PABLO – “Every day of my life, I have experienced some sort of racism. Every day I have had some sort of feeling that I do not belong here.”
For more than 60 years, Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee director Tony Incashola has struggled against abuse and racism.
Standing before the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council – in a hushed tone that was sometimes challenging to hear – Incashola told a Ravalli County commissioner Tuesday that all Native people want is to be treated with respect.
“All over this country, people don’t seem to understand the word, respect,” he said. “In reality, we all want the same thing. We want a good life for ourselves and our children.”
County Commissioner J.R. Iman traveled to Pablo on Tuesday morning to hand deliver an apology to the tribes for comments some of their members endured at a November public meeting in Hamilton.
At the end of that November meeting, former county planning board chair Jan Wisniewski implied that Havre law enforcement officers had complained to him that their jails were filled with “drunk Indians.”
Shortly thereafter, county commissioners voted to deliver an apology to the tribes for the comments, but challenges in both sides’ schedules pushed that meeting back for months. (Wisniewski also ultimately lost his seat on the planning board.)
Iman made the trip alone.
He told the council that it was his “honor and privilege” to stand before them, but “unfortunately, this visit has kind of a somber note.”
Iman said he was there to offer an apology signed by the entire Ravalli County Commission for comments made that were less than respectful.
“We know that you can’t take back what was said,” Iman said. “When you work in a public arena, you don’t have the opportunity to control what another person says. Those words did not represent the opinion of the board.”
As a token, Iman also delivered a framed historic photograph of tribal members standing at the Medicine Tree in the Bitterroot Valley.
Immediately after Iman finished, Council Chairman Ron Trahan said it was good to hear the apology.
Trahan also said he was sorry that the meeting had to be postponed several times.
“We have been pretty busy here,” Trahan said. “We weren’t purposely putting you off. It was very important for us to make this right.”
The council was also heartened by the outpouring of letters that came from individuals from Ravalli County who offered their own support for the tribes and its decision-making processes for the future of its Medicine Tree property, Trahan said.
At the November meeting in question, several tribal members traveled to Hamilton at the invitation of the county commission to discuss concerns over a CSKT proposal to place the 58-acre tract of land in trust with the federal government.
The CSKT purchased the important cultural site in 1998.
Last April, the commission voted to oppose the tribes’ application to place the land in trust, based mainly on concerns of lost property taxes.
“We’re always trying to protect what is our homeland,” Trahan told Iman. “We will always try to protect anything that is sacred to us. What we do there to protect our property is hard for some people to understand. We do accept your apology.”
Steve Lozar was one of the tribal members who attended the November meeting. He said they had high hopes that day, but those were shattered by some careless words.
“I am glad you are here today,” he told Iman. “I am glad the commission recognized that ... with reconciliation and with a good heart, we can accept your apology today.”
Incashola said it’s important for people to understand that the Bitterroot Valley will always be the homeland for the tribes.
“A lot of our ancestors are buried there,” he said. “A lot of our ancestors’ footprints are still on the land. We are still connected.”
Incashola said he could feel the hatred from the man who spoke at the November meeting.
“It was because he didn’t understand,” Incashola said. “When we don’t understand something as a people, we hate it. … All we want is to be as trusted as anyone else.”
The desire to protect those important cultural places – their water, trees and environment – has never changed for native people, he said.
“It’s always been very important for us to protect that for our future generations,” Incashola said. “Our values are very different than the values that seem to be in place today.”
Incashola said his grandparents taught him to never give up and always have hope for the future.
“I really appreciate that the people of Ravalli County have sent this,” he said. “It gives me hope that my children will live in peace in this valley.”