Homeward bound 

Salish and Pend d'Oreille embrace a painful past

As Andrea Adams puts another mile on her hiking shoes, she reflects on the stories her father Louis told her of their people's time in the valleys she's now walking through. This land used to be home. Her great-grandmother was born over where the University of Montana currently sits, she says. Her Salish ancestors used to dig bitterroot along modern day Reserve Street. They lived here, camped here, traveled and searched for food here.

"There's a lot of history," she says on a recent Saturday afternoon, her white Griz poncho rustling in the wind.

Adams' feet are steadily moving toward the Bitterroot Valley, where her father's family lived until the U.S. Army led them on a forced march north to the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1891. Louis, who died this spring at 82, carried that burden with him all his years, Adams says. So did many before him. But as she covers the tracks of those who came through here more than a century ago, Adams does so with something less than a heavy heart.

"Even though it is a sad occasion, when I woke up this morning, I had this drive to do this," she says. "I wanted to do this. I was excited. I still am."

Several dozen tribal members are stretched out along the Missoula to Lolo Trail in front and behind Adams. Intermittent rain and blistered feet don't appear to have dampened their spirits as they participate in the three-day Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee's Return to the Homeland. This isn't a celebration, says event organizer and Salish Language Coordinator Chaney Bell, but rather an act to honor their tribes' ancestors. Bell remembers the words Louis Adams said to him prior to his passing, when the event was still in the early planning stages.

"Louis told me it's a sad moment, but we don't want to carry that," Bell says. "We want to be happy, and when we bring our kids back to the Bitterroot, we tell them the good stories and remind them of the good times our people did have there too."

Gena Sorrell Montoya feels it's important to keep her people's history alive, to teach her children who they are and where they came from. As she pushes her two small children along the trail in a double-wide stroller, she says she has high hopes for what they ultimately take away from the experience.

click to enlarge Last weekend, a band of Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal members retraced the route of their ancestors’ forced march from their Bitterroot homeland in 1891. Those participating in the walk stressed the importance of maintaining their connection to the past, however sad that past might be. - PHOTO BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
  • photo by Alex Sakariassen
  • Last weekend, a band of Salish and Pend d’Oreille tribal members retraced the route of their ancestors’ forced march from their Bitterroot homeland in 1891. Those participating in the walk stressed the importance of maintaining their connection to the past, however sad that past might be.

"I just hope they get to feel the connection we all have as tribal people," Montoya says. "What happens to one person affects all of us ... We're connected and support each other."

Walking next to Montoya, Katy Sorrell ponders the differences between this trek and the one her Salish relatives were forced to undertake. There's a fleet of vehicles leap-frogging along the route to ferry food, personal supplies and those physically unable to complete the full 51 miles on foot. The walkers carry little more than water bottles and raincoats.

"They were wearing moccasins," Sorrell says of her ancestors. "They were walking without paved roads. They didn't have strollers."

Two women did start the first day of the Return to the Homeland in moccasins, Bell says. By the time they reached the KOA Campground in Missoula, one had completely worn through her soles. The group also benefitted from a little modern hospitality over lunch. The general manager at Fred's Appliance opened the doors of the store's employee kitchen, allowing the Salish and Pend d'Oreille contingent a half-hour reprieve from the rain as they dined on cups of chili.

Bell acknowledges the mixed emotions the weekend's event has stirred among its participants. It's a hard thing to imagine his ancestors driven from their homes, he says, and 125 years isn't even that long ago. But embracing their history, even the painful parts, is as critical a component in preserving who they are as maintaining cultural traditions and ensuring a new generation of Salish language speakers. In many ways, this land still is home.

"It's not about claiming something, it's about our connection to that spot," he says of their return. "We don't want to forget who we are, where we came from, because when you know that, when you know who you are and where you come from, you have a stronger sense of identity. And in this crazy world, you need to know who you are so you can get through those tough obstacles."

  • Email
  • Favorite
  • Print
Today | Thu | Fri | Sat | Sun | Mon | Tue
Free Matinee

Free Matinee @ Missoula Public Library

Fourth and Second Wednesday of every month, 2 p.m.

All of today's events | Staff Picks

Relevant to News

© 2017 Missoula News/Independent Publishing | Powered by Foundation