PABLO — All was not lost in an arson fire that ravaged the People’s Center late Sunday.
The flames didn’t reach the museum wing of the graceful quarter-century old building off U.S. Highway 93, which serves as the cultural center for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
“Everything that was in the museum, all the artifacts, have been spared and we removed those yesterday,” People’s Center director Maria Torosian said Tuesday.
Among the relics that survived with only smoke or water damage was a beaded vest that is believed to have belonged to Bitterroot Salish subchief Arlee, after whom the town on the south end of the Flathead Reservation was named.
Another beaded vest was that of Martin Charlo, who succeeded his father, Chief Victor Charlo, as chief of the Salish in 1910. Martin Charlo’s name is beaded on the shoulder, according to a 2018 article in the Char-Koosta News, and he’s seen wearing the vest in photos taken at the Medicine Tree in the upper Bitterroot.
“When we went into the museum and saw those, I just about collapsed, just from seeing that they were still there in the display case,” Torosian said.
Firefighters found the body of Julian Michael Draper, 33, who lived near the People’s Center, on the floor in a back office. Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said camera footage showed Draper entering the building through the back door prior to the fire.
“Draper had barricaded the doors, which made fighting the fire challenging,” Bell said in a Facebook post on Monday.
The sheriff confirmed Tuesday that Draper is the only suspect. He was arrested a week earlier for starting a fire at the old Plum Creek mill site, within a long stone’s throw of both Draper’s home and the People’s Center. At the People's Center, the investigation is continuing and the damage estimate was undetermined Tuesday.
Torosian said she met Draper earlier this summer on a routine checkup of the People’s Center, which was closed for COVID-19 reasons from March until Aug. 10. He’d been picking up the grounds in woods on a small bluff between his home and the center.
“I got my co-worker, and I told her, let’s go out and visit him and see what was happening,” she said.
The two ladies found Draper to be calm and polite.
“He told me that his children had attended some of our activities here in the past,” Torosian remembered. “He said, ‘I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have a job. I’m just looking for something to give back, and I thought I’d come over here and just clean up the area and build up the talking circle.’ He called it a prayer circle.”
Draper asked if he could continue his work.
“I said, yeah. I thought that was really a good thing. I welcomed him to do that,” Torosian said.
That was the last time she talked to Draper. When she and her staff heard he’d been arrested on Aug. 24 for allegedly starting a fire in trees near the old mill, “we were all like, are you kidding me?” Torosian said.
“We didn’t want to believe it was him. We just thought, no way, he was such a nice guy that we met over there. And then this,” she said, gesturing toward the gutted People’s Center.
“I honestly don’t know what he was thinking. I just feel like we’d welcomed him and we’d treated him so well. I don’t know what he was thinking to come back and destroy everything we had here.”
Bell could not say what ignited the fire. Local fire crews were hampered by both the blocked doors and the lack of a fire hydrant on the grounds. The fire, reported at around 8 p.m. Sunday, burst through the decorative light feature on the roof of the center shortly after midnight, Torosian said.
After years of working on the Salish-Pend d'Oreille Culture Committee and on the People's Center staff, she took over as director five years ago when Lucy Vandeburg retired. Torosian was clearly still emotional about the disaster on Tuesday. She has video of the flames licking into the night sky.
“I have been crying since I got here Sunday and saw what was happening,” she said. “You know, my heart just sank because of what we had in there.”
Not until Monday’s visits by state fire marshals from Kalispell and Helena did Torosian and staff have a chance to assess the damage.
A child’s buckskin vest beaded years ago by a tribal elder had survived, replete with leggings, moccasins, belt and hair ties. Also undamaged was the center’s oldest item, a pair of buckskin and quill moccasins dating back to the early 1800s.
The education section on the other end of the building was also spared. Among its holdings was a collection of historic photos of tribal elders that St. Ignatius collector Doug Allard commissioned in the early 1970s.
“Those all survived, no water damage,” Torosian said. “There’s some smoke on the glass and a few of the frames but they are all intact.”
On Wednesday, representatives from the Montana Museum Association, the state historical society and the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula will help salvage and assess what was in the repository in the back section of the museum. It contains letters, old newspapers and artwork in metal drawers that includes paintings of tribal elders, by tribal members as well as some historical photographs.
The repository was in a secure room but not vaulted, Torosian said. An office space used for a work room for the repository will also be assessed. It holds all the records of what’s in the museum collection.
“We don’t know the condition of it, but the walls are still around it, the door and glass is intact, so we’re hoping all that’s still intact,” Torosian said. She added the People’s Center had a grant application to help digitize the collection and photographs.
For Torosian and her staff, it’s a matter of waiting to see how extensive the damage is and what the tribal council decides in terms of rebuilding.
Donations to rehabilitate items can be sent in care of The People’s Center, Marie Torosian, to the Eagle Bank and Glacier Bank in Polson.
“Like I’ve told others, we still have our history,” Torosian said. “That’ll never go away. Things that our elders have shared with us and passed down to us, we still have. So we’ll utilize those and take what we have and dry our tears and move forward.”
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