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Indigenous Missoula artist honors ancestors

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Monica Gilles-Brings Yellow, an indigenous artist based out of Missoula and the Flathead Indian Reservation, wants her new public artwork to convey a message.

“It’s bringing to light Native history," she explained. "That’s not something that’s a concept that’s in the past. These are actual people that lived. Our descendants are among us now and history had consequences for people on both sides.’’

Gilles-Brings Yellow was one of four local artists who were recently awarded a grant from the Missoula Public Art Committee and the Montana Department of Transportation to paint a traffic signal box in Missoula. Her piece, called “Homelands,” is located on the corner of Madison Avenue and Broadway next to the Noon’s gas station. It is meant to honor the original inhabitants of the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys, the Bitterroot Salish. In 1891 the Bitterroot Salish were removed by a U.S. government military escort from their traditional homelands and forced onto what is now the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“My family is Bitterroot Salish,” Gilles-Brings Yellow explained. “The concept behind this is the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys are obviously the ancestral homeland. And knowing that and also knowing that most people in Missoula don’t know the fact of that, right? So I wanted to put something out there that was cultural and that also brought a lot of honor to people that were living here and that were removed forcibly by the military.”

Her work incorporates historical photographs of her ancestors living in teepees near what is now the old ShopKo building on Reserve Street, which was once a bountiful bitterroot harvesting site for the Salish. She also used a photograph of her husband’s great grandmother, Caroline Louise Vanderburg.

Growing up, she always heard stories about how the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys are her ancestral homeland.

“I wanted to make a piece that gave respect and honor to that,” she said. “I don’t think that’s always something that’s commonly understood for like the average person that’s, you know, going to school at (the University of Montana) that there were people here before them. They were removed by the military, and it was devastating to have that happen.”

Gilles-Brings Yellow said her ancestors were a peaceful people that tried to find any way to stay where they had always lived, but white settlers stole their land anyway. She notes that one of the historical photographs she used has a caption that reads “Flathead Indians camping.”

“But really they’re living there and collecting bitterroot,” she said.

Danielle M. Vazquez is a member of the Missoula Public Art Committee that selected "Homelands" and three other pieces this year.

"I chose it personally because there is a representation of the history of this land that we now call Missoula," Vazquez explained. "It’s an homage to the original inhabitants of this valley, and I think Missoula has been long overdue for art that represents that."

Laurie Childs, an Arlee-based photographer and friend, said she's a fan of Gilles Brings-Yellow's art.

"Moe's work is ethereal," Childs said. "She is not only a talented artist, she is an incredible person. Her laugh is as bright and warm as the gold she blends into her art. Each piece she creates is refreshing. Moe's work carries a depth of cultures and traditions vibrant in history and resiliently present in our future."

Gilles Brings-Yellow has lived all over western and central Montana and grew up just “dabbling” in art.

“I took an occasional class,” she said. “I took a couple classes at UM. But I became a history major and then became a social worker. So I hadn’t done anything for a really long period of time even though I obviously always had an appreciation.”

She recently graduated from graduate school and found herself with a little more time on her hands. She was having a tough time sleeping and decided to create art after work. 

"I just started making stuff for myself and I started posting it online and people were like ‘hey is this for sale?’ and I would say yeah, actually it is," she said. "And I haven’t really stopped since then.”

Her Instagram moniker is brings_yellow_horses.

She loves to roller derby, but art has now become a full-time passion, even though she has a day job as a professional therapist. She's been churning out pieces since last July.

"I have a pretty obsessive personality, so I would say probably over 100,” she said. "I paint almost every day if I can get away with it. If I don’t paint for a certain period of time I start to feel weird. Some people skate or workout every day, but I paint.”

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