STEVENSVILLE – Casey Ryan and Gary Three Woodcocks held the leader staff high as they walked past St. Mary’s Church in Stevensville, past dozens of ornate, personalized headstones and toward a large wooden cross that read “INDIAN GRAVES" in bold white letters.
As the men propped the staff against the cross, dozens gathered around, many dressed in traditional Salish regalia, and awaited a prayer. Some cried while others laughed and cheered. The group couldn’t hold back their emotions, and they wouldn’t, because after 125 years, they were finally home.
Ryan and Three Woodcocks were just two of the dozens of Salish people who hiked the same 51 miles their ancestors walked when they were forcibly relocated from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Indian Reservation 125 years ago.
Although the U.S. government forced many Salish people to leave the Bitterroot Valley between 1873 and 1891 in an effort to open tribal lands to non-Native American settlement, the majority of the tribe refused to leave. But when Gen. Henry Carrington ordered the final eviction in 1891, the Salish, led by Chief Charlo, walked from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko Church on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
For the past three days, the present-day Salish people have been reversing the direction of their ancestors’ path, calling it a “Return to the Homeland.”
While many people hitched rides for part of the trail or only participated in one leg of the hike, Ryan and Three Woodcocks were among a small group who walked the entire way.
Ryan said he and Three Woodcocks traded off holding the leader staff throughout the entire hike, so they thought it was only fair to share the staff for the last mile of the hike through Stevensville.
Ryan said about 50 people walked, rode horses or drove with the group all three days. He said about 100 participated in at least one stretch of the walk. Even more helped with the event by providing food and drink, or a place to rest.
“It’s an honor and it’s in remembrance of what our ancestors endured 125 years ago, so it’s been a very emotional and powerful experience,” Ryan said. “I’ve been touched by all the kindness our neighbors have showed us. I think our ancestors would be happy to see what we’ve done here.”
The group met at Jocko Church on Thursday and started their journey from there, according to Willie Stevens, who helped organize the event. The group stayed at a KOA campground in Missoula that night, and then at Chief Looking Glass Campground in Florence the next. On Saturday, the walkers arrived at Bitterroot River Park outside of Stevensville where lunch was waiting.
Stevens said the idea for the hike came about nearly two years ago when he and some friends were planning to drive to the Bitterroot and thought it might be better to walk the 51 miles – 55 if you count the hikes in and out of the campgrounds.
Stevens said at lunch the turnout was bigger than expected, and although not everyone walked, it took the whole tribe to make it happen.
“Everyone pitched in because we’re just like one big family. There is a mobile support team, camp setup team, cooks and nurses,” Stevens said. “We’re coming home to teach our young ones what happened to our ancestors so they can understand and take over when we’re gone. Hopefully, they’ll do this again at 150 years.”
As some people grabbed water, sandwiches and handfuls of trail mix in the park, others changed into regalia and braided each other’s hair. Even the few horses who made the walk had their manes and tails braided for the last mile.
Gene Sorrell, who was in charge of camp setup, said the walk was a moving experience.
“It feels tremendous. When we left Jocko, it was emotional. You just couldn’t hold it back,” Sorrell said, minutes before everyone rallied to leave the park and hike the last mile to St. Mary’s Church. “Now that we’re here I’m just elated. We’re here with our elders and you can’t help but wonder what our ancestors would think of us coming home."
Before leaving the park, Jennifer Finley and 9-year-old Maurita Voice were given traditional shawls for walking nearly all 51 miles. While Finley made it the whole way, Voice only came up a couple miles short.
At St. Mary’s, people were waiting with smiles and signs that read, “Welcome home Salish.”
Once everyone gathered around that single cross, representing the deaths of many, Tony Incashola, director of the Salish and Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee, stood to lead a prayer.
“We have ancestors buried here. This is an emotional and happy occasion for all of us here,” Incashola said. “I hope our young people will never forget these last three days and these events. It’s because of our ancestors’ strengths and their values that we’re here today. Our next generations will be carrying that on from here. If we forget our ancestors, we will disappear.”