HAMILTON — “I think the Creator made each one of us different for a reason.”
Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee director Tony Incashola’s grandmother used to tell him when the day came that we all dressed alike, talked alike and acted alike, the end would be near.
“There would be no reason to exist anymore,” he told the group of about 60 gathered earlier this week at Hamilton’s Bitterroot River Inn.
His free public lecture, sponsored by the Bitterroot College University of Montana, was touted to focus on the tribes’ worldview, values, stories, beliefs and contemporary connections.
It was much more meaningful than that.
Incashola offered words on tolerance, respect and understanding.
“We’re not all meant to think alike,” he said. “But all of us want to get to the same place. We all want to be happy. We all want to be prosperous. We all want to have a good life with our family.
“We just all do it differently,” Incashola said.
Incashola’s lecture was part of two days of programming offered by the college, in collaboration with the tribes and Humanities Montana, meant to provide accurate information for the community on Salish history and the tribes’ connection to their ancestral homeland in the Bitterroot Valley.
It came on the heels of Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman’s visit to Pablo to hand deliver an apology to the tribes for comments made by former planning board chair and current county commission candidate Jan Wisniewski.
At a November meeting, Wisniewski implied that Havre law enforcement officers had complained to him that their jails were filled with “drunk Indians.”
The commission voted shortly thereafter to deliver an apology to the tribes for those comments.
None of that was mentioned.
Instead, Incashola offered insights into the creation stories passed down from generation to generation that set aside places like the Medicine Tree and Sleeping Child as sacred, in hopes of spreading local understanding on the importance of those places to the tribes.
“Before people, there were animals. Before animals, there were spirits,” he said. “It’s kind of like evolution. The animals were put here to protect and prepare the land for humans.”
All Indian tribes in the country share similar creation stories, he said.
Incashola told the group that he couldn’t share the specifics of the creation stories now because his people believe that they only can be told when there’s snow on the ground.
“They are reserved for the winter months,” he said, adding maybe he or someone else will come back next winter to tell the stories.
As the animals prepared the land for humans, Incashola said they left landmarks. Those landmarks remind people today of what happened there.
The Medicine Tree area south of Hamilton is one of those landmarks.
“It’s not only the tree itself, but the area as well,” he said. “That place is very sacred to us. In a sense, it’s no different than all of the other places around the world that people consider sacred, like churches or the Weeping Wall.”
Incashola said there are several sites in the Bitterroot Valley considered sacred to the Salish.
The stories that are passed down through the generations are important.
“They tell us who we are as a people,” he said. “They are a part of our lives and our value systems. They are part of our identity. Without any of that, I don’t know who I would be.”