MISSOULA — Sometimes you can’t recognize history until the dust of time has settled the issue. Other times historical recognition is instantaneously — Rest in Peace JFK. Such was the case last Wednesday with the dedication of the Flathead Nation flag in the Missoula County Commission’s Sophie Moiese Commission meeting room on the first floor of the Missoula County Courthouse.
For those Flathead Nation tribal people long on tooth it was probably something they never ever imagined could and eventually would happen. It just wasn’t in the cards given the history of the Indian-non-Indian relationship in this part of Montana.
However, in recent years members of the Missoula County Commission — most notably Dave Strohmaier — have taken note of the slight of recognition of the history of the Bitterroot Salish in their time immemorial Ancestral Homeland that includes the city of Missoula, the very land that the Missoula County Courthouse sits on.
The slight is beginning to fade, the Flathead Nation flag is a symbol of that. A powerful symbol that the times are changing in a historical fashion under the lead of the Missoula County Commissioners.
“All of us here benefited from stolen land and stolen labor,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick in his welcoming address that alluded to the reality of the Indigenous and Black people’s American experience. That thick chapter is not written in bold letters in promoters of American exceptionalism. Slotnick called the meeting room a public space that can be used for educational purposes and for taking the first steps to justice for the original inhabitants of the area.
“Missoula County is Indian Country,” said Commissioner Strohmaier. “For too long and too often, we who occupy these shared places and who call this place home forget the lineage and heritage of the spaces that we occupy. We boost of how many generations we’ve been here. Four, five or six generations pale in comparison to those people who have occupied this land for generations after generations since Glacial Lake Missoula.”
Strohmaier said he was struck by the observation that street names in Missoula were named after people who had only been here since the mid-1800s or after American presidents.
“That escapes me,” he said, and as a result, “A number of years ago we took steps so that this place is more than just names of 19th century settlers. More, much more needs to be done, symbolically as well as tangibly in terms of solidifying our relationship. We share government-to-government relations, something that is far too often forgotten by local governments across Indian Country in Montana. We wanted to take a tangible step to rectify that by the dedication of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes flag within this chamber.”
One of the first steps in that direction was the naming of the Commission meeting room after a Bitterroot Salish traditional cultural practitioner and leader, Sophie Moiese. Room 151 of the Missoula County Courthouse — the Commission meeting room — was renamed after Moiese and dedicated in 2018.
“This makes my heart truly happy with this dedication,” said Tribal Council Chairwoman Shelly Fyant. “This relationship has led to a real understanding of us and the dark past. We want to continue with the reconciliation and really appreciate this action. This is what all county commissioners in Montana can do — get to know who the Indian people really are. Our flag hanging here bestows a great honor. It feels like home, makes us feel welcome.”
From the first all-is-well beat of the Yamncut Drum flag song the walls of the Sophie Moiese meeting room reverberated with a soothing spiritual welcoming massage of the soul. All was well.
“We have so many things to be thankful for,” said Séliš QÍispé Culture Committee (SQCC) Director Tony Incashola in his address. “This is another chapter in our lives as Indian people. Thank you, commissioners and the city of Missoula for getting to the point where we are today.
“As people we all want the same things, a beautiful place to raise our children. We ask that in our prayers but we as people have to make those prayers come true. Someday we will all be different people of one heart. You have come a long way as a commission and we have as a tribe. Nothing but good has come from that relationship.
“We all have a gift of the responsibility to prepare the way for the next generations. What we do here today is not for us but it’s for the next generation. Today is a symbol of that. The flag represents thousands of years of our lives.
“As a veteran every time I see the United States flag, I stand up to honor it. I see in the flag all those who through the years have served, who have given their lives so we can live in a free country.
“I hope we can keep moving in the same direction. As one we can accomplish a lot and overcome everyday obstacles. Thank you for being here today to dedicate the flag of the Séliš QÍispé and Ksanka people.
“The bones and footprints of our Ancestors are all around us. We are here because of them. As long as we keep our traditional values we will survive. We will hold them dear for the next generations.”
The day also honored the artwork of CSKT member Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and dedicated two pieces of her work that will hang in the Sophie Moiese Commission meeting room.
Commissioner Juanita Vero said: “Art helps us understand our history, and it can help nurture an attachment to a place and help develop social cohesion.”
The artworks are on loan from the Missoula Art Museum’s Art in Public Places program.
More than 50 people attended the event.