ST. IGNATIUS - The return of more priceless tribal artifacts, saved by an expert's touch, brings healing to members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).
Thursday was a day for amazement, and thankfulness, at the Three Chiefs Cultural Center in St. Ignatius, as lead conservator Nancy Fonicello of Ancient Artways Conservation returned more of the artifacts damaged in the 2020 fire that destroyed the People's Center, including some of the most significant in the tribes' history.
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"So these items are coming home again today and, yeah," Program Director Marie Torosian told the people who gathered as her voice caught for a moment. "I mean, I'm sorry. I get emotional when I think about it."
Emotional because the tribes' legacy was nearly destroyed. Now, pieces like this vest worn by Chief Martin Charlo in the 1920s are saved. Tribal leaders say the heartbreak was like a death in the family, met with resolve by the museum staff.
"And I saw that same kind of feeling, just heartbreak and yet balancing that with the real toughness," Tribal member and historian Steve Lozar noted. "This woman and her and her staff that night, to see them up close. And to see how hard it was for their hearts."
Conservator Nancy Fonicello of Ancient Artways Conservation says it's been an honor to head the recovery efforts.
"It's not just one single material. You've got leather, you've got beadwork. You've got feathers. You've got brass. You've got all different kinds of threads and fabrics. And so you have to consider all the different materials when you're working on cleaning them. What works for one material doesn't necessarily work for the piece that's right next to it."
Fonicello told me the work is focused on cleaning as much as possible, and it's astonishing to see what's been done. Although some pieces will always bear evidence of that terrible night.
"We don't do any permanent changes, any adhesives. Anything we do as conservators has to be reversible completely and documented."
But this project is about more than restoring priceless artifacts. It's also about healing from one of the most devastating events in recent tribal history. Healing for both the families who created and donated this work over more than a century and the museum staff.
"That family you know, and this is a really powerful day for them," Vern Finley of the Kootenai Culture Committee observed.
Powerful for the tribe — but also for Fonicello to work so intimately with each piece — and empower the museum staff and volunteers to preserve the past for the future.
"Some of these pieces take hours. And you're with the piece constantly and you're thinking about who made it and the history of it. And you do get emotionally involved with them."
Finley feels the training Fonicello has given the tribe, including how to organize the records of the collection, has been invaluable.
"Nancy and the training she has provided and the assistance that she's provided. And it shows her humble nature because even though this is much her work she gives so much credit to everybody else."