By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners took no action last week with respect to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) latest request for them to quit interfering with their application to transfer the Medicine Tree property, located near Darby, from tribal ownership status to trust status in which the land will be held in trust for the tribes by the U.S. Government. The transfer would remove the property from the county’s tax base, since federally controlled land is not subject to local property taxes. The commissioners also decided to try one more time to arrange a date to deliver an apology to the tribes for the embarrassment the Tribes’ representatives suffered at a meeting with the commissioners last December, when former Planning Board Chairman Jan Wisniewski related a comment attributed to a Havre official about the jail there being full of “drunken Indians.” If no date could be arranged they agreed to schedule a trip to attend a regular meeting of the Tribal Council held every Tuesday and Thursday.
The county has objected twice to the Tribes’ application to the Department of the Interior to transfer the 58-acre property into federal trust status. County officials claimed both times that the Tribe had not provided all the information required by federal law on their application. The Commissioners expressed concern about the loss of the $808 in annual property taxes and the fact that county services will still be delivered to the property. They also expressed concern about possible future development of the property, especially the possibility of building a casino. They also suggested that the property was located too far from the Reservation for the Tribes to exercise adequate control over the property.
The Tribes wrote the county a letter on April 14 emphasizing that they have no plans to develop the property. They note that the distance of the property from the Reservation was greatly overestimated by the County and that the distance is ultimately irrelevant because it is the spiritual and cultural importance of the place that they are interested in maintaining.
“The physical distance from our Reservation does nothing to demean the significance of this important religious and cultural site to my people,” wrote Tribal Chairman Ranald Trahan. “The significance is the Medicine Tree is part of the Bitterroot Salish creation stories. The CSKT have had a relationship with the site and the general area of the tree for over 300 years (for perhaps 200 years before the Ravalli County government was established in 1893). The distance is therefore irrelevant when considering an aboriginal homeland and a place that includes ancestral remains and generations of Tribal family interactions. That is why we have biannual pilgrimages to the Medicine Tree from our
Reservation for longer than any of us can recall.” He notes that the Tribes passed a resolution on March 4, 2014 to clarify that their interest in the land is for religious and cultural purposes. The resolution was intended to allay concerns about any other interest in the property.
Trahan also notes that the $808 in annual taxes amounts to only .00007 per cent of the county’s tax base and that Tribal folks who travel to the Medicine Tree for a variety of events spend more than that in the local economy.
“When CSKT Leaders and staff traveled to meet with the Commissioners we never expected the insensitive and hurtful comments that were made in the public meeting. As a result, many local citizens of Ravalli County called upon the Commissioners group to issue an apology to the Tribes. The best possible apology would be to not interfere with the transfer of the Medicine Tree property from fee to trust status. This would honor our continued religious and cultural connection with the property,” concludes Trahan.
At last Thursday’s meeting, Deputy County Attorney Howard Recht advised the commissioners that no action needed to be taken concerning the application. He said the county had made its comments and the application is in the hands of the Department of the Interior. The commissioners did not address the Tribes’ letter specifically and took no action regarding the application.
Commissioner J. R.Iman said that he had tried to contact the Tribes on several occasions and had not succeeded in scheduling a date to deliver the Commission’s apology that was promised last December. It was agreed that Iman would try one more time to set a satisfactory date and if that was not successful the Commission would plan on attending a regular Tribal Council meeting and make a presentation in the public comment portion of the meeting. Trahan had noted at the end of the letter that the Tribal Council met every Tuesday and Thursday and that they would “graciously make time for your group if you travel here…”