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Missoula Séliš Trail of Tears in bridge dedication

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Chief Charlot and Salish Indians leaving the Bitterroot Valley

Although long believed to be a photo of the Séliš people crossing the Clark Fork River on their departure from the Bitterroot Valley to the Flathead Indian Reservation in 1891, historians now wonder if that may be erroneous. Reports at the time noted crowds of people along the route watching Chief Charlo and his people as they hauled their belongings north. 

Placing a new name on the Higgins Avenue Bridge will not erase its historic reputation as the Séliš Trail of Tears.

Oct. 10 is Indigenous People's Day and almost exactly 131 years since the Séliš people under chiefs Charlo and Vanderburg were forced to leave their Bitterroot Valley lands for live on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Monday's naming ceremony will designate the Clark Fork River bridge Sxʷúytis Smx̣e Nx̣lew̓s – Beartracks Bridge, or Grizzly Bear Tracks Bridge – in commemoration of that history. Missoula officials, Confederated Salish and Kootenai leaders, including direct descendants of Charlo and Vanderburg, and others will acknowledge the event.

In the late 19th century, the U.S. government had been trying to force the Séliš people out of their homeland in the Bitterroot Valley. 

When Xweɫx̣ƛ̓cín (Many Horses), or Chief Victor, refused to move the Séliš north. So Washington Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens inserted an article into the Hellgate Treaty of 1855, designating the Bitterroot Valley as a reservation for the Séliš.

But the article’s fine print said the president would make the final decision regarding the reservation based on an authorized survey.

In 1871, feeling pressure from settlers and state officials, President Ulysses S. Grant issued an executive order, which falsely stated that the survey had been conducted and determined that the Jocko Reservation (now the Flathead Indian Reservation) was suitable for the “wants and needs” of the “Flathead” people. The order directed the Séliš people to leave the Bitterroot, according to documents compiled by the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Cultural Committee.

A year later, Congress deployed a delegation, led by future president James Garfield, to negotiate the deportation.

Sɫm̓x̣e Q̓͏ʷox̣͏ʷqeys (Claw of the Small Grizzly), or Chief Charlo, refused. He had the support of Lk͏ʷut Smx̣e (Far-Away Grizzly), or sub-Chief Louis Vanderburg, and other Selis leaders, warriors and elders.

Despite their refusal, Garfield wrote to the Montana Superintendent of Indian Affairs, instructing him “to proceed … as though (Charlo), the first chief, has signed.”

Charlo was chastised by the Montana press for allegedly breaking a treaty, but forgery was later confirmed in 1883 when the Department of the Interior reviewed the original document and concluded it did not contain Charlo’s signature.

Charlo, Vanderburg and the majority of the Séliš people remained in the Bitterroot Valley, where they were assigned individual allotments of land, as the government opened the rest of the valley to non-Native settlement.

Conditions worsened in 1883 with the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which promoted the industrialization of the region. The massacre of the buffalo hurt the Séliš people, and mining devastated Séliš-Ql̓ispé areas.

Some tribal members felt pressure to leave the valley and head north to the reservation, but Vanderburg did not want to divide the Séliš people or undermine Charlo.

In 1889, conditions worsened still. The Missoula and Bitterroot Valley Railroad was constructed and passed through Séliš allotments. Drought affected tribal food sources.

When U.S. Army General Henry Carrington arrived to force the Séliš people north, Vanderburg advised Charlo he thought the tribe should move for safety reasons. Charlo agreed.

On Oct. 15, 1891, Charlo gathered his people and announced they would leave. For safety purposes, Charlo organized people into three groups — with Charlo and Vanderburg each leading on a journey that would later be called the Séliš Trail of Tears.  

Elders have relayed stories that adults cried as they walked. Soldiers threatened to shoot the Séliš if they diverged from the walk to relieve themselves in the brush. 

On the second day of their journey, Oct. 16., the groups passed through the Missoula area, crossing the Clark Fork River at different points.

According to some oral histories, the Séliš people crossed the Clark Fork over a rickety bridge. Others say the people forded the river, a skill for which the Séliš were known.

The next day, the Séliš put on their finest clothing before riding into the Jocko Valley, so, according to the Séliš-Ql̓ispé Cultural Committee, they would be seen “not as a grieving people, but as a proud nation looking to the future.”

But once they made it to the reservation, the tribe was met with more broken promises. The government did not provide each Séliš family with a cabin, farming equipment and livestock. Instead, in the late 1890s, Congressional delegations appeared to want to purchase the western half of the reservation.

Charlo refused to sell the land, but in 1904, the Flathead Allotment Act passed, which in violation of the Hellgate Treaty, made reservation lands available to non-Native settlers.

“Beartracks” is an “Indian name” for the Vanderburgs, who remain a prominent and respected Séliš family today. 

“It shows we have a deep connection to this area,” said Martin Charlo, a tribal councilman and descendant of Chief Charlo. “This is a sad story, but it’s also a story of resiliency. We are still here. And we are doing well.”

Myrna Dumontier talks about the history of the Salish people in the Missoula area during a gathering for Indigenous Peoples' Day.

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