MISSOULA — With support from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the city and county of Missoula, it’s now up to the Montana Transportation Commission to put its official stamp on Beartracks Bridge.
Missoula County last week signed a letter of support for the new name for the Higgins bridge and sent it off to the commission ahead of next month’s meeting. The bridge is undergoing a $17 million renovation, which is set for completion this fall.
“The completion of this project will provide an excellent opportunity to not only dedicate a completely refurbished piece of infrastructure for future generations, but also do so in a way that helps make our community more inclusive and fosters greater respect and understanding between all our citizens,” the city and county wrote in their letter of support.
The name Beartracks, or Sx͏ʷuytis Smx̣e in the Salish language, wasn’t selected for the “charismatic mega fauna” that inhabits the region, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier noted. Rather, it was selected by the CSKT to honor the Beartracks family lineage, which has been associated with some of the most highly respected Salish leaders over the past 200 years.
Among them, Alexander Beartracks signed both the Hellgate and Lame Bull treaties in 1855. His daughter, Mary Beartracks, later married Louis Vanderburg, who served as a subchief under Chief Charlo. Venderburg led a band of his people out of the Bitterroot Valley during the U.S Army’s forced removal in 1891. During the removal, they either crossed the first rickety “Higgins” bridge or forded the Clark Fork River near the same spot.
“He led this band on what many respects is seen as our very own Trail of Tears here in western Montana,” Strohmaier said. “It’s a shameful event we’d be remiss not to remember.”
Strohmaier has often pointed out the prominent names adorning much of Missoula’s infrastructure – names of U.S. presidents and city fathers, such as Francis Warden, and Christopher Higgins. Missing are the names of the people who inhabited the region long before they arrived on the tails of Lewis and Clark. Those behind the renaming effort believe it’s time to correct the oversight.
“This isn’t just a name we’re attaching to an object. Naming of these public facilities is an act of public education,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “This isn’t a rewriting of history. It’s adding to our history and making it more complete. Having things as iconic as this bridge bearing that (Beartracks) name will help us fill in those gaps in our history.”
The Missoula City Council also approved the Beartracks name last month, though some members of the council expressed a reluctance to “rewrite history.” Other cities in the country have removed statues of past leaders given their ties to different time in America, and some have been critical of the process.
Strohmaier said naming the bridge isn’t part of what’s become known as the “cancel culture.”
“This bridge bears no name right now,” Strohmaier said. “Higgins Avenue will continue to cross the Beartracks Bridge well into the future.”
In conferring the name Beartracks Bridge, advocates look to recognize the Beartracks family and the Salish as a whole, along with the sacrifices they endured and their heritage and presence in Missoula.
The name was recommended by the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribe and its cultural committee. But the bridge is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation and renaming it requires the approval of either the Legislature or the State Transportation Commission.
“Place names have meaning to all the people. It’s not just a name, it’s a story, a history, our way of life,” tribal elder Tony Incashola said. “As having history in this area, where my ancestors lived, it’s always good to be home. It feels good to always be in this area.”