Sophie Moiese was a young woman in her 20s in 1891 when she and her Salish people under Chief Charlo made their sad march from the Bitterroot to the Jocko Reservation.
The experience stayed with her for the rest of her long life, which ended in 1960. But her part in the forced march wasn’t mentioned in the Missoulian until 1998. A story on the 100th anniversary of the Arlee Celebration included an excerpt from “The Exodus of the Bitterroot Salish,” a brochure prepared by the Salish Culture Committee.
“In later years, when she was an old woman, Sophie Moiese would have flashbacks, hearing the women crying as the people rode slowly north toward Jocko Valley,” it said.
Moiese’s status as a cultural leader among the Salish and Pend d’Oreille was recognized a week ago by Missoula County commissioners, who christened the public meeting room in the courthouse annex the Sophie Moiese room.
Reporter Eve Byron’s story on the Nov. 19 ceremony marked the 20th time Moiese’s name appeared in the local paper. Together they form a fascinating if incomplete picture of the noble lady, who was born in Stevensville in the 1860s, a daughter of William Michel (Cos-Que-Squah) and his wife Madaline.
It wasn’t until March 13, 1932, when Moiese was in her 60s, that she made her first appearance on these pages. In separate articles under Arlee News on Page 8 and Western Montana news on Page 9, she was in a list of prize winners at the first Mid-Winter Fair and Short Course held at the Jesuit Fathers’ school in St. Ignatius. Both feted her for winning first place for “Indian antiques.”
It didn’t say what antiques Moiese entered, but a Missoulian-Sentinel report and photograph in April 1952 gave a clue. The photo showed Moiese among three women and a boy kneeling in prayer as they gouged out the first roots of the 1952 bitter root crop “on the outskirts of Missoula.”
“A special tool consisting of a handle and curved metal prong is used,” the reporter explained. “Mrs. Moiese’s digger was used by her mother, and is believed to be about 150 years old.”
They were on a vacant section at Knowles and Longstaff streets in Missoula, across the street from Boyce Lumber. “Houses now are closing in on the local bitter root territory — the root grows unusually large in this area,” an unidentified reporter wrote.
It happened in 1933, but it wasn’t until June 2008 that Missoulian readers learned of another event that shaped Sophie Moiese’s life. In a 75th anniversary look-back on the dedication of Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, reporter Vince Devlin detailed a forgotten accident.
Moiese had been riding with other members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to Logan Pass to witness the dedication and to watch the Ninepipe Boys perform. She was critically injured when their Civilian Conservation Corps driver, who was working on his 20th hour without sleep, nodded off and went over a 10-foot embankment near Columbia Falls.
Michel Kever and Louise Kullooyah died at the scene. Andrew Many Bear died later from his injuries.
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Felicite McDonald, who was a 10-year-old girl riding in another truck, told Devlin that Moiese was crippled for life. In subsequent litigation, Moiese claimed, “I am now unable to even thread a needle as my eyes have been injured. Now I am hardly able to ride a horse.”
She received a $600 settlement from the federal government, most of any of the survivors. Families of the victims who were killed were awarded $3,000.
Moiese was a subject of painters as well as photographers. A story in the New York Daily News on May 22, 1960, described an exhibit by Dan Taulbee, or Wolf’s Alone, in the Burr Galleries on New York’s West 55th Street.
“Perhaps the most interesting face hanging on the walls of the cheerful two-story gallery is that of Sophie Moiese, an old Salish Indian. As in dozens of others of his oil paintings, every detail including the hair, clothes and beads are correct, right down to the cross around her neck,” the article said.
Today in Missoula, a three-panel, 36-foot-long mural graces the wall over the entrance to the Burns Street Bistro. Rachel Simons was lead artist on “Changing Landscapes: A History of People and Food in the Missoula Valley” with “substantial help from Angelita Martinez and Summer Nelson,” the Missoulian’s Jamie Kelly wrote when the two-year project was complete in 2009.
“The mural features, among other figures, the likenesses of Sophie Moiese, a Jocko Valley homesteader, and Missoula rancher Bill Randolph...” Kelly wrote.
Moiese died on Feb. 13, 1960, in St. Ignatius. She was buried at the old Jocko Mission Church cemetery east of Arlee, not far from her home.
“An age-old custom of the Flathead Indians may have passed into history with her death,” the Missoulian story began. “Mrs. Moiese, who was 93 or 94 years of age, was the leader of the annual ceremony of opening the harvest season with bitter root digging each spring. Each year she would gather together a small group of the older Indian women at her cabin east of Arlee for the ceremony. Whether it will be carried on without her leadership is questionable."
To be sure, the traditional bitterroot harvest continued and remains a vibrant annual event to this day. More than 100 people attended the Séliš and QÍispé Culture Committee’s dig near Hot Springs last May, according to Char-Koosta News.
This story has been updated to reflect that the bitterroot harvest tradition continues today.