There are pictographs, for instance. The tribe does not advertise the location of these sacred spots, hoping to protect them from abuse and the kind of degradation that occurs simply by constant visitation, especially by those who may not show the respect that these sites deserve. And then there are the ‘natural landmarks’ made in the early days of creation that tell the story of Coyote and Fox and how the land itself came to be formed as it is, and answering crucial questions, such as why there are no salmon in the Bitterroot River.
One of the most well-known landmarks is the “Medicine Tree,” located in the south valley. According to legend, Coyote tricked a large Ram that was terrifying people in the south valley into charging the tree and embedding its horns there, saving the people from future harassment. Many native people still come from the reservation to visit the tree and leave gifts, despite the fact that it was mostly destroyed by a lightning strike and the remaining portion poisoned by vandals.
And then there are the many ‘unmarked spots’ in the valley, in secluded areas, where a person was given a song.
“Indian people did not make up their songs,” said Incashola. “They went into nature and found them. They were given their songs.”
He said that songs were a very important part of life for native people. There were songs for food, for weather, for spirituality.
“We sang songs for everything,” said Incashola. “It was a kind of prayer. It was a way of giving thanks.” He said a lot of special places are still intact in the valley.
He described the spring rituals involved in the harvest of the bitterroot, the flower with the edible root for which the valley is named. He said the women were in charge.
“The grandmothers would tell us when it was time and give us our directions,” he said.
A young girl was selected to pick the very first plant. She was picked because she showed the most promise for carrying on the tribe’s traditions. She would have the intellect and the sensitivity that was required to carry these things through. He said the bitterroot harvest rituals are still observed by his people.
“Once you stop doing these things, your people will disappear,” he said.
He described the harvesting and the preparation of the bitterroot in detail.
Buffalo were also an important part of the Salish life.
“When the wild rose blooms it means the buffalo calves are born and it is time to go hunting,” he said.
He said very little of the buffalo was wasted. The horns, the hooves, the intestines, even the bladders, were used. Rawhide was used to make cooking pots. Hair was used to make rope. Hide was used for blanket and lodge coverings. The men did the hunting. The women did the skinning. Many tasks among the people were divided among the men and the women.
In wintertime the people hunkered down and lived off the food collected and prepared during the long days of summer. It was a time for healing, for medicine dances and storytelling. He said the stories were full of humor and yet many serious lessons were learned.
He said before there were people there were only spirits living in a spirit world. Then came the world of animals. It was the animals that made the world safe for humans. He told the story of how Coyote and Fox prepared the way for humans here in the Bitterroot. There are still a pair of rocks that resemble two women standing near the town of Lolo that mark the spot where Coyote was saved and taught the crucial lesson that he should never take back what was once given away. Humans would come to benefit from that lesson as well.
Incashola said that a lot of the old ways are hard to understand, especially in modern times. But it is important to continue these traditions, he said.
“Once that circle is broken,” he said, “the people will disappear.”
He emphasized that people need to recognize their place in the scheme of things and how they are latecomers to creation.
“If you try to dominate the animals and the earth,” he said, “you will only succeed in destroying them.” He said when you dominate the land, you destroy it. “When you dominate relationships, you destroy them. When you dominate streams, you destroy them.” He said humans must learn not to dominate, but to speak for and protect all living things.
After his talk, Incashola visited the new display cases that were built and installed in the entranceway to the new 4-8 building at Stevensville School to house a collection of Indian artifacts, old photographs and other items. The collection, on loan from the People’s Center in Pablo will be used by teachers in furthering the school’s efforts at Indian Education.
“These are not just objects on display,” said local artist Marina Weatherly. “Each thing on display tells a story and must be understood in context. Each thing is a story and a lesson. It will be a great aid in teaching Indian education to the kids.”
Weatherly has been teaching art to Stevensville students for a long time through the state’s Art in the Schools program. She was also one of the first people in the state to introduce Indian Education in Art as part of her art lessons. Some of the results can be viewed in the K-3 building. She and the students painted panels in the vaulted ceiling in the hallway depicting the Stevensville area prior to the arrival of Europeans, the arrival of the “Black Robes,” and once the town was established. Many other art projects have continued to include aspects of Indian Education in the work.
Now that the state has adopted an official Indian Education program, the Office of Public Instruction has hired Weatherly to help develop the curriculum that will be implemented statewide.
Board members of the Stevensville Museum, Stacy Hubbel and Ruth Baker, were instrumental obtaining a grant as part of the state’s new program to work with the school in developing the program locally. A committee was established including both Museum volunteers and school personnel and one of their first projects was the construction and installation of the new display cases.
Museum volunteer Chris Weatherly built the cases and in the process included a little bit of school history into the cases as well. Some of the trim in the cases was taken from remnants of the two buildings that were demolished to make room for the new 4-8 building. Weatherly added a few sculpted feathers carved out of cottonwood as decoration to the cases.