MISSOULA - While the Higgins Avenue bridge remains under construction, the work hasn't derailed a regional effort to rename the bridge in honor of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who once occupied the Bitterroot Valley but were forced to relocate to the Flathead in the late 1880s.
During the fall of 1891, the Salish people were forcibly removed from the Bitterroot by the US military. In what is known as the “Salish Trail of Tears,” they traveled north, crossing an earlier version of the Higgins Avenue Bridge, which is now officially Bear Tracks bridge.
A rededication ceremony is planned.
“Now that the bridge is under reconstruction, it seemed like a perfect time to rededicate the bridge as an act of remembrance of the tragic event that happened at this place,” said county commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who helped spearhead the renaming effort.
Banners have been put up across the length of the bridge for the month of July that read “Grizzly Bear Tracks bridge,” a more accurate description of the Salish family it is named after. However, the bridge will commonly be known as “Bear Tracks bridge” in the hopes that English speakers can pronounce the Salish translation more easily.
The͏ “Bear Tracks”͏ name͏ is͏ a͏ shortened͏ translation͏ of͏ the͏ Salish͏ name͏ Sx͏ʷ͏úytis Smx ̣e, and is the “Indian name” for the Vanderburgs, a prominent and highly respected Salish family.
“My father, Jerome Vanderburg, was just a baby when the last band of Salish were forced out of the Bitterroot,” said Lucy Vanderburg, a descendant of Grizzly Bear Tracks. “I remember family members talking about crossing this river on their way north, with sadness about leaving their home. Now, in my lifetime, we continue to cross this bridge on our way to these places south of Missoula that are still so important to us.”
Permanent road signs will be installed on either end of the bridge displaying the new name, plus interpretive signage that will inform people of the history and background of the bridge.
The city plans to officially dedicate the bridge on October 10th, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The logistics of the event are still being worked out but will likely involve closing off the bridge to motor vehicles, a ribbon cutting, speakers and a Powwow in Caras Park.
“This is a big deal,” said Strohmaier, “We think it will be not only a locally significant event, but regionally and nationally significant.”