MISSOULA — After winning the support from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Missoula City Council joined the county on Wednesday in agreeing to support a recommendation to the Montana Transportation Commission to rename the Higgins bridge as Bear Tracks Bridge.
The name is rooted in tribal history, a line of chiefs going back centuries and the tribe’s ultimate forced removal from the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys.
Renaming the bridge upon its completion later this year has meaning to the area’s indigenous people, tribal leaders said.
“Place names have meaning to all the people. It’s not just a name, it’s a story, a history, our way of life,” said tribal elder Tony Inconshola. “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.”
The new $17 million bridge is scheduled for completion 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.
A faded black and white photo presented Wednesday marks the only visual evidence of that event, which played out in 1891. But the stories have yet to fade, nor has the importance of the land to the people who once called it home.
“The past is an important piece of how we move forward,” said Missoula City Council member Mirtha Becerra. “I think the renaming and rededication is long overdue. It’s the right thing to do, and we have a great opportunity with the bridge reconstruction to do just that.”
According to Thompson Smith, the tribal history and ethnology project coordinator, around 300 Salish were moved to the Flathead Reservation in October 1891. One of the three bands of people, led by a sub-chief named Louis Vanderburg, crossed the Clark Fork River on or near the Higgins bridge.
Vanderburg’s father was known as Sx͏ʷix͏ʷ͏uytis Smx̣e, or Grizzly Bear Tracks. He too was a sub-chief who signed both the Hellgate Treaty and Judith River Treaty in 1855.
“This place sits right at the heart of the territories of the Salish and Kalispell people,” Smith said. “It really conveys, through these place names, the richness of this cultural landscape to the Salish people past, present and future. Many of these names go back to a time when the land was prepared for the people to come.”
A painting rendered by Charlie Russell depicts the day the Salish people met Lewis and Clark at a place known in English as Ross’s Hole.
When the expedition arrived in 1805, Smith said they were initially spotted by Salish warriors. They raced back to camp to inform Chief Three Eagles of the approaching party and potential danger.
Three Eagles, joined by sub-chief Grizzly Bear Tracks – himself the father of future sub-chiefs bearing the same name – were forced to decide whether the expedition posed a threat. In the end, they concluded that it did not.
“He welcomed them into camp and showered them with gifts,” said Smith. “From that time forward, it set forth a policy that’s been very consistent in tribal history of friendship with non-Indians, but also a firm, resolute stance for tribal sovereignty, tribal rights and mutual respect. In may ways, this name (Grizzly Bear Tracks) is carrying that name forward.”
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier, who broached the idea of renaming the bridge last year, took the proposal to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and its cultural committee.
Both supported renaming the bridge and were asked to present a name. The structure is owned by the Montana Department of Transportation, and renaming it requires the approval of either the Legislature or the State Transportation Commission.
Given the composition of the Legislature, city and county leaders have opted to approach the commission.
“As we are sitting virtually in our homes or in an office in the Missoula Valley, we’re in the aboriginal homelands of the Bitterroot Salish people,” said Strohmaier. “Yet so often in our community, the places are named in a way that would not lend any recognition to the long, deep and rich history, and continuing presence of the Salish people and Native people who call this place home.”
Shelly Fyant, chair of the Flathead Nation Tribal Council, said CSKT was approached with the opportunity to offer a name for the bridge last year. The tribe consulted with elders to ensure they offered a fitting name, and that its history and spelling were correct.
“We really appreciate the relationship we have with both (Missoula city and county) governments,” Fyant said. “We don’t enjoy that with all our surrounding governments.”