MISSOULA — Members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday placed their support behind christening a new Higgins Avenue bridge with a Native American name, one that recognizes the historic presence of the Salish-Kalispell people.
The new $17 million bridge is scheduled for completion later this year, which also marks the 130th anniversary of the forced removal of the indigenous people that occupied the valley prior to the arrival of European settlers.
“It’s a fairly simple proposal to recognize the tribal heritage in this place by way of naming a piece of significant infrastructure,” said Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “While you might say it’s a symbolic recognition of the native peoples who inhabited this place for generations, that’s not without importance.”
Strohmaier, who broached the idea back in October, has taken the proposal to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, along with its cultural committee. Both support the concept and have been asked to present a name for the bridge.
The bridge is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation, and designating it with a new name will require the approval of either the Legislature or the State Transportation Commission.
Advocates of the proposal will approach the commission later this year.
“They have the latitude and authority to take action in designating a piece of infrastructure like this with a new name,” Strohmaier said. “It’s the path of least resistance and what has been supported by the tribes as the preferred path forward.”
Strohmaier first considered the concept while walking to work downtown, where he considered how Missoula’s streets, buildings and landmarks carry the name of trees, American presidents or the Caucasian founders of the city.
Yet the very city sits in the aboriginal territory of the Bitterroot-Salish people, and to them, recognition is largely absent.
“The symbols with which we attach meaning and significance and names are, by and large, bereft of any mention of the native inhabitants of this place,” Strohmaier said. “Native peoples are members of our community today, and the heritage of the Salish-Kalispell people lives on in our midst to the present time and into the future.”
While the tribe hasn’t yet presented a name, members of the City Council on Wednesday expressed support for the proposal and pledged to write a letter of support to the State Transportation Commission when the opportunity arrives.
“There is so much healing that has to be done when it comes down to marginalized people,” said council member Heather Harp. “This is a bureaucratic step but an important one that honors the past and imparts a way forward. I look forward to hearing what the name is.”
In 2019, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the country found their way to Missoula, resulting in a push for equal representation and racial justice.
The city and county have taken various steps to address such concerns, from renaming the Mullan area transportation plan to establishing a committee to explore racial deficiencies in local government.
While advocates of the bridge proposal admit it’s symbolic, they also believe that symbolism matters.
“We have to start somewhere, and recognition is one way to get there,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “It’s appropriate, sensible and about time.”
Thompson Smith, the history and enthnogeography project coordinator with the Salish-Kalispell Cultural Committee, said the effort and resulting name will go far in establishing greater respect between Missoula and the tribe.
“There’s a long history, going back millennia, of tribal parties moving back and forth across the river,” Smith said. “The Missoula area sitting right in the heart of these territories is not only of past importance but continuing importance.”