ARLEE – For almost all Americans, a journey to the homelands of their ancestors requires the crossing of oceans.
For Lorraine Stevens of St. Ignatius and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Maurita Voice, it’s a 51-mile hike.
On a cold October morning, at a church and cemetery southeast of Arlee, the two set out on foot for the Bitterroot Valley.
They were joined by dozens of other people from the Flathead Indian Reservation on Thursday who, for three days, will honor their ancestors by walking a route similar to the one their forebearers traveled 125 years ago.
Their “Return to the Homeland” journey has one significant difference.
Their ancestors in 1891 were sent north, against their will, by the U.S. government and escorted by U.S. soldiers. These people are reversing the direction.
Following a smudging ceremony and a prayer led by Tony Incashola in the Salish language, they started walking south.
Incashola, director of the Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, said it’s called the “Salish Trail of Tears.”
“It’s hard to describe what it was like for them, being removed from the place where they had lived, grown up, raised their families,” Incashola said. “For years afterward, people would not tell the story or talk of the removal. They didn’t want the young people to hate, and they feared they would feel that way.”
Gary Three Woodcocks and Lucy Vanderburg led the walkers as they departed the St. John Berchman Catholic Church – the same Jocko Church their ancestors had arrived at 125 years ago after walking north for three days.
Three Woodcocks was first to carry the staff, a talking stick with an eagle feather used for several years in tribal hunting camps, horse camps and for coyote stories. Vanderburg wore a yellow shawl made by Louise Combs (1900-2005).
Combs' mother-in-law, Mary Ann (1882-1978), made the walk in 1891 as a young girl. The 2016 walk began at the foot of Louise Combs’ grave in the church cemetery, and Incashola said he believes Mary Ann, who was one of the last survivors of the removal, is also buried there.
Young Maurita Voice donned a smaller maroon shawl reportedly made by Mary Ann herself.
“They suffered for us. I’m grateful I have a chance to see what they went through,” Voice’s grandmother, Stevens, said. “I’m teaching one of my little ones, and I’m learning to understand what it was like for them at the same time.”
While a core group intends to walk all three days and all 51 miles, others will take part in various legs. The large group that left the Jocko Church included several students from Nkwusm, the Salish language school in Arlee, and Two Eagle River School in Pablo. They were taking part in the first leg, which took them from the church to U.S. Highway 93.
Three horseback riders, Leon Wieder, Austin Moran and Bryce Finley, also joined in.
“The Salish weren’t really a horse people,” Wieder said, but historical photographs do show a few young Indian men on horseback as everyone else made the journey on foot.
The core group camped at the KOA in Missoula, and on Friday will proceed to the Chief Looking Glass Campground in the Bitterroot, as they make their way home.
On Saturday, at approximately 2 p.m., another large group is expected to join them for the last mile of the walk, to St. Mary Mission Church in Stevensville.
Willie Stevens, Lorraine’s brother and one of the organizers of the journey, said the purpose is to honor the memories of ancestors forced from their homeland, and remind younger Salish people of a sad but important part of their history.
“We don’t want a permit, we just want to walk,” he said. “We’re doing it in a peaceful way.”
Stevens distributed a detailed history of the Salish and their connections to the Bitterroot to the walkers.
Chief Victor succeeded in getting the Bitterroot Valley south of Lolo Creek set aside as a Salish reservation in the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 pending a survey, according to the handout, but white settlers soon wanted the land for agricultural and timber purposes.
Shortly after Chief Victor’s death in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant “issued an executive order falsely asserting that the survey … had been conducted,” and that it had determined that land to the north better suited the wants and needs of the Salish people, the handout said.
A delegation led by a future president, James Garfield, was then dispatched in 1872 to negotiate the removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot. Despite the threat of bloodshed the new leader, Chief Charlo, who was Victor’s son, also refused to sign such an agreement.
Back in Washington, Garfield recommended the government proceed “as if” Charlo had signed.
“The official copy of the agreement, which was sent to the Senate for ratification, had Chief Charlo’s mark forged onto it,” the handout says. Years later a U.S. Senator from Missouri, George Graham Vest, had clerks dig up the field copy of the agreement.
There was no “X” beside Chief Charlo’s name.
Two sub-chiefs broke with Charlo and, in 1873, moved with a few families to the Flathead Reservation. Most Salish remained with Chief Charlo in the Bitterroot, where the government assigned them individual allotments of land and seized the rest of the valley for white settlement.
As the railroad arrived and with it, more people, demand for land in the Bitterroot increased at the same time that mining, logging and agriculture were burgeoning.
Pressures on the Salish, who were trying to live by traditional ways as property lines carved up the valley, worsened. In 1889, Chief Charlo finally agreed to move north after receiving assurances that housing would await his people.
Anticipating the long-resisted move, the Salish did not plant crops in 1890. Congress, according to the handout, then failed to appropriate funding for the removal of the Indians to the Flathead Reservation.
The same things were repeated in 1891. But late that year, in October, Gen. Henry B. Carrington arrived and told the Salish it was time to go.
Mary Ann Coombs “likened the trip to a funeral march,” the handout says. “Children … wondered why the grownups were crying.”
“Despite the losses incurred in the removal, and the government’s failure to deliver promised help, the Salish rebuilt their lives on the reservation,” the handout says, “assured that now, at last, they would be left alone.”
Thirteen years later, of course, Congress then opened the Flathead Reservation to white settlement. But that’s another story.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday are about two three-day walks, 125 years apart. Today's Salish will arrive in the Bitterroot on the same October date their ancestors left.
“Regardless of what took place,” Incashola said, “the Bitterroot will always be the Salish homeland.”