In a gesture that Commissioner Dave Strohmaier estimates came “about 150 years late,” Missoula County this week dedicated its public hearing room in the courthouse in honor of Sophie Moiese (1864-1960), one of the most highly respected Salish cultural leaders of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Moiese, or Č̓ɫx͏ʷm̓x͏ʷm̓šn̓á in Salish, was considered an expert in virtually every aspect of traditional tribal life, from song, dance and material culture to the Salish spiritual and material relationship with plants, according to a biography provided by the Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee. She taught countless young Salish people about the gathering, preparation, storage and use of the tribe’s traditional food and medicines. For many years, she led the springtime bitterroot ceremony, when the Salish welcomed the return of the bitterroot flower, the first major food of the year in the old way of life.
As the Missoula Valley was perhaps the single most abundant bitterroot grounds throughout the tribe’s vast aboriginal territories, it’s fitting that
a room in the courthouse that now inhabits it be named for Moiese.
On Monday, members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council joined the Missoula Board of County Commissioners to do just that during a ceremony that featured a blessing and remarks from Tony Incashola, director of the Séliš-Qlispé Culture Committee, an honor song performed by tribal drum group Yamncut and a proclamation from the county commissioners.
In his remarks, Incashola emphasized the importance of honoring the people who inhabited – and cared for – the land that is now Missoula County.
“We need to try to understand what (the land) looked like, what it was like here, thousands of years ago, as our ancestors utilized, lived in the area” Incashola said. “And it was people like Sophie Moiese who took care of it, who utilized it, who respected it, so she could pass it down … to the next generation. And it’s people like her, and other Natives, who have made that possible for us to exist here today.”
In addition to her botanical expertise, Moiese also passed on to the younger generations her extensive knowledge of tribal history. She often carried a buckskin string with knots in it, known as a memory string (ɫsispiʔ nɫqʷlqʷelstn), which was the traditional way of ensuring the accurate transmission of oral history. She often recounted the painful story of the forced removal of the Salish from the Bitterroot Valley in 1891, when she was 27. She especially recalled the elder women weeping as soldiers pushed the people north to the Flathead Reservation.
The connection to Moiese, and to the history she helped keep alive, remains strong today. When Incashola asked those attendance how many were direct descendants of her, more than a dozen people raised their hands.
“This is a great day not only for her family, but for the tribes, the county, Native and non-Native people,” he said. “It’s a day that we’re attempting to bridge some of those gaps that have existed for hundreds of years.”