The way Geraldine Pete sees it, a treaty that’s been broken might as well be erased.

That was what the University of Montana art student had in mind when she lugged rolls of art paper 30 feet long and 3 1/2 feet wide to the Kyi-Yo Indian Celebration in the Adams Center last weekend.

On them she wrote the first few articles of the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, the one that ostensibly created the Flathead Reservation, and invited powwow attendees to have their way with it.

Pete even provided erasers, a pink one labeled “For Big Mistakes” and a blue one that said “OOPS.”

Her abstract of the “Big Mistake Art Event” said it was meant to provide “comic relief for a devastating historic occurrence” – even as she realized there are those who wouldn’t view a treaty more than 150 years old as such, and even more who have no idea what the Hellgate Treaty was.

“It’s my first art installation, and it has to do with social practice artwork,” explained Pete, who enrolled in the art program at UM after receiving a graduate degree in counselor education. “It involves everything here – the energy, the dancing and just participating in the celebration. And I think erasing is one way to celebrate.”

Sheryl Noethe had another way.

Noethe is Montana’s poet laureate and co-founder of the Missoula Writing Collaborative in Missoula area schools. She spent much of Saturday at the annual powwow, which is produced by UM’s Kyi-Yo Indian Club.

At one point during the afternoon session, Noethe stopped in the Adams Center lobby to admire Pete’s art project and express her own feelings about the government’s historic betrayal of its contracts. Noethe has no Native heritage, and at first she wasn’t sure if it was her place to mess with the treaty on the wall.

But at Pete’s invitation, she took a Magic Marker and went to town. In bright red ink, she branded the whites who forged the treaties thieves, liars, murderers and fake Christians.

When she was done, she turned around and “made a sound like, ‘That felt really good,’ ” Pete said.

Then Noethe handed Pete the marker and thanked her.

“I sure celebrated,” Noethe said. “It felt really good to be able to tell the truth and to express those feelings, because I do want the Native American community to know there are white people who care and who are not haters.”

***

The Hellgate Treaty, signed at Council Grove west of Missoula in July 1855, was one of a series of treaties negotiated between the U.S. government and tribes of the Northwest. Isaac Stevens, Indian commissioner and the governor of Washington Territory, led the talks with representatives of the Bitterroot Salish, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai.

Communication problems were said to be rampant. “Not a tenth of what was said was understood by either side,” reported a Jesuit priest who observed the negotiations. When Chief Victor of the Salish resisted leaving the Bitterroot, Stevens inserted confusing language that established a “conditional reservation” south of Lolo Creek. It took another 36 years, but the Salish were eventually all banished from their homeland.

Congress ratified the treaty and President James Buchanan signed it. It was proclaimed on April 18, 1859.

Similar scenes played out time and again during America’s westward movement, Noethe said.

“When the military just wanted to go out and battle and kill Indians, those American presidents at that time basically said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got to settle these savages so we can expand our land,’ ” Noethe said. “Everything that was promised, it was all a lie. They weren’t given any land. They were driven to the place nobody wanted.

“So it’s been lies and dishonesty and murder for so long. When Americans talk about other countries and talk about savagery and barbarism, well, we are no different, what we did is no different. But it’s kind of just not talked about.”

Pete said she didn’t know what reactions her interactive art piece would invoke. The Kyi-Yo Club debated for an hour whether to even allow it. Some students questioned whether it would invoke negative vibes at an event designed to be a celebration.

Pete pointed out the theme of this year’s powwow was “Empowerment through Education.” She said that’s why she wanted to display her inaugural piece there.

“I think it’s really important for even the kids to read it and wonder what does this mean? What is it about?” she said.

By early Saturday afternoon a number of youngsters had added or subtracted to the art piece. “And I’ve seen some older people come by and say, ‘It’s good to see this, but I’ll think about it and come back and see if I want to write something,’ ” said Pete.

Noethe’s contributions in bright red attracted more attention to the exhibit in the final hours of the powwow. Another woman was inspired to amplify on Noethe’s sentiments in her own language.

“She even drew a horse on the edge,” Pete said.

The reactions took unexpected twists and turns. Some defended parts of the treaty, which assigned exclusive fishing and hunting rights to tribal members on the reservation.

Others mentioned “it would be nice for Indians to rewrite their own treaty with the mainstream culture and see what that would be like,” Pete said.

History can’t and won’t be changed, but Pete said that wasn’t her point. It was more to provide a base for coming to terms with a tragic chapter in a people’s history and erasing boundaries between cultures, Native and otherwise.

A native Dine’ (often referred to as the Navajo People) from the Four Corners area in the Southwest, Pete spent time before the powwow’s grand entry Saturday afternoon helping her 8-year-old son and a close friend don dancing regalia. Her son’s friend, she said, is from Deer Lodge and his roots are French-Irish.

“We’re so diverse now, so it’s like let’s move on,” she said. “It’s there. We know it’s there, but let’s do other things that instill positive outlooks for our children.”

The Hellgate Treaty is just a start for Pete. A donation box at her exhibit didn’t attract much attention (“I can pay for half the erasers,” she joked) but she said the Missoula Art Museum might be interested in a collaboration.

Other “big mistake” treaties at other powwows may be in her future, perhaps at a Gathering of Nations that draws tribes from across the nation.

“I’d like to do more to see where it leads,” Pete said, “because I felt like this was just a test.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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