By Marina Weatherly, Art and Indian Education Specialist in Montana schools, Stevensville
The Ravalli County Commissioners invited CSK tribal representatives to discuss transfer of the Medicine Tree site to Federal Trust. They came in good faith – not to seek permission, defend the validity of their culture, history and rights, or to be insulted by racist public comment.
The Commissioners plan to submit an apology for the racist comment made by Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski. The Commissioners have an apology of their own to make for less obvious but far more damaging actions. The County has no jurisdiction over tribally owned land and yet assumed they could control the transfer with an opposing vote. The sarcastic tone, line of questioning, and rude assumptions demonstrated a stark contrast of conflicting cultural world views with regard to value of place, history, and respect.
In addition to respectful conduct, K-12 students have more knowledge of local tribes than our County leaders, due to years of dedication on behalf of the CSKT, schools and cultural organizations and the implementation of Indian Education for All into our public school curriculum. Our government leaders did not have access to this education in school. Hopefully, a new generation will be better prepared to build good working relations with Montana’s 12 Indian Tribes. The IEFA “Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Indians” implemented in our public schools may be viewed at www.opi.mt.gov. Answers to the Commissioners’ questions are in this concise document, including the validity of oral histories, and the original necessity of Tribal/Federal trust agreements. Ironically, they were created primarily in the 1800’s due to misinterpretations, non-Indian expectations and points of view occurring on the local level. I will outline a few that occurred in 2013:
Misunderstanding of the significance and relationship of oral history and place: In response to the question posed by County Commissioner Greg Chilcott: “How – out of a billion trees on the Bitterroot Forest – did the tribes come to select the one that’s now located just next to U.S. Highway 93 south of Darby?” Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee Director Tony Incashola stepped forward to tell the story of the Medicine Tree and the importance of the site to the Salish people. The story clearly underscored the fact that the Salish did not select the tree, but rather the tree and site was made evident to the people through their creation stories, and since time immemorial the Salish have made the pilgrimage to the site and continue to do so. As Steve Lozar, a tribal council member, pointed out: “It is much like a holy shrine in the Middle East… Is it a tree? Is it a hillside? It’s all of those.” The lack of understanding regarding connection to ancestral land is plausible given that the very short history of non-Indian presence and the Ravalli County government is a mere speck on the timeline of Salish history.
Conflicting values of land and place: The Bitterroot Salish experience and value the entire Bitterroot Valley and specifically the site of the Medicine Tree as a visible and tangible tie to their history and traditions: as Ancestral Homeland – a place where their origin stories unfolded and where their ancestors once lived and died. Where mountains, rivers and animals provided physical and spiritual sustenance, a living, breathing, animate vibrant landscape with numerous sacred cultural sites such as the Medicine Tree, which offer a place to continue to visit, pray and give offerings. By contrast, the Commissioners see the site as merely real estate and the transfer as a threat to their tenacious bid for local control. Despite the fact that it is not in their power or place to do so, they voted last April to oppose the transfer application, saying they would lose the $808 in annual property taxes. That is the value of the land to our Commissioners. They have spent far more of our taxpayer dollars on far less.
It is unbelievable that the Planning Board Chairman’s and Commissioners’ other primary concern for this transfer would be the impacts on public services, and loss of funding to pay for the “innumerable” services the county provides to that property, including law enforcement, emergency services and fire protection. Especially considering their role in recently approving a high impact 639-lot residential subdivision on 368 acres near a wildlife refuge far from public services with minimal impact mitigation measures. In reality, the public impact of the site would essentially be the visitation of tribal members to the sacred site for prayer and ceremony. I trust that could be accommodated with little cost and respectful hospitality. As far as the Commissioners and Planning Board Chairman jumping to conclusions that a casino or race track would be built, I think the Commissioners need a lesson in geography, unless it’s bighorn sheep races they are envisioning on the steep and undevelopable land. You just never know in the Bitterroot! It seems this unfounded mistrust of the tribes’ intentions could be put to rest simply with a signed document stating the future use of the land.
Most troubling, however, is the fact that the Commissioners believe they have a vote and control over this transfer. Ravalli County government has no jurisdiction over Tribal government. In their latest zeal to “possess” and wield local control over Federal land, they have overlooked the following:
Misunderstanding of Tribal Sovereignty & Federal/Tribal Agreements: “Under the American legal system, Indian tribes have sovereign powers separate and independent from the federal and state governments… It also means that the federal government is obligated to protect tribal lands and resources… Sovereignty can be defined as ‘The supreme power from which all political powers are derived.’ It is ‘inherent’ – It cannot be given to one group by another. In government-to-government negotiations, states and Indian nations exercise or use their sovereign powers. Sovereignty ensures self-government, cultural preservation, and a people’s control of their future. Sovereignty affirms the political identity of Indian Nations – They are not simply a racial or ethnic minority.” (Excerpts from OPI- IEFA E.U. #7) According to their treaties, the tribes can protect their assets in Federal Trust and do not have to be granted permission by a state or county government to do so. Federal Indian Trust holds the United States legally responsible for the protection of tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights. For more information on this fact, visit www.indiantrust.com. The Commissioners have no right or legal bearing to vote on this issue. One has to ask why they are wasting valuable taxpayer money and time to do so in the first place.
As for the questioning by Deputy Ravalli County Attorney Howard Recht and county officials of the necessity for the transfer to Federal Trust, it is by now obvious why the tribes feel their sacred site will be better protected and respected by the Federal Trust than by County Government. This leads me to the following:
A Basic Understanding of respect & hospitality: Encarta Dictionary Definition: “To show consideration or thoughtfulness in relation to somebody or something… To pay due attention to and refrain from violating something.”
All the above points make it clear that the Commissioners and the underlying intent of their meetings lacked due respect and knowledge of the history and values inherent to the Confederated Kootenai and Salish Tribes. As for the racist remark made and allowed as public comment by Jan Wisniewski, there is no excuse. The reference to “drunken Indians in jail” was in such total juxtaposition to the conversation about the importance of protecting a sacred site used for prayer that I do not wish to give it more presence than it has already received. The only thread of connection and meaning I can garner from that ugly comment, is he gave us all an opportunity to pause and reflect, if we are to be honest, on the terrible impacts of alcoholism on so many levels in all communities across Montana.
Perhaps in the future, our Commissioners could initiate a productive dialogue about this impact and vote positively on issues that would actually benefit the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Ravalli County. We could begin the first such meeting with a prayer and offering at the Medicine Tree site.
Hopefully, the Commissioners have learned something from this unfortunate event and will take full responsibility and the necessary steps with renewed understanding, cultural and historical knowledge, trust, humility and respect, to mend a valuable and enriching relationship that so many have strived long and hard to build.